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Legal Practice Management

Custom & Advisory: What 2021 meant for law firms’ business development efforts

Eve Starks  Consultant / Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Eve Starks  Consultant / Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

In a new series of blog posts, we'll look at the impact of the past couple of years had on law firms' business development efforts as well as what those efforts may look like in the future

As businesses across the globe scrambled to ensure the safety of employees and sustainability of their operations during the pandemic, their in-house law departments landed squarely in the middle of novel legal questions and naturally looked to trusted external legal advisors for support in navigating the uncertain landscape.

Although law firms’ marketing and business development departments faced sudden budget constraints, several bold law firms recognized that this environment demanded an even closer alignment with clients than before, and so resumed their formal client listening programs as a priority.

In this two-part blog series, we reflect on what has changed in client feedback over the past several months, and then look ahead to how client feedback will continue to evolve as professional relationships grow and change in the face of new challenges and opportunities.

The year in review

Over the past several months, three main trends emerged in client feedback relating to how it is conducted, what questions are asked, and how firms’ client feedback strategies have shifted:

1. Virtual interviewing has energized traditional telephone interviews

Remote working has brought a fresh dynamic to the work as third-party researchers; not least in the way that they conduct interviews with law firm clients. While “Zoom fatigue” was a universal challenge almost as soon as the term was coined, rapid adoption of video conferencing technologies considerably improved the quality of the interviews that researchers were able to carry out.

While a telephone interviewing methodology has been extremely effective alternative to in-person visits for many years — as it is more convenient for clients to schedule and more cost-effective option for firms — video conferencing enables the interviewer to establish rapport with respondents more rapidly, perhaps as a result of the greater accountability and eye contact that comes about when you’re visible on screen.

Indeed, client listening is an exercise of trust between all parties. When clients are able to see and interact with the interviewer, a more conversational tone can be struck which creates greater comfort — and delivers richer insight — than a strict interviewing format.

As part of their investment in client listening, several law firms chose to put their business development and marketing teams through their paces in client listening training programs, which teach the skills needed to conduct professional quality client interviews. And with remote working becoming an established norm, virtual interviewing will become second nature to law firm business development teams and clients alike as training evolves to meet the needs of a virtual audience.

2. The question of “value” in a more client-centric paradigm

Client feedback projects invariably uncover constructive feedback around pricing, fee arrangements, and value. While interest in alternative fee arrangements has been a feature of law firm client feedback for several years now, lately clients have pushed law firms to think outside the box in order to provide more value to the relationship.

Those law firms which have their finger on the pulse of client demand have begun to incorporate questions about how they can add value, in addition to questions that focus more exclusively on pricing. In fact, a simple added question such as, How could we bring more value to this relationship? prompts clients to reflect on aspects of their interaction with a law firm partner outside of transactional work. This, in turn, generates insights around opportunities to do more through knowledge sharing, training programs, and business initiatives around diversity and widening opportunity.

This emphasis on so-called added value efforts echoes findings from Thomson Reuters’ wider research around the future of professional relationships, which has found that businesses are now seeking true partnerships with their outside legal counsel that align with clients’ values and purpose. This is partially a result of a similar push in the talent market, in which employers are increasingly having to demonstrate that their culture and mission reflects that of existing or potential employees.

3. A strategic focus on key clients… a missed opportunity?

During the pandemic, as clients sought out their most trusted relationships, many client feedback initiatives coalesced around law firms’ most strategic client relationships. While these will always be important clients to consult, the impact on what can be taken from the initiative is clear: feedback reflects the experience of clients who are a priority and so should receive a firm’s best efforts when it comes to legal service delivery and relationship management. Concerns raised by these clients generally point towards opportunity to build a partnership and — hopefully — broaden the relationship, which is a compelling demonstration of the potential benefits of client listening.

Narrowing the field in this way to focus on key clients can, however, hinder a firm’s ability to collect feedback from a more representative sample of clients which should include smaller, newer, and even lapsed clients. These firms risk missing the chance to uncover underlying issues elsewhere in the firm or opportunities to expand a small client with great growth potential simply because these clients aren’t being asked.

For example, one law firm uncovered an opportunity to not only save but considerably grow an existing relationship upon receiving and acting on negative feedback regarding a particular area of the firm. While this type of feedback may make for difficult reading, it can prove to be among the most valuable insights to receive — provided a firm is committed to act on the results by devising a solution and putting it into motion quickly.

All law firms should survey a wide range of their client base to ensure they are accounting for the views of their future key clients as well as today’s current roster of clients.

In the next part of this series, we will look at how client feedback will continue to evolve in 2022 and beyond.

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