Collaborative Planning With Clients: Ideas From General Counsel
By Amber Bollman, Tom Helm
September 24, 2021 | 6-minute read
Client Services External Client Communications and Feedback Content Type Article Additional Options Content Level: Essential
In August, the LMA Client Value SIG hosted a webinar entitled “Collaborative Planning: Leading Strategic Partnerships With Clients,” during which attendees heard from Robyn Diaz, senior vice president and chief legal officer of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Fred Headon, assistant general counsel for labor and employment law at Air Canada. Mark Young, counsel of Vox Actio LLC, moderated the discussion.
The presenters shared what effective collaboration with outside counsel looks like to them, how law firms can add value to in-house legal teams and what is most meaningful in establishing successful long-term relationships with clients.
The following are key takeaways from the program that you can implement with your clients right away, or use to start productive conversations with stakeholders at your firm:
Demonstrate a meaningful understanding of the client’s business and industry. In Diaz’s case at St. Jude, she aims to work with outside counsel who understand the unique aspects of an academic organization and a philanthropic organization. St. Jude is largely funded by charitable donations, so she and other leaders within the organization need to be good stewards of donor dollars, which includes working towards value and understanding what needs to go up and why. Show your firm has this expertise through insightful and actionable thought leadership.
Don’t pretend to know more than the client does. Ask thoughtful, well-informed questions and truly listen to the client’s responses. Show up at the client’s conferences and read their publications and monthly newsletters. Keep an eye out for emerging issues that may impact the client’s interests or long-term position in the market.
Demonstrate a genuine commitment to diversity. Using the Mansfield Rule is one way to help shape an inclusive firm culture, but there are other factors and considerations involved as well. Headon talked about the role of diversity, equity and inclusion in the selection of outside counsel — not just in legal, but also in other service departments. It is an increasing expectation that organizations want firms to mirror their own images and to give diverse attorneys opportunities to lead on significant projects.
Help clients see around corners. Firms can distinguish themselves by showing what’s coming around the corner and offering guidance on how to respond. In-house counsel are juggling large and complex portfolios of responsibility. They appreciate lawyers who can help them understand legislative developments, new risks, how to mitigate or seize on changes in the industry (e.g., in aviation, it is the regulatory side that’s important).
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. Both panelists indicated the importance of being practical. A phone call can often prove far more helpful to in-house counsel than a densely written document. Picking up the phone can also provide an opportunity for in-house and outside counsel to anticipate questions from others within the organization, talk through potential areas of pushback and quickly pivot to a conversation about next steps.
Keep your client informed about long-term plans for support and give them a voice in the process.
Be aware of new developments or direction the company might be taking. As an example, St. Jude released a press release on new building projects, which was quickly noticed by one of the hospital’s law firms. The lead partner reached out to introduce the firm’s construction practice and offered up a best practice workshop on contracting. Diaz recognized this as a business development effort by the law firm, but she was happy to make the relevant introductions within St. Jude.
Look for opportunities to advance longer-term and predictable pricing. According to Headon, no one wants to talk about cost, but doing so up front accelerates everything. Getting difficult conversations about money out of the way early makes the onboarding process for a firm run more smoothly so everyone can focus less on pricing and more on the substantive legal issues. Get ahead of potential billing issues before they become a problem. Instead of firms implementing a uniform rate increase year after year, outside counsel need to understand the reality of the client’s budget and discuss possible solutions candidly.
Secondments present a chance to understand the client’s world. Headon said it is invaluable anytime there is an opportunity for secondments, or if a firm can send someone along for the ride to get to know the organization and observe a significant project up close. Get younger team members in front of the client and allow them to build relationships early. Law firm and in-house lawyers co-presenting at bar association or industry conferences can also help develop trust and rapport.
Don’t ignore succession planning. Keep your client informed about long-term plans for support and give them a voice in the process. For example, one of the relationship partners with whom Diaz and her team worked with retired. The firm didn’t bother introducing someone else to her in advance — yet they were shocked when St. Jude moved that work to another firm.
Client feedback requests are welcome. Diaz and Headon agreed these are great as long they receive personal invitations to offer input, as opposed to a form email or survey that pops up within e-billing platforms. That’s not the way to deliver useful feedback. If outside consultants are used to conduct feedback interviews, those individuals need to be briefed about the client’s business and prepared to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the relationship.
If you take only one idea from this article, be sure to ask your clients what is most meaningful to them, unlock their unique definitions of value and proactively seek out ways to provide it. Your clients will undoubtedly be grateful that you started the conversation and, more importantly, that you have taken steps to ensure your firm remains a long-term strategic partner.
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