Focus on Clients – the Susan Hackett interviews

V Mary Abraham has on her award-winning blog Above and Beyond KM recently had a series of blog posts featuring an immensely interesting conversation with Susan Hackett focused on deepening client relationships in meaningful (and profitable) ways.

Susan Hackett served for 22 years as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel at the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), where she earned a reputation for innovation, excellence and success in serving the specialized practice needs of in-house counsel, and the law firms and legal services with whom they collaborate.

In the Focus on Client-series Susan has brought her decades of unparalleled access to, knowledge of, and experience of law department executives needs and expectations from their external counsel to the conversation with Mary Abraham, which examine how critical it is for external lawyers and their clients to engage in meaningful conversations with each other, to deepen the relationship. The origin to the Focus on Clients-series was a previous blog post by Mary Abraham on “That New Customer Smell”, where Mary concluded that:

“We’re told that it can cost six to seven times more to recruit a new customer than to retain a satisfied customer. With an existing customer you can leverage your established relationship and track record. By contrast, these assets need to be created from scratch with the new customer. Satisfied customers are willing to buy more of your goods or services and they tend to be less price sensitive over time. When you think in terms of developing a long-term relationship, you realize that what you need is an ongoing conversation with your customer. It’s this conversation that helps you understand your customer’s needs and how you might best serve. It’s this conversation that allows you to grow with your customer in a perfectly symbiotic way.”

With this conversation and relationship issue as a starting point, Susan Hackett has provided her perspective, i.e. the client perspective, in regard to the various topics examined in the Focus on Client-series. Firstly, Susan explains how being a rainmaker, although important within the law firm, has limited or even negative value in the eyes of the client:

Law firms are often perceived as spending incredible amounts of time, energy and resource prospecting for new work, which could suggest to current clients that the efforts of their external counsel to pursue that ‘new car smell’ may be distracting their fullest attention from preventive maintenance of the vehicle responsible for getting the client around.  While partners are off looking for new attribution sources, clients may feel underappreciated, and that could have a devastating impact on work flow going forward.”

In the conversation between Susan and Mary, it is also made clear that “while so much is made of the personal skills and attributes of the individual rainmaker, deeper reflection shows that a highly focused team approach to engaging, understanding and serving clients is key to growing your business. In a shrinking market, before you even think about new business, you better make sure you’re not about to lose current client first.”

In the third post, the importance of focusing on your current clients becomes even clearer, when Susan explaines that most of her law department colleagues would say that they award an overwhelming majority of new work primarily on the basis of positive referrals by existing clients.

But, how do you get the client to fall in love with you and to recommend you to their colleagues? In the fourth post, Susan offers the following advice:

First off, get over the `quality’ thing. I know you’re a great lawyer.  But let me share with you that I personally know about 5,000 great lawyers who offer their clients high quality services. And I certainly don’t know nearly everyone who’s out there. Quality is the floor; you have to build up from there to be distinguishable.

Second, open yourself to critical assessment of the value of your services and to ideas and practices you could implement to improve your value. When I say `value,’ I’m talking specifically about those things that go beyond the ability to write a great memo/brief or understand and explain complex regulation. I’m talking about whether the result of the service you provide to clients (which is what you’re responsible for providing, not a memo) drives a better outcome for them.  I like to say that most clients don’t think of the problems they have as legal problems; they are business problems. And they want solutions, not just advice. So if you’ve not thought about your value to the client’s business or the practicality of your service, you’re missing the point.  And you’ll be missing the referral.

Third, the very best way to deliver value to each client you serve is simply to ask them what it is that they value, what it is that you’re doing right or could do better, what it is that other lawyers or service providers offer them that makes them pleased with the service, and how it is that you personally could improve.  Ask it in person, ask it in surveys, ask it outside the course of matters, ask it during the matters on which you’re serving. Saying once a year over dinner, `so how are we doing?’ is going to get an answer as specific as `just great.’  Trust me, that’s not the feedback you need.”

One critical element is to work with your client to develop a relationship of trust and collaboration. Another is to focus on the value for the client. This perspective has also been examined by Jim Middlemiss in the Canadian Lawyer article “Bringing value to the client”, where Jim as one good advice suggest that law firms should ask what value does our law firm bring to the client’s management table:

“Law firms also focus on the process of solving client problems within the scope of how their lawyers conduct business. Rather, law firms should be asking what is the best way to partner with clients to solve legal problems taking into consideration possible resources outside the scope of the law firm’s operation – including legal process outsourcing providers.”

But then, if clients have so many reservations about the way law firms currently work, what form of firm would work better for a client? Admittedly, it is hard for any law firm to remake itself overnight, but if a lawyer is serious about becoming her client’s dream external counsel, what should she do? In the sixth post Susan provides this advice:

“Build a firm

  • that inspires a client to hire the firm, and not just some of its great individual lawyers;
  • that embraces technologies, and deploys both data and experience to rethink the processes and teams focused on client work;
  • that understands that knowledge and experience, applied with great judgment, are the foundation of the firm’s core value to clients;
  • with a firm culture that values that which clients value most in practice and professionalism.”

Easier said than done obviously, but the great conversation between Mary and Susan referred to in the Focus on Clients-series is at least a beginning of what needs to be a much wider ongoing conversation among law firms and their clients. Here you can find all the posts in the Focus on Cients-series: