By John Cunningham
If you perform a marketing and business development function for a law firm, you probably preach to lawyers all the time: “Know your client and understand their business.”
But how much time do you spend getting to know your own key clients in the law firm – how well do you really know the managing partners and practice group leaders? And how well do you understand their legal practice business? Before you self-diagnose, do what you would advise your lawyers to do. Ask those you serve to tell you where you can improve, and especially ask for the single biggest thing they would like from you.
Based on my own interviews of managing partners and group leaders, I believe that most of them are in agreement about the single biggest thing they lack from their own marketing and business development groups. The general refrain goes something like this: “They need to do better at understanding our business and understanding us.”
Sounds ironic, does it not? But I am pretty sure the answer points to where the marketing and business development pros in law firms have their greatest opportunity to improve internal satisfaction scores.
Of course, not every managing partner or group leader wants the exact same things from you, but there are certain themes that are common to all of your internal clients who want you to know them and their legal business a little better. Here are seven themes to consider:
- You should understand the language of lawyers. This does not mean that you have to be a lawyer, and it does not mean you have to talk like one. But after a certain amount of time, lawyers expect you to understand what they are saying when they talk about loan syndications, irrevocable trusts, summary judgments, opinions of counsel, or legal misclassification of employees. If you show no interest in all this “jargon” you are showing no interest in their business or the legal products they have to sell. Lawyers don’t want to have to stop and explain concepts over and over again, and they do want to know that you “get it.” If your eyes glaze over when they talk law, they know you don’t get it.
- You should understand how the lawyers make money. Of course, everyone knows that lawyers make money by billing for their time or their legal products. But lawyers want their in-house pros to know much more than that. Some lawyers make money by registering or challenging patents or trademarks, some make money by drawing estate plans that feature trusts to preserve and protect wealth in multiple ways, and some help companies get access to capital with the least possible risk and fewest complications. Whatever they do, lawyers – as your clients – like to know that you take an interest in their work and have a growing understanding about it over time that is much more than superficial.
- You should understand enough about “the law business” to understand the legal products your firm is selling. As one partner said to me once, “We’re not making widgets here – our business is a little more complicated.” So it helps if you can garner some understanding about legal products, such as private offering memoranda, securities registration statements, spendthrift trusts, summary plan descriptions and other high-end important products. You don’t have to become an expert – just show an interest and learn as much as you can over time (which will also make you more marketable to other professionals who deal in these legal instruments and products as well).
- You should understand the numbers. When I became an in-house general counsel, I quickly learned what the C-suite and the board of directors spent most of their time considering. It was the financial analysis of the business, often gleaned from income statements, profit and loss statements, cash flow analyses, and unit performance measures. So I made it a point to understand these financial documents, and I eventually turned the legal function from a cost center to profit center. Believe me it pays to understand how your role fits into the larger financial plan and how you can have an impact by solving problems or seizing opportunities for your firm. It also helps if you can start thinking of ways to quantify return on investment and improvements in revenue generated from your activities.
- You should understand the pain points and pressures affecting your lawyers. Just as LSSO general counsel panelists tell us repeatedly how important it is for legal service providers to know the challenges that clients are facing every day, lawyers in private practice want to be understood as well. Lawyers often have to satisfy not just clients, but government regulators, judges, powerful strategic partners and other parties who don’t always see eye-to-eye. They often have to rearrange their lives to meet urgent and rapidly changing deadlines and demands caused by lawsuits, judge’s orders, regulatory Leviathans and clients who live or die by being first to market and best in show. If you understand these pressures, you are more likely to ask for things at the right times and in the right ways, and you are more likely to offer “extra” assistance when critically needed and most appreciated.
- You should understand how your lawyers get business and from whom they get it. This seems like it should not be a problem for marketers, but practicing lawyers often express the belief that marketers don’t understand the importance of referrals from other lawyers. Because most of their new business has always come from referrals (or they at least believe that to be true) practicing lawyers want marketers to help them grow their referral networks and get more referrals. Of course, marketing and business development pros know how to reach out to clients and prospects directly, and tend to emphasize that approach. But it can help to work on all angles, including the one in which the internal client already has faith. It also helps to know which prospects are the best fits for your firm’s lawyers and are most likely to buy the particular legal products the firm sells. If the firm specializes in serving small-cap to mid-market clients in merger deals, the lawyers may consider introductions to Fortune 100 clients to be rather useless, however flashy they might be.
- You should understand each lawyer’s service preferences. This sort of relates to the importance of knowing your internal client’s pain points, but it is a little more than that. It is all about knowing them individually. Just as general counsel panelists tell us that they like things their own way, so do your firm’s lawyers. Some people prefer to get emails instead of calls. Some prefer in-person dialogue. Some want everything on one page, but many lawyers are detail-oriented and want to see the homework of how you reached conclusions. Some people like early morning conversations before the “rush” begins and others prefer to talk late after all the fires have been put out. It is up to you to figure out which animal you are serving, but I can tell you this about lawyers. They ALL want to see you make every effort possible to find the answers without running to them every time you have a question. The reason they turn over an assignment to you is that they have confidence that you will find the answers to questions in whatever way you have to do so (research, calling friends and experts, or checking with the information sciences and knowledge management experts in your own firm).
If you can invest a little more time each month in learning more about your firm’s legal business and about the individuals you are serving, I have no doubt that you will reap great rewards for doing so.
About the Author
For those who might want a little help understanding quirky lawyers and their arcane legal products, John Cunningham is happy to answer your questions. John is a former Vice President and General Counsel for a publicly traded company who now spends most of his time studying and writing about legal practice and legal services marketing. He can be reached via C3Cunningham@gmail.com. See also: https://johnocunningham.wordpress.com/about/