What Clients Want from Their Outside Counsel: 15 Takeaways from Every In-House Counsel Panel You've Ever Attended

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If you could hear directly from your clients about what they want and need, wouldn’t you jump at every opportunity to listen? And even better act on it?

With that in mind, I try to attend as many events featuring in-house counsel as I can; I appreciate their insights, especially when it comes to what they value most when working with outside counsel.

And every year, what they say they need and want most from their outside counsel – transparency, responsiveness, cost-sensitivity, understanding their business, anticipating needs and providing value-added content and educational add-ons – continues to be a challenge for some firms and their lawyers to consistently hit the mark.

Law firm leaders should remember that their clients do not need to work with them. They need to want to work with them. And it is all within the power of law firms (and their lawyers) to achieve true client satisfaction and long-term loyalty by providing the highest-quality legal services, quickly resolving client issues, being a fierce client advocate who anticipates and solves problems and adding consistent value throughout the client lifecycle.

In today’s competitive environment, law firms must adopt a client-centric perspective in everything they do in order to remain competitive.

Every single touchpoint matters and will be remembered, and a misstep can be very costly. 

Here are some ideas from recent panels featuring the voice of the client that I hope inspire you on how to enhance attorney/client relationships at your firm: 

1. Ask for feedback and act on it 

I’ve gone to multiple panels where in-counsel speakers said that they were not asked often enough to provide feedback to their outside law firms and would welcome the opportunity to provide input and suggestions in either a formal or informal manner.

Asking your clients how you’re doing and what you could be doing better/differently should be a no brainer.

Your clients want to provide feedback – it’s that simple! Requesting feedback enables you to acquire deeper insights to ensure that you are exceeding expectations and delivering value. Many firms don’t solicit feedback because they are afraid of what their clients will say when asked – yikes.

Go a step further and take real action based on the responses received. Remember, your goal is to enhance the customer journey and do what you can to ensure that your clients are satisfied and remain with your firm.

2. Responsiveness is a must 

Clients today expect responses from their outside counsel within 24 hours or less, no matter what. Even if you cannot answer their question or if you are busy, a response of some sort even just to acknowledge receipt of their email is mandatory. 

Remember, you must make your clients feel important and well cared for. Non-responsiveness is unacceptable.

3. Be likeable 

Guess what? It’s not enough to just be a great lawyer anymore. You must also be likeable. Luckily for most lawyers out there, this isn’t a problem.

...talk less about yourself.

Make an effort to connect with your clients and contacts on a deeper level. Show that you genuinely care about them. Ask questions about their interests and personal lives. Actively listen to them and talk less about yourself. Give genuine compliments.

People want to do business with people they like, period. Building deeper relationships is important to long-term success and client loyalty. Paraphrasing Rihanna: aim to make each of your clients feel like they’re the only person in the world.

4. Invest in your clients and offer them something that enables you to showcase your expertise too 

When it comes to social interactions with outside counsel, the trend is leaning toward educational, substantive events versus social events. Your clients are busy individuals who are getting pulled in many different directions both professionally and personally, as a result some prefer to build relationships with their outside counsel through educational touchpoints that have the added benefit of enabling law firms and lawyers to demonstrate their value. This type of reputational marketing has a much stronger impact than any concert or fancy dinner.

So, offer to provide a CLE program or to co-author an article with them, or invite a client to speak on a panel with you. Invest in your clients in a way that will showcase your talents and will further cement the relationship.

5. Build relationships and aim to be helpful 

Most in-house counsel say they regularly hire outside counsel who they’ve known for many years – from law school, a prior firm, a friend of a friend, a past matter, etc.

The lesson here? Cultivating relationships is vital to your success as a lawyer in private practice. You never know from where your next referral or piece of business will come, so be sure to keep in touch with former colleagues, past clients and alumni from law school/undergraduate schools. Enhance these relationships with a combination of in-person and online networking (more on that in a minute).

In addition, look for opportunities where you can provide unique insights to clients and targets where you have expertise and they need guidance, such as a key development in the law that impacts their business. Email them a relevant article/piece of legislation about it, or better, write an alert on the topic, and personally send it to them with a note about why they should care about this development. This is how to become a trusted business advisor and how to build your brand as a subject-matter expert.

6. LinkedIn is KING 

The primary social media channel used by your clients is LinkedIn, and even if you think they they’re not looking at your profiles and content, trust me, they are. They may not be engaging with it, but they are viewing it in “invisible user” or listen-only mode. 

Clients are using LinkedIn both to connect with individuals and to find useful content related to their industry/legal issues. Make LinkedIn part of your marketing priorities today. Here are two articles I recently wrote on creating your personal LinkedIn strategy: “Build a Stronger Professional Network Today with These LinkedIn To-Do’s” and “LinkedIn 101: How to Master Profile Basics & Build Your Professional Brand.”

7. Bulletproof all bills 

All law firm bills should be bulletproof and always reviewed by the billing partner. Clients spend quite a bit of time reviewing bills each month from their outside law firms, and it can negatively affect the attorney/client relationship when they are inaccurate.

There should be no questions about how the time was spent by your firm each month. If a client starts to question the bills, they will question whether they want to work with you and they may look elsewhere for legal services.

8. Think show vs. tell when it comes to content 

What communications resonate most with clients? Tailored, timely, relevant and easily digestible electronic client alerts and newsletters that are “snackable” in length with succinct subject lines (from the law firms they actually use). Ensure that these communications are client-focused and there’s more show than tell in the approach.

