Law firms have begun adopting business practices that other professional service companies long have been using, such as a true account management approach
This article was written by Kate White, the Co-founder of Design Build Legal, a consulting firm working with law firms and legal departments to innovate legal services and design more valuable firm/client engagements.
Law firms are no longer simply competing against one another. As they face threats from alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) and the Big 4 accounting firms, law firms have begun adopting business practices that other professional service companies have been using for decades — think fixed-fee pricing, client-facing technology, process efficiency initiatives, data analytics, client feedback programs, and net-promoter-score tools.
But there remains one key business practice used by the accounting, real estate, advertising, and other professional services industries that few law firms have implemented: a true account management approach. In fact, it’s rare to hear the word “account” used in an AmLaw 200 firm, even to describe the business associated with some of the firm’s largest and most important clients.
Traditionally, law firms have left account management to a billable lawyer, either the one who brought the work in, or the one who bills the most hours to the client. This relationship partner is responsible for managing the critical client service work associated with offering legal services, such as understanding client goals, negotiating fees, growing the client relationship, gathering feedback, managing client teams, and offering relevant value-added services. A relationship partner may thrive in this area, but he or she will still face the constant tug-of-war between this non-billable client service work and billing those hours. Further, as many other industries have figured out, client service and account management require focused attention and specific skills, skills that substantive legal experts providing legal advice to a client may or may not have.
But there remains one key business practice used by the accounting, real estate, advertising, and other professional services industries that few law firms have implemented: a true account management approach.
Forward-thinking law firms are instead assigning account management professionals to take a significant amount of this non-billable client service work off the plates of relationship partners, enhancing the firm’s overall relationship to the client and increasing value.
Account Management Capabilities and Skills as Differentiators
Increased Knowledge of the Business — The one piece of constructive feedback that we hear over and over from law firm clients is that the outside lawyers need to better understand the client’s business. Excellent account managers advance the firm’s understanding of the client’s business via listening skills and by grasping the in-house team’s business and legal goals, learning the challenges that in-house counsel are facing internally, and taking note of their pain points around work with outside vendors. They, then, educate the rest of client team on the in-house team’s goals and challenges, and share higher-level insights with firm leadership.
Exemplary Client Service — Top performing account managers know how to run efficient and effective client teams. They serve as advocates for changing the firm’s business model to support delivering services in a way that the client will find most valuable. Having the account management capability also enables the firm to methodically gather client feedback (both regularly and at the completion of major matters) and lead the change management required to fix client service issues. Exceptional account managers are experts at following up by gathering and reporting out on data generated within the relationship, both internally and to the client. This process might include providing a year-end value report that summarizes the tangible and intangible ways in which the firm has helped the client achieve its goals throughout the year.
Innovative Solution Design — Account management capabilities also can bring creative deliverables to help clients solve not just legal, but broader business and operational challenges, and identify opportunities to leverage the talented folks across the firm (including those in technology or project management) to deliver on these new solutions. With this understanding of the firm’s resources and strength at bringing cross-functional teams together, the best account managers look for new ways to price and complete the core legal work. They are also in the best position to produce value-added services tailored to a client’s specific needs and environment: perhaps it is CLEs for one, and legal alerts for another; or data analytics reporting for one, and a 24-hour legal hotline for another.
The account manager often has a willing partner on the in-house team: the legal operations professional, who has a similar focus within the corporate legal department. In this competitive legal market, in which law firms are continuously looking for ways to differentiate themselves and increase client loyalty, developing an account management program can help firms gain an edge over their competition.