Conducting Effective Client Roundtables: Tips for Fostering Meaningful Engagement
By Sam Rizzo, Deven Vyas
October 26, 2023 | 8-minute read
Client Services External Client Communications and Feedback Content Type Article
In an increasingly competitive legal market, law firms and their marketing departments are constantly seeking new ways to engage with clients, demonstrate value and position themselves as thought leaders. Beyond traditional advisory roles, building and nurturing client relationships calls for innovative approaches that resonate with their evolving needs.
One effective — and sometimes overlooked — approach is inviting clients to intimate roundtable discussions. By bringing together a small group of clients to collaboratively discuss current business challenges, law firms can gain key client insights, strengthen relationships and ultimately help generate new business.
Understanding, Connecting and Elevating Client Relationships
Roundtable discussions offer an invaluable opportunity for firms to connect with clients outside of normal client relationships and better understand the client’s day-to-day business issues and maintain visibility. Clients find the interactive nature of roundtables attractive because it provides a forum to glean insights into pressing issues their peers face and learn how they are dealing with similar challenges. Moreover, these sessions aren't just informative — they can be enjoyable and social.
To maximize the impact of these discussions, it’s recommended you create a follow-up thought leadership paper detailing the main themes that emerged from the roundtable discussion. This paper can then be shared with clients and distributed across business social media platforms to help promote the firm’s thought leadership profile. To safeguard client confidentiality, the paper should avoid referencing specific client names or attributing the content to an individual attendee. Instead, it should focus on thematic insights and key takeaways from the conversation. Sessions should typically follow the Chatham House Rule to encourage open and frank discussions.
Virtual Versus In-Person Roundtables: Adapting for Optimal Interaction
During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical client meetings were near impossible and our traditional roundtable program at Reed Smith transitioned to a fully virtual format. Interestingly, this shift proved to be remarkably effective, and we soon learned to modify our approach with a new set of best practices for virtual settings.
Outside of choosing an interesting topic of discussion to draw clients in, virtual and in-person roundtables differ in the form of attendee numbers and format. After completing numerous virtual roundtables over the past few years, our recommended participant count is five clients plus a facilitator per roundtable. This smaller number helps ensure meaningful discussion where every participant can contribute comfortably, mirroring the dynamics of an in-person roundtable with all attendees visible on one’s screen. On the other hand, in-person roundtables can accommodate larger groups of up to 30 attendees. Including in-house representatives can help further discussions among mini groups alongside the main floating facilitator.
In terms of timing, the optimal runtime for a virtual roundtable is 60 minutes, ideally scheduled late morning or after lunch on days that work best for the group. In-person roundtables should be planned for breakfast or early evening — creating opportunities for post-event socializing — and run for up to 90 minutes.
Depending on the roundtable’s objective, each format presents distinct advantages, contributing value in unique ways. Some benefits include:
- Additional time for relationship development through face to face conversations before and after the roundtable, particularly if the event includes a social element
- A larger group of attendees means more opportunities to connect with people
- In-person conversations could leave a stronger impression and make follow up easier
Attendees to in-person events typically are keen participate and network as they have invested a portion of their day to attend the roundtable
- Ability to bring people together from across geographies, connecting people that may never have an opportunity to meet in the real world
- Busy clients have an easier time fitting this into their schedule as no travel is involved
- Small ask of time — similar in length to other meetings
- More intimate gathering as attendee amount is capped
Crafting Compelling Topics: Captivating Discussions and Fostering Engagement
Selecting agenda topics that align with current market trends is crucial to a successful roundtable and helps encourage maximum attendance. Develop a theme around topical issues relevant to clients' concerns and valuable in learning from their peers — for example, employee mental health during the pandemic and post-pandemic “return to the office” conversations. Once a client accepts the roundtable invitation, it’s best to follow up with a call to understand what they would find useful to discuss (in addition to planned agenda items), which helps to further tailor the discussion. This crafted approach has helped Reed Smith enhance engagement and minimize cancellations, as clients feel invested in attending.
Tips for Facilitating a Successful Interactive Roundtable
The facilitator’s role should be minimal, primarily introducing the group, the agenda and kickstarting the discussion. A successful roundtable is one where the attendees do most of the talking and carry on the conversation as one would over coffee.