These “light touches” keep your firm top of mind with professional contacts and can often lead to new business, or at the very least, help elevate your lawyers as subject-matter experts. In addition, consider including case studies on your web site and in newsletters. They can help in-house counsel understand your firm’s experience in solving specific problems that they may be facing themselves.

9. Communicate strategically and thoughtfully

 Another important note on content – the information you send to clients and prospects should be sent strategically and sparingly. Segment your mailing lists and analyze engagement and open rates.

Many firms take a “random acts of content” approach, which is a waste of time for everyone, especially the prospect or client. Use the power offered by your email marketing software and social media analytics. Play the role of the client and think about what you would like to receive and how often if you were them. If you always put yourself in your clients’ shoes, you will always be on the right path.

10. Take the time to personalize 

Personalization is one of the biggest factors on whether clients look at marketing materials sent by law firms (newsletters, client alerts, etc.) and they are much more likely to read content from those law firms they use and trust. Interestingly, most of the in-house counsel panelists said they don’t even open emails from law firms they don’t currently use, including those from the most prestigious firms. Someone asked the question of why they didn’t just unsubscribe from those lists and one in-house counsel panelist said that while she may not read the alerts from the firms she doesn’t use she still wants to know what they are writing about. 

11. Be proactive and user-friendly 

On staffing matters, develop a strong bench of lawyers for the future and make sure your clients know exactly who is on their legal team.

Clients want multiple points of contact with their outside counsel and they also want to get to know the full team working on their matters (sometimes, they want to work directly with associates because for certain types of work, it can be more cost effective).

...make sure your clients know exactly who is on their legal team.

Reinforcing the predictability concept brought up often by various panelists, clients want to see monthly reports that outline all matters being handled by each firm, their current status, jurisdiction, stage of case, number of hours/current fees, etc. One GC said that many firms do not proactively provide this type of report, or will send something that is not tailored or helpful. Developing client-focused, user-friendly matter status reports is a great way for firms to differentiate themselves.

12. Always avoid surprises 

No client likes surprises when it comes to something on their matter going off schedule, a missed deadline, human error on the part of their outside counsel, or just something not going according to plan.

You can avoid these by regularly communicating, setting expectations, implementing project management tools, putting strong people on the team, letting the client know right away when an issue arises and accepting full responsibility when something goes sideways.

13. Know your clients’ businesses inside and out 

Stay attuned to major developments and news affecting your clients so you can better anticipate needs and become a smarter legal solution provider. What challenges and opportunities are they facing? Show that you care and will go above and beyond for them by setting up Google Alerts on your top clients.

Information is power...

Not only will this will provide valuable information to help you serve them better, but it will also give you reasons to reach out to them to congratulate them on successes or send an article that touches on a legal issue they might be facing. Information is power here, so use it wisely.

14. Maximize every single speaking engagement 

Hearing attorneys speak at conferences continues to be a key way for outside counsel to be hired. In fact, I recently heard one in-house counsel say on a panel, “When I go to a conference, I am shopping for outside counsel." So, maximize every opportunity that you have at conferences to network and meet new people. One in-house counsel mentioned a Big Law partner who impressed him with his presentation on a panel at an industry conference. He sought him out afterwards to get to know him better and potentially retain him on a matter only to find that he had ducked out the back door to head back to the office before talking to any of the attendees. This was a huge missed opportunity and a big waste of his time and the firm’s sponsorship dollars.

15. Legal directories really don't matter to clients 

Truth – most clients do not make their outside counsel hiring decisions based on directory rankings.

So ChambersLegal 500, and all of those submissions over which we as legal marketing professionals spend so many hours laboring? Well according to most clients, they don't make a huge difference in which outside counsel they choose.

That being said, legal directory rankings can serve as useful third-party recognition that can aid with confirmation of referrals, provide valuable content for PR and branding purposes, assist with recruiting efforts for law students and laterals, and reinforce market position. These rankings are often more important to lawyers and law firms than their clients.

Become a fierce advocate for your clients – the business partner that sets the bar higher than anyone else...

It’s never been more important to adopt a client-centric approach to everything you do as a law firm in this competitive and saturated market. There are many firms just waiting to steal your clients from you. Don’t give them the opportunity by falling short in client service. Become a fierce advocate for your clients – the business partner that sets the bar higher than anyone else and the firm they just can’t ever quit.

You can do this by investing in your clients in a way that enables your firm and lawyers to showcase their knowledge and experience. Remember, by making your client look good at their companies, you make your firm look good and you will elevate your position and value. This approach is a win-win for all involved. So going forward, follow through, put the client first and do what they ask you to do when they ask you to do it. That is how you delight the client and build long-lasting attorney-client relationships. This is also how to become a trusted business advisor in the client’s inner circle – and how to separate yourself from the competition. 

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[Stefanie Marrone helps law firms effectively tell their stories and find their unique voices. Over the last 17 years, she has worked with some of the most prominent and innovative law firms in the world, developing and executing global revenue generating business development and communications strategies, including media relations, branding, and multi-channel content marketing and social media campaigns. She is very passionate about using social media for lead generation and brand building. She has a diverse range of experience in both Big Law and mid-size/small-law firms. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her latest writing on JD Supra.

 

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