In Part 8 in this series, we talked about “Now What?” in terms of three particular approaches you could take that were all, essentially, inward-focused and things you can pretty much control inside the firm’s four walls:

  • acknowledge you have competition;
  • hire the best professional “C-suite” staff you can find; and
  • articulate a non-generic strategy—and begin to execute it.

In this column I’d like to address the external landscape, and specifically its single most critical feature: Clients.

The legendary Peter Drucker used to enjoy stumping MBA students by asking, “What is the one thing every firm has to have?”

Answers typically ranged from “a product” to “cash” to “an idea” to “employees,” but none of these is what Drucker was looking for.  The one thing is: Clients.

Sometimes I have to wonder if we’ve gotten the message.

In thinking about the evolution of client service, these are the phases I see.

Phase I: Sell what you make

Firms in Phase I find a comfort zone of things they (as proud and unbending autonomous individuals) enjoy doing, and they assume without, I imagine, really giving it much conscious thought, that since they enjoy it clients will appreciate it, or because they find it interesting clients will too. This approach is neither introspective nor strategic, but it has, as mentioned, the advantage of being comfortable.  You could think of the firm’s pitch to a client amounting to this:

“I love trying cases; got a case I could try?”

Simplistic? No, I would argue it’s merely distilling the approach down to its essence.

I’m not implying firms approaching things this way can’t find clients, or satisfy them, but I do believe it’s pretty much serendipitous when that happens. The lawyer may wake up every day hoping to try a case; I assure you no client wakes up with that lawyer in mind just on the off chance they get sued and suddenly need courtroom representation.

It does violence to the word “haphazard” to even describe this as a haphazard approach to business development; it’s a fundamentaly self-indulgent attitude towards the world, which is no approach at all. Here, the lawyer is the Sun at the center of the solar system around which all else revolves.

Phase II: Make what sells

Phase II is a bit more mature and purposeful. In this phase, lawyers and firms try to analyze what services clients are seeking and purchasing, and then attempt to mold their offerings to client demand. No cases for us to try? Well, if you’re looking for a little alternative dispute resolution instead, we can do that for you. The distilled pitch is something like this:

“Just tell us what legal services you need, and we’ll get right on it.”

While this takes the lawyer out of the very center of the picture, and gives the client a bit of breathing room alongside, it’s still passive and reactive. To begin with, what if the client doesn’t know or can’t articulate what they need? Worse, what if your firm really isn’t ideal for what the client wants?  In that case “making it” for them might not be doing them any favors.

It also shortcircuits pretty much any thoughtful professional development or strategically guided growth of your firm, if you’re constantly emulating a pinball responding to the latest entreaty from a client.

Phase III: Solve the client’s problem

This phase has several characteristics to commend it:

  • It goes straight to the heart of what the client needs professional counsel for;
  • It’s agnostic as to exactly which practice area or practitioner, if any, is best suited to the matter at hand;
  • And most important by far, it postures the entire offering and engagement around what the client needs, not what you can do.

The distillation of this pitch might be:

“We wonder if XYZ is troubling you; we have some thoughts on that.”

Note what is not said here: It’s not about what the lawyers prefer to do or are in the mood to work on; nor how brilliant, experienced, and highly credentialed they are (though I’m confident they are exceptionally so); nor about how much other clients adore them and sing their praises; nor, finally, is it about the law firm at all.  It’s entirely about making the clients life easier, less worrisome, and letting them focus on their business and not this potential legal landmine.

A very wise managing partner, who had studied at the feet of one of the builders of a great New York law firm, once told me that his primary job was making the client look good:  “The wins are theirs; the losses are mine.”

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