Legal expense, however, remains an area of focus for clients. Legal departments ranked controlling outside counsel costs as their top priority in Thomson Reuters’ 2020 Legal Department Operations Index, with 89% identifying it as a high priority.
Individual consumers, too, are concerned about cost. In fact, it’s one of the key factors, along with expertise, they base their decision to hire a lawyer or firm on, according to the latest Consumer Legal Needs Survey.
Law firms may have diligently worked to boost efficiency and reduce operational expenses. But many haven’t been quite as proactive about telling clients about it, says Michael Rynowecer, President of BTI Consulting Group, which works with legal and professional services firms.
“Some do a very good job of branding their efficiency effort; others’ work is done more quietly, and it’s not apparent to clients what they’re doing and what the benefits are,” Rynowecer says. “Most of the communication is ad hoc. The firm relies on partners to tell the clients; not every partner puts the same level of effort and clarity into explaining that.”
With varied client strategies, schedules and other aspects, determining what specific information would resonate with a client — and the best way to successfully share it — can be a balancing act. For many firms, figuring out the best approach can involve investigation, periodic conversations and marketing efforts that supply ample detail.
ASSESSING HOW CLIENTS PERCEIVE VALUE
To truly know how firms are being perceived, they have to communicate frequently with clients and ask the right questions, says Cole Silver, who signed on to serve as Chief Client Officer, a type of client relations liaison, at 600-attorney firm Blank Rome six years ago. As a former general counsel, he feels he’s able to understand their pain points.
If a client is upset or a mistake has been made, Silver will meet with the client, preferably in person, to offer an explanation and hear their concerns. Conveying value is also a key part of Silver’s role.
“When people go to a restaurant with bad service, most people will not complain; they’ll just leave and never come back,” he says. “It’s the same way with lawyers. People don’t complain — they just walk. So it’s really important you talk to your clients a lot and tell them how you provided value, from giving a better price [to] filing a motion in a case early. Sometimes clients don’t know.”
“When people go to a restaurant with bad service, most people will not complain; they’ll just leave and never come back. It’s the same way with lawyers. People don’t complain — they just walk.”
For certain clients, Silver says, savings may be the goal; to others, money is no object but winning is everything. Others may place an importance on working with organizations that emphasize diversity or sustainability initiatives.
“The key is to find out their objectives, wants, needs and aspirations,” he says. “Every general counsel, every CEO has pressures from someone else, whether it’s a board, shareholders, regulators. It’s up to us, as lawyers, to find out who that is and how to satisfy them to make clients look good — and make their life easier. If a lawyer is a good listener and asks the right questions at the onset of the relationship, it’s not too hard to get at the real motivations of what they want.”
As part of the firm’s formal feedback program, Silver prepares written reports after speaking with clients — almost exclusively, he says, face-to-face.
“Our position is our relationships are so important that we wouldn’t want to send our clients a written survey about how we are doing,” he says. “We want it to be more personal. That’s really not the norm. If I can’t get a personal meeting, I will do an interview on the phone, but we have not had any clients — not one — who refused to talk to us.”
Some firms — particularly larger ones — have included sections on their website that directly describe what value elements they provide to ensure that’s clear, says Taylor B. Graham, a Partner at Pelton Graham LLC, which has offices in New York City and San Francisco.
“If it’s not on the website, using LinkedIn or other marketing efforts upfront is helpful,” Graham says. “And within that, showing what else you bring to the table besides competitive rates.”
Legal industry updates and matter-related posts on a firm’s website can highlight the expertise attorneys offer, which may also help reinforce the firm’s value to clients.
“Our position is our relationships are so important that we wouldn’t want to send our clients a written survey about how we are doing.”
“Practice area or industry [news items] shows these people are on top of things in our industry, and that sends a good message to the clients,” Graham says. “We may also highlight some results we’ve had, just to show we are getting favorable results in the types of cases clients would be coming to us for representation on.”
Some firms have set up dashboards that provide near-real-time billing, budget and other information. A couple of partners Rynowecer knows have developed a system using Excel spreadsheets to share information. “By and large, clients love it,” he says.
The billing process can be another venue for expressing value. Include line items that show what work was done. If possible, including goals that have been met — using word choices that convey results or benefits, rather than just effort being expended — can be helpful, according to Graham.
Discussing the related work that’s been accomplished before sending out a bill is a practice at his firm.
“Otherwise, if you’re sending a bill and then having the conversation, you could see the client maybe not understanding the bill necessarily when they receive it,” Graham says. “And then that conversation is more of a defensive one where you’re having to justify why you’re billing, rather than explaining in advance what was done.”
Clients may also appreciate being able to gain industry insight and information from other clients you’ve introduced them to, according to Rynowecer — through informal roundtables, emails that start a dialogue about current issues or, more recently, Zoom calls.
“You add value when you connect your client to another individual who’s also a corporate counsel and have them share ideas on what to do about the return to the office [or] industry-specific trends about vaccination policies,” he says. “Clients consider that an extraordinary value.”
HOW (AND HOW MUCH) TO COMMUNICATE
Standard case updates that simply underscore all you’re doing for a client, via phone or email, can also help articulate the value the firm is providing.
Communication frequency, though, can vary by client. Some like to hear from their attorney often, according to Graham; others aren’t as interested in each step, as long as you accomplish the desired result.
A client’s early behavior in a matter may offer some clues about the person’s preferred rate of contact.
“If you’re not efficient and you’re not innovative, providing really tangible value to the client, you’re in trouble.”
“Some clients set the tone early,” Graham says. “You know if they called or emailed five times in a week before the first meeting, it’s probably someone who wants that constant communication throughout — but setting the expectation is important. In the initial meeting or early on, it’s good to ask how often they really want to hear from us. If someone doesn't know, maybe start out [by saying], ‘We’re going to update you every two weeks, just to let you know.’”
Whatever the client’s communication sweet spot turns out to be, sharing information on that timeframe can help ensure they’re aware of the value the firm is providing — which can be a crucial factor in retaining clients.
The value a firm provides can also influence its chance of obtaining new business. As a reminder the firm is available if clients, or anyone they know, need representation in the future, Pelton Graham LLC mentions its practice areas in a letter sent to thank clients for their relationship at the conclusion of a case.
“Generally, people who work in similar industries have friends who also work in those industries and talk among each other and know if they’re experiencing similar problems,” Graham says. “So we’re always discussing with them, is this something you’re aware of that happened elsewhere? Through those discussions is how we would obtain referrals from current clients.”
With alternative legal service providers, Big Four accounting firms and other parties vying for a piece of the engagement pie, if a law firm hopes to remain competitive in today’s legal market, ensuring it provides — and effectively communicates — value to both clients and potential clients is imperative, says Silver.
“[Firms are] trying to convey value across the board — bringing in alternate providers that are cheaper, trying to bring in technology to make themselves more efficient — because they realize all clients are demanding it,” he says. “There’s much more competition out there than before. If you’re not efficient and you’re not innovative, providing really tangible value to the client, you’re in trouble.”