What’s the Value of a Client Team?

Client teams may be one of the most powerful business development tools at your disposal, but are an oxymoron to most lawyers.

As a profession, lawyers aren’t usually known for being team players.  By nature, they are individual thinkers and doers.  They like their autonomy, and tend to feel that too many rules restrict their ability to practice effectively – ironic for a profession dependent on precedent, evidence and legislation.  This is why it’s taken so very long for lawyers in law firms to learn how to function well in teams.  It started with enforcement of practice teams through the little hierarchy that firms tolerate, mostly to do with the unarguable differentiator of years of experience.  In time, firms learned that a good leader doesn’t have to be the oldest and certain lawyers became recognized for their administrative and people management skills regardless of their year of call.  Or perhaps it’s that some of the older lawyers liked the title of practice lead, but were willing to relinquish the duties and so gave over to the younger crowd.  Regardless, practice teams are common now, even in smaller firms. We get them. We understand their purpose, and more or less how they work.  We tolerate them, because we begrudgingly see a degree of effectiveness with them.

It’s a good start, but not nearly enough.  As I reported in an earlier posting this year, research has consistently found that more directly impacting client programs (such as client audits and client teams) have the highest return on investment of all law firm marketing.

Purpose of a Client Team?

A client team is a group (three or more) of lawyers dedicated to serving as diverse a range of legal services as possible to a particular client.  The client could be a single company, or a group of companies under the same ownership.  The purpose of the team is twofold: 1. Seek to ensure the client receives outstanding client service, and the best possible legal service in the areas they have entrusted to the firm; and 2. Seek to expand the legal work – by volume of the type of work you are currently getting, and by broadening the types of legal work you provide to them.

What’s the Value of Client Team?

Too often, clients are treated as the property of a particular lawyer.  They are actually clients of the firm, and should be treated as such.  Client teams help this to occur.  Here’s why:

  • It ensures the client relationship isn’t limited to a single practitioner. What if they become ill, leave, or mess up?  What if the client simply feels the relationship has gone stale?  You don’t want to run the risk of losing that client.
  • It ensures that client perceptions or understanding of the client are not limited to a single lawyer. A lawyer might think they know their client well, but lawyers are not known for accurate client perceptions.  I learned this in spades when I created client surveys over 25 years ago.  Turns out the lawyers had very little idea of what the clients were truly thinking – in some cases because the clients weren’t being entirely honest with them and in some cases, because the lawyer never asked, so the client didn’t move the relationship into that level of sharing.
  • It helps to broaden and deepen the connection with the client. Research indicates that even happy clients would be willing to try another law firm 60% of the time.  Firms need to find ways to build broader and deeper relationships with clients to overcome this opening to the competition.  The more people working with that client, learning them inside out, getting to know as many people in that organization as possible, the stronger (and more loyal) the relationship will be with the firm.
  • It more easily enables pursuit of more work from the client. If you have a team dedicated to staying in close contact with a client, learning everything they can about them, and providing them with pro-active, outstanding client service, who will the client call when they need help?  Client teams place firms in a better position to expand existing mandates, but more importantly, to also go after new areas of law.

How to Create a Client Team

This is a large topic and can’t properly be dealt with in a blog post.  Your best bet is to work with a marketing expert to set you teams up properly.  But here’s what they would look like in a nutshell:

  1. Determine which clients should have a team. Not all clients need a team. The best teams are for clients who need multiple service areas, might have multiple locations, and may have a variety of “departments” the firm needs to get close to (this isn’t a requirement – sometimes you only need to get close to the in-house counsel).  The client doesn’t have to be in your top 25 (or so) list to have a team: but they should be a top 25 “wanna be” potentially worthy of the investment you’re about to make in them.
  2. Form the team. Start by identifying the service areas you currently provide. Then do some research on the client and predict what legal services they need overall. Try to find out who is providing those other services, and why. (You might even want to – dare I say it? – ask the client :).  The team should be comprised of lawyers representing existing work, and potential future work.
  3. Pick the leader. This is ideally the lawyer with the best relationship with the client; but they also need to be a good leader for the group. That means they can’t be known to hog the work. Their primary interest needs to become the firm’s overall relationship with the client, not their relationship with the client.
  4. Give the team a mandate. In a desire to honour the need for autonomy some firms tell lead lawyers to form a client team, but don’t tell them how to run it.  That’s a recipe for disaster.  Build your client team process and general mandates first and apply them equally to all teams.  But you can also create additional goals tailored to each team.  For example, you might ask one team specifically to expand the work into municipal law, or to win over the client’s employment and labour work. Or a goal might be to win over the client’s new CEO.
  5. Have the team draft a plan and budget. Having the group meet every so often and chat about the client isn’t going to cut it.  The team should develop a document with goals and action items they will commit to fulfilling.  If they are going to be spending money, they need to plan it out in advance and receive a budget they are then responsible for.
  6. Have the team meet regularly. Once the plan and budget are delivered (to the firm executive), don’t rely on the lawyers meeting every so often.  They must have regular meetings (monthly is good).  Ideally, they should have a standing agenda that focuses on fulfillment of the plan they developed.  This helps to ensure the meetings don’t turn into an esoteric discussion about the law.
  7. Set up accountability. Make it easier for the team members to comply with your client team purpose of process by requiring them to report in regularly. I prefer quarterly meetings: it’s frequent enough so they need to stay on top of the process, but not so frequent as to feel that big brother is breathing down their necks.

For many firms, this will be a very different way of doing things.  And that’s OK.  After all, we want different (i.e. stronger) results so we need to do things differently.  You might try starting with one team to let the firm get used to the concept, and to demonstrate the power of this process.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com