How do we win more and better work? The times call urgently for an answer. Pre-pandemic, I sat down for a first meeting with the board of a mid-size City law firm, who wanted advice on how to improve their business development results. “How would you describe your strategy”, I asked them. The oldest partner there, a man in his mid-sixties, became quite irate. “Don’t start giving us all this BS about strategy! Work comes to us because we’re good lawyers. Then we do it. That’s our strategy”. That much of it had stopped coming did not seem to have occurred to him.
He’s not alone. There is a mystique around strategy, which it doesn’t deserve, and gets in the way of being any good at it. Hence the quip that law firms have a problem with SPOTS: Strategic Plans On The Shelf. It doesn’t have to be this way.
At the risk of giving my strategy-phobic friend a coronary if he reads this, I’d like to take you briefly to the world of soap. You may feel the suggestion that selling soap is analogous to selling professional services will not, as it were, wash, but bear with me.
A.G. Lafley was the CEO of Procter and Gamble for all of the 2000s. He was a great success. In 2013, he co-authored Playing to Win with Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, in which he set out his principles.
He identified three fundamental strategic questions:
- What is our winning aspiration, the purpose of our enterprise?
- Where do we play? That is, which markets do we wish to serve? For law firms, that translates to practice areas, sectors, specialisms, niche markets and geographies.
- How do we win? That is, how do we stand out from our competitors? In our markets, what drives clients’ buying decisions, and in what order of priority?
“How do we win?” is the question I want to focus on today.
It May Be Business. It’s Always Personal.
As has been said, customers may forget what you said, but they'll never forget how you made them feel.
Doing work diligently and to a high standard is fundamental. But in the battle to win it, knowledge of the law is hardly ever decisive. It is a ticket to the game, no more. This may be hard to accept, when we have spent so much blood and treasure honing our skills. But the fact is that even sophisticated clients, once they are satisfied that we have the minimum competence to do the job, find it difficult, or not worth the trouble, to distinguish between the quality of one lawyer’s work and another. That may not apply to the most esoteric work, but it is certainly true of the mainstream.
I once heard the comedian Michael McIntyre describe going into an airport bookshop to find some light reading for the flight. He wandered into the crime section and came across a novel trumpeting on its gory front cover that it was “A REAL PAGE TURNER!!!" Frankly,” he reflected, “that’s the very least I would expect from a book.” In the same way, most clients take their lawyers’ technical competence for granted.
The profession is being transformed by technology, and has barely begun the journey. There may come a time when human interaction between client and adviser is thought of as a quaint throwback. But for the moment - and I believe it’s a moment that will see most of us out - the key to winning and keeping clients will continue to be our ability to make fulfilling connections with our fellow humans. The pandemic has made that abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already.
In the battle for clients’ hearts, service will always be more important than expertise. Rarely will clients emote that the timeless elegance of our draft collateral warranties in Schedule 17 (1) (b) will live with them forever. But they will appreciate it deeply if we are easy to talk to, are warm, reassuring and communicate in plain English. They will appreciate us even more, if, instead of paying lip service to knowing their business, as many do, we take the time and trouble to understand their marketplace, their ambitions, the pressures on them, the dynamics between their key people, what they especially value in their lawyers, and as important, what they dislike.
There is much talk of bringing clients added value, which often doesn’t amount to much more than bulletins written by juniors, or the occasional seminar. But added value is a second order concern, compared to doing the basics necessary to establish lasting rapport.
Romance or One-Night Stand?
The great David Maister once asked this question: are your relationships with your clients more like a romance, or a one night stand? Does your interest in them last for precisely the time it takes to do the job and issue the largest possible fee note or do you nurture for the long term?
Taking a transactional view is easier. You have the expertise, they have the need. There is no requirement for you to be friends. You just need to fulfil your obligations. Every second you spend is chargeable; there is none of that pesky wasted time getting to know them and their world. In fact, you may think, a transactional relationship suits them as much as you. They just want a job done. If they want a relationship, they’ll go on a dating site.
Yet putting professional detachment on a pedestal has baleful consequences. Clients really notice when their advisers make it clear that the relationship is strictly business, and show no interest in going even the extra centimetre. They feel shortchanged by it. In survey after survey, general counsel bemoan this attitude, and condemn it as shortsighted. It encourages clients to be adversarial with their advisers, the opposite of what they should be.
This principle holds across all professions. In 2014, Ashish Jha, Professor of Global Health at Harvard University was preparing a lecture entitled, “What Makes a Good Doctor? He asked his Twitter followers for their views and received 200 responses. Number one was empathy, closely followed by the ability to listen. Technical skill came fifth. Does this surprise you? After all, what is the use of a lovely, kind doctor, who smiles, nods, listens reflectively, and then kills you through ignorance. Yet this result reinforces many other findings that this is how we think.
It’s not clear that our profession gets it. John Whittle, author of the LexisNexis Bellwether Report says, "Our surveys have revealed that while the majority of law firms rate their client service as above average, substantially less than half of the clients of those law firms agree”. Though that’s a concern, for any firm looking thoughtfully for ways to win, it’s also an open goal.
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I was the founder and senior partner of a multi-award winning law firm that became a UK leader in its sectors. Today, I work as a consultant and non-exec with leading law firms throughout the UK and in Ireland. You can read testimonials here: https://www.stephengold.co.uk/testimonials.html. If you would like to link with me on LinkedIn, you’ll find me here :https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephengolduk/