Supporting the Support Teams

January 7, 2009

Even in the best of times some support functions in many law firms suffer from a downplaying of their value by their lawyer colleagues simply because their teams are not populated with lawyers doing fourteen hundred (plus) chargeable hours a year.

However in the current environment this attitude may prove to be even less enlightened than it always has been. There are three significant reasons to suggest that investing in (excellent) support functions helps to retain existing clients and secure new business. This is certainly true in good times and I suspect it will be even more important in these much more trying times. Support functions add value by:

  1. Encouraging multiple points of contact with clients
  2. Helping secure the value-add proposition
  3. Assisting with the account management aspects of the relationship

These three activities are crucial to ensuring that clients see the value of the relationship.

1. Multiple points of contact.

Developing multiple points of contact with any client helps to secure the relationship; it is like tethering a tent, the more tent pegs that are used the less likely the tent will succumb to any stormy weather. Equally however, in the context of the law firm – in terms of client relationship management or development, the more points of contact there are, the more opportunity there is to see how value can be delivered.

Very often lawyers in law firms understand this principle only in the context of cross-selling to their lawyer colleagues, but in reality it is often easier and more cost effective to sell in one’s non lawyer colleagues.

Consider for example how the librarian can support and in-house team; how the IT team might help build or develop the intranet capability of the in-house team; how the support lawyer cohort might help develop training materials for the in-house team to deliver to their business colleagues, etc.

All are examples of relatively inexpensive points of contact, but each activity demonstrates commitment and delivers value. It also makes it harder to move away from the law firm on review; the thinking being that why would a client change their law firm when there are so many “mini” relationships that are established and which are delivering value?

Pull the support team back from the client therefore and the law firm is left with just its lawyers to impress, with narrower lines of contact and looking more vulnerable to change.

2. Securing the value-add proposition

In the client’s estimation, value add can be a crucial part of the law firm proposition and for the law firm one of the better opportunities to demonstrate both commitment and value to the client.

The in-house team will most likely have a cumbersome bureaucracy to follow within their business to gain the budget and the approval for any additional staff, for non-standard training, for their own I.T solutions etc; this is not always a question of expense, often it is just a tiresome process and therefore is not pursued.

If the in-house team can therefore secure through the law firm some elements of training, additional resource through secondments and much more meaningful management information, they will improve their effectiveness significantly. Furthermore it is unlikely to cost the law firm a great deal in cash terms, but fixes them limpet like to the client.

As this is not traditional territory for relationship partners and unlikely to be of great interest to them either; it is therefore the support teams that can lift much of this burden off the desks of their lawyer colleagues in the firm. It can then become an accessible, lower cost and more administrative role that embeds relationships and supports the value proposition.

Pull the support team back from the client therefore and the law firm is left with just its lawyers to impress, with narrower lines of contact and looking more vulnerable to change.

3. Account management

Not too many law firms operate account managers; in other words colleagues who are not lawyers necessarily, but people assigned to a client to be their key contact for both accessing the right lawyers within the firm and supporting/coordinating the value add proposition.

It is probably only relevant in the larger, multi-jurisdictional law firms, but having a “go-to” contact in the firm who can be called on as often as needed to help facilitate the whole relationship in the round, can be enormously helpful.

However accessible the lawyers are in any firm, the labyrinthine nature of many practices needs “de-coding”; making the firm accessible is therefore a vital role. The reassurance it provides helps to embed the relationship and makes considering changing law firms almost unthinkable if it is done well.

Pull the support team back from the client therefore and the law firm is left with just its lawyers to impress, with narrower lines of contact and looking more vulnerable to change.

In my judgement, therefore, support teams are definitely not a luxury that should be considered dispensable, even in the current climate, without a great deal of thought. They are potentially a key differentiator for the law firm and especially in these very difficult times they represent a highly cost effective client retention model.

The reality is that more non-advisory activity is delegated to the support teams the better the service is likely to be. Let’s hear it for the backroom!

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