...firms with active client team programs were better equipped to serve those clients and to expand relationships during COVID 19

In my recent transition from an in-house law firm business developer to consulting for the legal industry, I have had the opportunity to speak with many firms and many business developers. I sensed a trend early in these discussions that firms with active client team programs were better equipped to serve those clients and to expand their relationships during the COVID 19 pandemic.

First, a little context. I was trained in client team methodology when I transitioned from serving clients as an accountant to marketing and business development roles within my former accounting firms. Since leaving the Big Four for law firm business development and marketing ten years ago, I have been an outspoken advocate for client teams because I saw firsthand the benefits to both the client and to the firm.

Big Four accountants, consultants and business developers are trained in a consistent consultative business development approach, and they utilize these skills across all practice areas and geographies cross-selling services to their best clients. The strategy is to go to market by industry and segregate the largest clients from the others.

At one of my former firms there was a saying, “If you are going after any companies not on the firm’s priority list, you better be doing it on Sunday.” The largest clients are assigned relationship partners and given dedicated business development and marketing resources with the goal of increasing client spend with the firm by adding additional service areas and/or growing existing service areas.

...a program built around the firm’s biggest and best clients is the single most effective way to organically grow firm revenue

In my 25+ years of experience working in professional services firms, I believe a client team program built around the firm’s biggest and best clients is the single most effective way to organically grow firm revenue.

The Last Mile

This purpose of this article is not to explain all of the benefits of client teams, but I do want to address one benefit – and that is of a concept a former colleague and I call “The Last Mile.”

Dave Southern, currently the Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer for Choate, Hall & Stewart, and I borrowed this concept from the cable industry; it describes how the easiest and longest runs of coaxial cable are to and within neighborhoods and the hardest, shortest (but most profitable) runs of cable are to the individual homes – or metaphorically, “The Last Mile.”

Similarly, firms spend immense resources to develop content (white papers, client alerts, blogs) and client events (webinars, alumni events, industry specific events, CLEs), and tend to “spray and pray.” Essentially, firms distribute the content and event invitations through impersonal firm email lists or, worse yet, cross their fingers and hope the partnership does the right thing and connects the right clients to the content and invitations.

...our content has little to no value unless it gets into the hands of those who can actually use it.

As Southern puts it, “All of our content – no matter how brilliant and insightful – has little to no value unless it gets into the hands of those who can actually use it.

Better targeting through increasingly sophisticated CRM systems and processes is a start. But there is no better way to realize value from the firm’s knowledge capital than by speaking in real time with clients about these issues after reaching out directly to the most relevant clients. Not covering this ‘Last Mile’ through specific client outreach efforts leaves too much potential value unrealized.” A high performing client team represents “The Last Mile” in such that it acts as a vehicle to deliver all relevant firm content and invitations, ideally with a personalized note from the best relationship source, directly into the client’s hands (or inbox).

Jim Durham, Chief Client Service Officer at Shipman & Goodwin, provides support for “The Last Mile” theory stating, “We started forming client teams at one of my prior firms in 2005. We had about six teams then, but I am told the firm now has ten times that number because the concept yields such good results. In my current firm, we are seeing a much higher level of communication with the client and among the lawyers, enhancing our ability to get new work. It was certainly easier to switch into crisis mode for the engaged client teams, and in each case we have seen an uptick in work, which included placing a secondee with the client. We even partnered with one of the clients to promote its generous manufacturing shift to making Personal Protective Equipment for hospitals.”

To stress the fact that it takes more than just a ‘client team’ that goes through the motions to get results, but rather requires a highly performing client team, Jim added, “Over my 25 years in this business, I have seen a number of teams that couldn’t get engaged or were not as active, and for them there is definitely less ‘wow.’”

Eric Barnum, a partner at BakerHostetler and a relationship leader of a highly functioning client team within the firm, agrees, “During the pandemic things got really busy (with the client), the work did not dry up and a pretty big project came in.” He further stated, “The client team helped because we have many toeholds with the client in many places. We were performing well as a team and when COVID-19 came up they felt comfortable coming to us.”

Stephanie Sherman, Director of Client Relations at Kilpatrick Townsend, shared the firm's experience during the pandemic, “Our team structure had already laid the foundation knowing their [the client’s] business, industry, their corporate structure, and internal politics, and because of this we were in a position to help them with any additional support needed during the crisis. Since our teams had communication lines well-established with clients in the team program, it was easier and more authentic to reach out and ask, ‘how can we help?’ This was not a pitch; we were just calling to see how they were doing. With our client teams, we were able to mobilize our people so much faster than the non-team clients. Based on their strong relationships and understanding of the clients’ business, the teams were also able to quickly identify opportunities and were well-positioned to add value and build on the firm’s role as a trusted advisor to their clients, particularly those experiencing reductions, hiring freezes and inability to hire full time positions, and the need to shift legal spend to more cost effective arrangements and/or providers. We were serving these clients in multiple areas of law and I don’t think we would have gotten much of that work without a highly functioning client team having already been in place.”

In times of crisis, work tends to go to [the] top two or three firms...

It is generally accepted that even when companies use dozens of law firms for outside counsel, two or three of those firms get most of the work – perhaps 80% or more of the legal spend. In times of crisis, work tends to go to these top two or three firms. “These were new times and the client was not looking for new law firms or ones with minimal connection to help them during the pandemic,” commented Barnum. “We would not have been successful during the quarantine period had we only had one practice team servicing them,” Sherman added.

Client team programs, while providing an ROI on their own, also provide a window into other client and prospective client needs.

David Byrne, Global Director of Client Teams and Market Strategy at Mayer Brown, shared that one requisite of admittance is that the “client needs to be global to be a part of the client team program,” and the teams were successful because “we know the client’s business intrinsically.”

The Mayer Brown client team program served as a listening platform for the firm and Byrne states that, “people from various offices around the world contributed and gave a global picture of the types of questions clients were asking.” Based on the feedback from the client team program, Mayer Brown had a better understanding of all client and prospective client needs which fueled their topics for their 100 partner COVID-19 team and Resource Center.

Sherman added, “Best practices come from our client team program which we are then able to turn around and apply to other firm clients.”

At one of my previous law firms, most of our client service interviews were administered through the client team program. When we looked at the feedback in aggregate, we had a better and more honest picture of what our clients view as the firm’s strengths and weaknesses than we would have if the feedback had been sought in a silo.

In times of crisis, companies tend to look to their most trusted advisors for help and the pool of those advisors is not very large. Building an effective client team program around your biggest and best clients not only helps you advance the relationship but, as Durham added, “(it’s) not just about revenue strategy. It’s also about protecting what you have.”

In addition to our current pandemic, other external threats exist such as non-law firm competitors including the Big Four, commoditization of an increasing number of areas of law, and general counsels demanding greater value and collaboration from their law firms.

Southern believes that high-functioning client teams are the best defense against this complete array of threats. “The closer we can get to our clients, consistently confirming and expanding our understanding of what they need, the better positioned we will be to meet their needs better than anybody else.”

A high-performing client team program will not only help you travel “The Last Mile,” but will also serve as the proper treatment – even if a vaccine is still not yet in sight.


Jon Mattson is the Chief Strategy Officer and a consultant at Society 54. He has over 25 years of business development and marketing experience in helping professional service companies create, embrace, and execute strategies to grow revenue. A passionate leader and coach with client service (timekeeper) experience, he specializes at helping firms transition from engaging in mostly marketing/eminence ("creating awareness") activities to business development ("creating relationships") activities. www.society54.com