Law Firm Leaders: How to Turn Key Clients Into Strategic Accounts


Excerpted from “SAM-Legal: Turning Key Clients Into Strategic Accounts, a Guide to Law firm Strategic Account Management” by Steve Bell and Silvia Coulter. This excerpt, from an early chapter in the book, provides guidance on how leaders can prepare for and communicate about Strategic Account Management initiatives:

Most law firms have difficulty focusing on activities other than client work, billing and collecting revenue. Different owners of these unique businesses bring different perspectives on what exactly is most important. Because all owners have voices to one degree or another in the prioritization discussion, many firms end up acquiescing to too-lengthy lists of priorities. And since priorities are most often expressed in the form of plans, firms are forced into – in the partnership tradition of comity – an overwhelming number of them: overall plans, practice plans, office plans, department plans, individual partner plans, client plans, and sector plans, to name just some of them.

No doubt, these plans are generated in an effort to marshal and focus a firm’s finite resources. Dare we observe, however, that leadership’s concession to multiple, sometimes competing, often unaligned or misaligned plans yields the opposite of the focus they were intended to produce in the first place? The most-frequent result of this cacophony of planning, unfortunately, is people, practices, and offices delivering a scattershot approach to the market. And a concomitant delivery of less-than-optimum client service, of course.

...a formal SAM-Legal strategy is the foundational master plan that reduces the need for all the other plans

The prioritization and planning challenges that are very real at all the law firms we know is quite distinct from the discipline that most traditional, vertically oriented businesses are able to muster. And yet, as buyers of legal services create unprecedented pressure on fees, as they contemplate replacing longstanding relationships with new ones, and as they engage new archetypes of providers (such as alternative legal service providers ALSPs), there never has been a more pressing need for focus.

And let’s not forget another law-firm reality: the people angle.

As veterans of law firm life, we know the reasons for this: partnerships are horizontal, and often it is politically difficult to prioritize one set of clients (and, therefore, one set of partners) over another. Often, clients that would be excellent candidates for Strategic Account Management at Law Firms (hereafter SAM-Legal) are led by partners who fiercely protect the relationships; who are unwilling or unable to embrace a new, holistic approach to client service; or who may not be the best individuals to lead a SAM-Legal team.

There are no magic wands to overcome such realities. Clearly, it is law firm leadership’s responsibility to chip away at embedded siloed thinking and behavior. It may not be easy or quick, but the persistent promulgation of SAM-Legal thinking will win the day, and, ultimately, deliver benefits to all partners.

And, so, it starts at the top.

At the most-enlightened firms, top leaders themselves have begun to understand and are initiating SAM-Legal strategies. At other firms, the adoption of SAM-Legal may be a ground-up impulse, proposed perhaps by lawyers or senior staff who are monitoring developments in law firm service, marketing, and business development. We are hearing of instances where clients themselves are beginning to demand that their law firms adopt strategic client management commensurate with these clients’ approaches to their own customers.

No matter the origination of the idea for SAM-Legal at a law firm, it is mandatory that leaders buy in very early and completely to the program. Despite the fact that much egalitarianism exists in law firm partnerships, an equal truth is that some of the partners are elected to lead. So, when it comes to SAM-Legal, what does this leadership entail?

SAM-Legal is heavy lifting, involving significant time on the part of a relatively large group of lawyers and staff. Planned and implemented correctly, SAM-Legal also involves the investment of sometimes big dollars to purchase or build program components that may not already be in place. This includes resources such as — to name just a few examples — research; the acquisition (or adaptation) of a Client Relationship Management (CRM) System; in-person, internal team meetings; or the engagement of outside advisers on topics such as sales process, sales and leadership development, and industry insights. Creating a SAM-Legal strategy implies that a firm’s lawyers and staff will invest a good deal of time with client professionals, certainly at the headquarters, but also at operating locations around the nation and the world. This client travel alone could add up to a significant cost. As a result of these and other necessary commitments, if for no reason other than the economic one, leadership must be fully on board. We are talking, after all, about how other people’s money will be spent!

When we speak of leadership buy-in, by the way, we’re talking about endorsement far more profound than acknowledgement that someone has created a SAM-Legal plan, and more profound, as well, than permission to proceed. A firm’s senior leaders need to provide both of those of course; but they also must have a burning intellectual curiosity, and a strong emotional desire to, at regular intervals, be involved actively and personally in the work of the SAM-Legal teams and to defend and advance the teams’ work. In our opinion, for instance, if a firm leader truly is interested in understanding the progress and efficacy of a SAM-Legal strategy, then that leader must be reaching out at least monthly to dig into the details of the account status.

