5 Steps to Shift Into a Client Services Role
By Mary Light
October 19, 2023 | 8-minute read
Client Services External Client Communications and Feedback Content Type Article
My Journey From Business Development to Client Services
A career in legal marketing wasn’t on my radar at all. My first job was in marketing at a tradeshow management company, where I traveled the country learning how to create experiences for clients. But I grew tired — jet-setting around the country year-round can drain even the most energetic professional. So when a headhunter called about a law firm marketing manager role, I was intrigued. This was in the early 2000s, when legal marketing and business development (BD) weren’t on the map the way they are today. Would this be the right move? Did I want to work with lawyers? And most importantly, would I find it both challenging and fulfilling? I decided to take the plunge, and now — nearly 20 years later — I realize it was a gift.
I spent the next decade and a half running the marketing and BD traps — countless requests for pitch materials, Chambers submissions, experience collection, customer relationship management (CRM) rollouts, website overhauls, budgeting, team recruiting and management and events. Since taking that initial marketing manager job, it’s become abundantly clear to me that law firms have leveled up how they sell their services and differentiate themselves among their peers to attract and retain clients.
Over time, I found myself increasingly drawn toward the idea of client service, clients’ relationships with the firm and their growth trajectory with us. To get closer to client activity, I became more engaged with some of the firm’s key accounts by helping lead the firm’s key client and client feedback programs. I sought out partnering opportunities with relationship attorneys on pro bono and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts alongside their clients and began tracking value-added services. I reached for projects beyond our department. I wanted to holistically understand how to improve our client relationships at all levels. I heard what clients were saying in feedback sessions and knew we could do better. I wanted to take some ownership in ensuring the experience our clients have when working with us was as positive as possible. I knew that a positive experience would keep them coming back.
The foundation of any great client services team comes down to one simple thing: the voice of the client, even when it’s not in the room. Oftentimes we are stuck rapidly responding to a client request, checking the boxes to meet that deadline at all costs. But when was the last time you (and the lawyers) stopped to think about what the client really wants? Do they truly want 80 pages of content? The five-page attorney bios with every pitch? The long lists of accolades every other firm can share too? If we change our mindset to align more closely with that of the client’s, things will shift. The operating landscape becomes more about them and their needs, and less about our own agenda. Sounds simple enough, but when we slow down to think about it, how often are we really doing it?
5 Ways to Become a Client-Services Oriented Team Member
Through my own experiences shifting from business development to a client experience role, here are five practical ways to begin your own client services-oriented journey.
- Change your lens: Be the voice of the client rather than just a reactive BD. As BD professionals, we are good at wearing multiple hats. Challenge yourself each day to wear those hats while also wearing a new lens. Become the voice of the client in your meetings and with every lawyer request that comes your way. Think about new ways to provide deliverables (format, teams presented, etc.) in ways the client wants to receive it. These shifts don’t have to be monumental — start small. Change the volume of materials shared, create mini bios that are tailored to the pitch or offer partnering suggestions on the DEI or pro bono side to hold joint events where goals align. Constantly look for ways to add value to the relationship on behalf of the client, alongside the great legal work provided.
- Look beyond the initial ask: Show you know the client, the industry and the path of similar clients. Oftentimes we simply react to lawyers’ requests. That can cloud the opportunity we have in front of us to assess and adapt. Research request inquiry? Instead of receiving and flipping it back to them, provide insights from what you pulled out of the information. You can also provide suggestions on complimentary services. For example, a life sciences client is asking for materials on our regulatory practices, but have we thought about our consumer products team as a great add-on to compliment those services? Clients don’t always know all the services a firm can offer, and lawyers are good at staying in their lane. Help them provide a comprehensive summary of the firm’s capabilities and what might make sense to share with their clients.
Clients also love hearing about stories from other clients in a similar position or industry. Make sure to share with the requesting attorney examples from around the firm. It shows the depth of our industry knowledge and how we were successful in helping them. Helping to identify these scenarios will show the lawyer you are walking hand in hand with them as they approach and manage these client expectations. You care about expanding this relationship as much as they do.
- Suggest new solutions, and connect the dots: BD professionals have a bird’s eye view of what is happening around the firm. We sit in on countless meetings, we regularly connect with our peers on what is working in other areas and we digest what is happening around us. Unfortunately, lawyers are asked to do too much and don’t have the luxury of “taking it all in” as we do. For example, when a new lateral has joined the firm, a partner may not have considered whether the lateral has a skill set needed by their existing client. If we can make that connection for them, it’s a win-win for the existing partner (who needed to help the client further), the new lateral (because they are being integrated more quickly) and the client (who is satisfied with great work and expanded services from a trusted firm). Connecting the dots has always been one of my favorite parts of the job. It shows you are thinking with the client in mind, and no one will ever fault you for using your brain and voice.
- Use your inner circle: Poke around, ask questions and dig deeper. In thinking about where to begin this journey, identify the people in your inner circle who have a hand in client feedback, benchmarking and client partnership opportunities. My inner circle consists of people who will listen to my hair-brained ideas, provide feedback, keep me on track or challenge me to reach further. I use this inner circle for countless things — as a sounding board for new ideas, champions around the firm to help socialize new processes and services and leaders who can tell me what is realistically possible. Importantly, my inner circle is not just lawyers. I connect regularly with colleagues in pricing, DEI, learning and development, accounting/finance, professional development, etc. They too are here to strengthen our client relationships across the board. Layering in lawyers who trust you and know your reputation only creates a more powerful network. In thinking about client services and client experience, this inner circle is where you start.
- Be consistent: Create a brand for yourself internally. Carving out a new niche for yourself within the firm may seem daunting, but you’ve likely already created a reputation of being a strong BD professional within your organization so use that to your advantage. Incorporate these tips into your day-to-day and you’ll start to establish a new brand as the BD that represents the voice of the client — someone sought after for your thoughts about holistic client service. You will be the one who thinks deeper amid the whirlwind requests, connects dots others don’t see and gets real-time feedback from your inner circle along the way.
There is no set roadmap or perfect way to shift into a more client-focused role. I have found that if we simply do what we tell the lawyers to do — know your audience and adapt — success will follow. Great legal work and positive outcomes are table stakes today, but that isn’t a client’s only impression when working with their outside counsel. An exceptional client experience encompasses all the steps along the way: accurate bills, a responsive and diverse team, value-adds that are meaningful to the client, diligence and solid communication. Small changes lead to big wins over time — for you, your firm and most importantly, your clients.