The facilitator ensures equal attendee participation, active listening and follow-up based on the points being discussed. They should probe, question, challenge (where appropriate) and above all ensure the entire discussion is conducted within the timeframe indicated in the invitation. This latter point is very important as clients are busy and no matter how engaging the discussion, it is always appreciated when the roundtable is finished on time.
If the discussion digresses, it’s fine to allow the attendees to continue the conversation as that is a sign that the discussion is lively and everyone is involved. However, a savvy facilitator can find a way to bring the conversation back to the agenda.
At the point of closing, the facilitator should provide a summary of the discussion and thank everyone for their time, participation and attendance.
Post-Roundtable Action Points
Consider inviting a few internal team members to attend the roundtable (as silent observers) to take notes of the discussion as these are not recorded. If there are any noteworthy discussion points, it is advisable to follow up with the appropriate participant as it shows you were listening and are demonstrating proactivity.
In our experience, the roundtables with the most active discussions have been those held under the Chatham House Rule — where we have emphasized that any follow-on thought leadership papers will be thematic only, without attribution — particularly if it is meant to be shared outside of the attendee group. Attendees should have the confidence to talk openly, frankly and without fear of anything they say being attributed back to them or their organizations.
The final thought leadership report should be widely disseminated to all clients, distributed on social media and sent to journalists as a way of obtaining maximum return on investment (ROI). This report is a great way to market findings from the roundtables and highlight how the firm is at the cutting edge of thought leadership issues. It is worth noting that sometimes it is beneficial to produce a second, more limited summary for the attending clients only — particularly if the insights gleaned from these discussions were a bit more involved. This helps reinforce the connections made and facilitate clients continuing a conversation offline.
Maximizing ROI: Adding Value and Enriching Client Relationships
Above all, it is important to understand the objective of any roundtable is to promote interactivity with clients outside of the normal legal advisor relationship. The roundtable should not be used as a platform to sell your services. With that said, because there has been no traditional “sell,” it does not mean that ROI is not obtained from the roundtable, but that it arises in different ways:
- Learning more about the client
- Sharing information within internal client teams
- Follow up where any action is identified
- Sharing best practices with the client (based on learnings from the discussion)
- Finding ways to communicate your understanding on any corresponding points made by the client. This shows their feedback is valued, their issues understood and, above all, showcase that your firm is not there to simply serve them as lawyers, but is focused on adding value — thereby acting as a true business partner.
The key is following up — acknowledging client contributions demonstrates you were listening. This makes all the difference between a firm who merely provides advice and a firm that can add value from understanding a client’s needs and challenges.
Promoting Connectivity and Personal Connections
In a landscape where a large number of firms are competing for business, personal connections often make the difference in winning work. After all, we are in a business of relationships.
Roundtables can serve as an effective method for nurturing client relationships organically, gathering insights and showcasing thought leadership. By prioritizing engagement, identifying compelling topics for discussion and adopting flexible formats, law firms can bridge the gap between acting as traditional legal advisors and being a strategic partner with their clients through roundtable programs. While roundtables may take different forms and topics may vary with changing client needs, connectivity should remain the focus.
Takeaway: Roundtable Best Practices
- Identify discussion topics aligned with current market trends and client concerns.
- Keep virtual roundtables to about 60 minutes, limiting virtual roundtable participants to around five clients for optimal interaction.
- For larger in-person roundtables, discussions can be longer and include a meal or drinks to inject a social element. Include in-house representatives to help facilitate discussions at each table and to help capture the discussions by way of note taking.
- Foster equitable participation from attendees during discussions, with minimal facilitator intervention.
- Guide discussions back to the agenda if the conversation digresses, while allowing lively conversation, and provide a closing summary of the key points.
- Craft a follow-up thought leadership paper based on thematic takeaways, avoiding specific client references.
- Consider wider dissemination of the follow up thought leadership report among a broader set of clients, exposure via social media and forwarding to journalists.
- Follow up on actionable insights and client-contributed points to demonstrate engagement.
- Keep in mind that the goal is to enhance client relationships and add value, not to sell services.