On the other side of this equation, of course, the SAM-Legal teams must value the involvement of firm leadership and go the extra mile to provide information that will help firm leaders truly understand and be better and stronger advocates. In order for the firm top leaders to be so engaged in a SAM-Legal implementation, the SAM-Legal team leaders (lawyers and senior staff alike) should be prepared at all times to deliver well-reasoned and well-structured reports that demonstrate how the SAM-Legal strategy is unfolding and how it is benefiting the client as well as the entire firm. Naturally, such presentations should cover the investment of time and resources required, and the benefits – economic and other – that will result.

Because clients that are the most likely to be named strategic accounts represent disproportionate amounts of revenue, they should be at the very center of senior leadership thinking.

And don’t forget other sometimes overlooked needs of the individual firm leader. Information produced by the SAM-Legal team will be best received if it goes beyond traditional information and points to what’s in it for the top leaders themselves. If leaders are to become personally invested as SAM-Legal advocates, they need to know why and how they should do so – for the firm at large and for themselves.

When top firm leadership is behind closed doors talking – about future plans, finance, deployment of professionals, marketing budgets, and so forth – they must have the SAM-Legal Strategy foremost in mind. It can’t be an afterthought, or worse, forgotten entirely. Because clients that are the most likely to be named strategic accounts represent disproportionate amounts of revenue, they should be at the very center of senior leadership thinking.

Beyond the challenges that we have listed — all of them soluble at the hands of enlightened leadership — what is most important is simply to start. Our recommendation is that firm leadership formally adopt a SAM-Legal strategy as the most important one, and the one that will receive the most support, attention, oversight, and resources.

Our conviction is that a formal SAM-Legal strategy is the foundational master plan that reduces the need for all the other plans, instead focusing on the highest-revenue generating opportunities as well as on the highest growth opportunities. The large accounting and consulting firm communities discovered and implemented SAM Strategies long ago. Law firms need to catch up.

As you might expect from advisers who in this book are advocating a new Strategic Account Management approach at law firms, we suggest that all of a law firm’s plans and priorities should be grounded in and centered upon the handful of clients that comprise the bulk of its revenue and profit, and which represent the vast majority of its future prospects.

If and when senior leadership is fully bought-in and ready to proceed, they ought, in our opinion, to be able to deliver a SAM-Legal-first strategic statement that might sound like this: “We dedicate our firm first to the clients that are — based on facts, information and data — most important to us and strategic to our firm’s future. In service to them, and in an effort to satisfy them beyond their most ambitious expectations, we will actively ensure that all of our offices, practice groups, sector teams, staff departments, social initiative leaders, individual lawyers and individual business professionals know the identities of our most important clients, understand their businesses, and continually consider how best to serve them.”

That’s a pretty bold statement of intent, and candidly we have only seen a few like it, but we’d love to see more. The closer that a firm moves toward this thinking, the more likely that it actually will invest resources and time into the areas with the optimum potential, and the more likely it will achieve the much-desired results of a SAM-Legal relationship.

By the way, an uber focus on a firm’s most important clients does not necessarily mean that its other clients will suffer. Lessons and practices learned in service to SAM-Legal clients and ingrained into a law firm’s culture will naturally make their way into service for all firm clients. In our view, though, it’s best to do first things first, which is to say: start with the clients that matter most.

Communicate the Strategy to the Firm

Once SAM-Legal has been selected as the strategic plan of choice, it’s important that the whole firm knows of this decision and begins orienting in a way that advances the strategy across all of the firm’s components. Every firm has its communications mechanisms, whether it be minutes of management committee meetings, newsletters, intranets, partner and staff meetings, conversations in the lunchroom, or other channels. The important thing is that leadership ply all of the available avenues to enthusiastically and regularly repeat the SAM-Legal strategy message.

All professionals at law firms — lawyers and staff alike — are busy people. It is highly unlikely that they will “receive” a message upon one telling... or even upon multiple tellings. That’s why it’s so critical to continually play and update the SAM-Legal strategy message. A partner at an AmLaw 100 law firm poses the question: “How many times does it take for a message to get through to a lawyer?” Her answer, half joke and half reality, is: “One more time!”


To learn more about LawVision’s Strategic Account Management services, contact LawVision’s Steve Bell or Silvia Coulter.

To order the book “SAM-Legal: Turning Key Clients Into Strategic Accounts,” click here.

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