“I am just not cut out to do marketing”

So said one partner of one of the larger law firms in the UK to me not so long ago.

“I am” he went on “a lawyer.”

“If I wanted to be in marketing I would be writing slogans for baked bean adverts not negotiating rent reviews on commercial property leases.”

“I don’t want to have to schmooze or to sell or, worst of all, I don’t want to be nice to people I don’t like. I just want to do my job…and clients should just value the quality of my work.”

I won’t carry on repeating the remarks. I am sure you get the drift.

He was speaking from the heart, articulating a genuine concern about his priorities and he was, I think, hopelessly wrong.

Here’s a question from me…Why should a client value the quality of your work?

Even when the client is an in-house lawyer, do you expect them to call you up and say things like “Hey Michael, you know what? The quality of your termination clause was (pause for suitable hyperbole)…well it was just mind-blowing! I haven’t seen drafting like that since I was reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets”?

Do you really expect any client to congratulate you on your creative use of a statutory provision, for discovering a regulatory nuance or for utilising the sublime dicta of a rarely regarded law lord?

Of course you don’t …Clients do not understand these things and they never will. So, whether you like it or not, however good a lawyer you are, is always much less significant than how good a service provider you are.

Clients will congratulate you on things that they can see and value.

They will appreciate you hitting their deadlines, keeping within budgets, working hard, going the extra mile, communicating in ways they can understand and use. They want solutions not problems; they want ease of use not clever argument; they want service not surly.

So here is Lesson Number One; service counts more than legal expertise.

And Lesson Number Two is just as hard to grapple with. There is more competition out there than you might want to acknowledge (and, by the way, it will get worse).

As head of legal in one plc and legal director in another, I’managed a panel of between three and six law firms but received regular bulletins, leaflets, so called “alerts”, invitations to lunch, invitations to seminars, invitations to see rugby, football, ballet etc from perhaps twelve to twenty other firms most weeks.

If you are on a panel there is competition from your co-panelists and a whole load of competition from those who would like to be.

If you are not yet on a panel, it is going to be tough to get on the ones you want to be on and tougher still to stay there.

Should you, for example, compete on price and try to buy the work in, or should you compete on service and risk over-promising on delivery? Or should you try to do both risk losing profitability and have to work a darn sight harder than ever before for the privilege?

Lesson Number Three therefore is this: your existing clients matter more than ever. It is going to be harder and harder to get new clients and the competition to tempt your existing clients away will get stronger too. You must therefore have a strategy to keep your existing clients happy.

Let us recap at this point…Service is more important than legal expertise, there is more competition than ever before and your existing clients therefore matter more than ever before.

So, where is your plan to keep and develop the income you get from your existing clients? Where is your plan to anticipate the moves other firms are making on your clients? Where is your plan to ensure your whole business is geared to spotting the undoubted opportunities that exist to extract more value from your clients through the excellence of your service proposition?

Let’s move on to Lesson Number Four.

About eighty percent of every training budget I have ever seen is spent on helping lawyers become technically better lawyers. There will be courses on Litigation updates, Employment updates, the latest implications of Competition legislation etc, etc, etc. We seem to train our lawyers to focus in on ever more esoteric areas of law anticipating, perhaps, that the more they know about a narrower area, the more they will be feted by their clients who will marvel at their planet sized brains…

However, what this also means is that less than one pound in five that you spend on training is spent on soft skills.

This means that learning how to present empathetically, informatively and with clarity, how to draft to communicate well and, most importantly of all, how to build and improve excellent relationships, are all effectively left to chance or intuition.

Client Relationship Management (CRM) is a jargon phrase that loses some credibility as a result, but think what it really means…It is not about forms and process, or about systems or about brand. CRM is about people. It is about realising that the business of the law is a people business where for the most part you as lawyers are a stress purchase in a world where preconceptions are nearly all negative and where the outcome is neither predictable nor cheap.

If your ability to communicate effectively, to reassure sincerely and to work hard transparently in the interests of the client is not already excellent or outstanding, then spend some money on it now. If you do not you might as well be planning your retirement, because retirement is closer for you than business development is likely to be.

Train soft skills. Train them now and keep on training them.

And if you have built your soft skills to the point where your clients are beginning to value your service let’s start to consider Lesson Number Five. Adding value.

What is added value?

Let me tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t about discounting your hourly rate until you cannot make any money. It isn’t about inviting your client to some expensive, over-the-top glitzy “do” when the relationship has barely begun. It isn’t about promising to run a training programme before you have costed it out.

Added value comes from a deep and genuine interest in and understanding of the client and what is important to the client.

Ask yourself honestly; do you know what it is your clients want?

Not at a superficial level, but in detail and broken down into things you can influence and things you can deliver.

What are the characteristics of service your client most appreciates? What behaviours do they most empathise with? How well do you achieve this level of satisfaction?

Adding value can therefore be such very small things, to you. They will, however, just mean so much more to your clients.

Truly adding value therefore only comes from a deep understanding of your clients’ interests, wishes and needs. The time and energy you deploy to make the connections that your client wants you to make will undoubtedly set you apart from the crowd.

Lesson Number Six is harder still to achieve, but it has to be done.

Building the relationship, building value and building sustainability in the face of unending competition needs a firm-wide strategy. It is not something that can be left to individuals on their own to fathom.

The ideal model is one where wherever the client touches the firm (receptionist, telephonist, pa, trainee, associate, partner or head honcho) the experience is similar. It is focused, easy to use, client centric and reassuringly good.

Such a strategy never occurs by chance. It requires leadership and foresight and the ability of individuals to work for a common objective not just for their “own” clients in their “own” practice areas.

Let’s recap from the top.

  • Service counts more than expertise. Focus on service.
  • It’s even harder than you think. You will lose ground standing still. Changing to meet the challenges of your competitors is not an option it is a prerequisite.
  • The clients you have today are so much more important than the potential clients you may one day be able to attract.
  • Train soft skills. These skills will improve your service and your client’s ability to see your service.
  • Know what the client will value so you can add that value consistently and well.
  • Do it across the whole firm, leave no aspect of the service unchecked or unfocussed.

Do all these things and you will begin to have a plan to grow and develop a thoughtful and transparent client centric proposition.

It ain’t marketing and it ain’t rocket science…

It is just essential.