Our panel of law firm experts shed some light on what clients think is most important when building long-term client relationships
Clients are savvy about their legal service providers — and today, with the assistance of technology, they have become even savvier. So, when it comes to measuring what counts with outside counsel, we checked in with some client-focused law firm experts about their views on what matters most when building long-term client relationships for retention and growth.
And based on what matters, we came up with some questions law firms should be asking clients, as well as steps firms can take to build relationships, improve collaborative efforts, and drive new revenue.
In a recent interview with a global manufacturing client, the importance of connecting with clients and gathering knowledge about their strategic direction and their business — including where they are investing in new product development and their views about any areas for tightening up service — became clear.
“Know the people, know their business, and know their problems. Many partners will approach clients for new business before they even know what will help solve a client’s problems or what opportunities may lie ahead.”
The senior engineer on the client team said he could not stress strongly enough how important it was for their outside counsel to visit the manufacturing floor and get to know the product side of the business. “It is incredibly important for the firm to visit with us, get to know our team better, and understand us from our perspective, and to really understand our business,” he said. “We have a great relationship with the firm, but they need to up the ante and learn more about how we work.” While these words may seem like those to an old song that we’ve all heard before, they still point to an existing gap between knowing and doing. And this gap creates a significant opportunity for other law firms to out-service their competitors.
We asked several law firm experts what they see as the key to improving or building stronger relationships, and their advice was insightful. “My answer is two-fold,” said William Lee, a partner, former managing partner, and client relationship partner at WilmerHale. “First, the relationship partner must understand the institutional strategy and plans of the client, and make all decisions from that perspective. Second, the relationship partner must understand the specific needs and goals of the individuals with whom he or she is dealing. In the end, life is all about individuals.”
David Rueff, Chief Client Solutions Officer at Baker Donelson, said he strongly agrees with this advice. “The first improvement is knowing your clients,” Rueff added. “Know the people, know their business, and know their problems. Many partners will approach clients for new business before they even know what will help solve a client’s problems or what opportunities may lie ahead. To know their business may often give a partner the opportunity to anticipate future legal needs, and thus, be proactive. Being more informed will help partners understand how they can really add value and differentiate themselves.”
The second improvement is sharing knowledge, he continued, adding that most lawyers believe that their value to clients begins and ends with a legal issue, but that is absolutely not the case. “Clients look to their law firm partners to help them navigate the constant changes in their industry, to help them identify needed changes in business operations to avoid future issues, and to help them navigate the myriad of new technologies and approaches to legal services.”
Christopher Ende, Chief Value Officer at Goulston Storrs, and a board member and officer at Legal Value Network, emphatically agrees. “Talk more… about everything,” Ende said, adding that although this sounds so basic, almost remedial, the amount of disconnect, confusion, and frustration that stems from a lack of communication is astonishing.
Establishing wide-ranging communication
Indeed, the range of topics for increased dialogue is almost endless: business goals, project scope, project status, service delivery, fees — the list goes on. Focusing on pain points is important, but the goal should be to increase communication across a wide spectrum of topics in order to build a more complete and connected relationship.
Without an increase in communication — monthly talks for active clients (and this is outside of the day-to-day communication about matters and cases), and quarterly talks for inactive clients — partners will not have a good understanding of what clients consider valuable. To offer value we must know what’s important to clients, our law firm experts agreed.
“Measuring the value of legal services is still more art than science.” suggested Ende. “But if a firm strives to find metrics and data, it can then drive these value discussions. For example, firms should consider such metrics as whether stated objectives, milestones, timelines, and budgets were achieved.”
He also suggested that whenever possible, law firms should calculate the business impact of the work and compare it to the total fees. “At the outset of litigation, for example, a client may set a goal of settling for $5 million before trial. If its law firm is able to settle the case for $2 million within the first six months before discovery, there is measurable value both in terms of the lower settlement figure and the savings from not having to pay additional legal fees,” Ende explained. “These savings should be calculated and shown to the client.”
Baker Donelson’s Rueff agreed, saying value is more than just cost. “Value is not just being a good lawyer or providing the lowest price, but now includes how a lawyer’s services are delivered,” he said. “We have been working with the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) on their project management initiative since 2017, which is designed to improve the delivery of legal services. Through the collaboration of in-house counsel, legal operations professionals, and outside counsel, we identified other important measures of value which include: company knowledge, practice knowledge, budgeting accuracy, creative pricing solutions, compliance with billing requirements, responsiveness, and achieving outcomes.”
Opening the conversation with clients
Starting these conversations with clients may seem challenging to many lawyers, so here are some helpful questions for lawyers to consider. The answers are worth sharing with the group of lawyers who service the client so everyone has the chance to brainstorm about value propositions that can be offered on a proactive basis.
These questions, asked at least annually, will undoubtedly provide excellent information and help lawyers to better serve their clients. Of course, not all these questions will apply to every client.
- As you look to the year ahead, what are the primary goals for the company overall? What about for the legal department?
- How does the company anticipate growing over the next one to three years?
- Who on our legal team has been particularly helpful to you or your colleagues? If you have any feedback in general about our team or our associates, we welcome the opportunity to hear who is doing things well, and if there are areas for improvement.
- How do you measure the value received for fees paid?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rank the legal team who works with your company’s legal team?
- What else should we be doing to have the opportunity to grow our relationship with your company?
Remember, these are just a few of the questions lawyers should ask when meeting with clients, and keep in mind, asking “open-ended” questions — that is, questions that do not have a yes or no answer — will garner more information on which to act.
Clients highly value these conversations, and whenever possible, visits to their locations. By meeting with clients, asking thoughtful questions about their business, providing value based on the knowledge gained from these meetings, and increasing communication, an outside law firm can improve its relationships with clients dramatically.
As Lee of WilmerHale stated earlier, it’s “all about individuals.” Building these individual relationships with clients will help a law firm better align its own strategy with that of its clients which then can create a win/win.