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This is the unfolding story, in diary form, of a completely different law firm client team, one that we’re betting is unlike any other you’ve experienced or heard about.

This is about the second iteration of a bold, ambitious experiment in which a firm commits to disruptive innovation as the means of elating their client “via strategic intent,” as the VP Legal at the client in the initial team describes the process. For this second team, we’ll update you in real time, as events occur. In some ways, it’s a little like a reality show on TV (but without the self-aggrandizing idiots).

Follow along as the team progresses from birth through many phases of development, its challenges, struggles, successes, breakthroughs, and frustrations. We invite you to comment, offer suggestions, learn, celebrate, and commiserate while the team does. We can’t identify the firm or the client, and we’ll avoid characterizations that might enable you to discern identities, but otherwise we’ll tell the story in detail.

Genesis

The team’s origins trace to a series of coaching calls I had with two partners responsible for the firm’s relationship with a large consumer products company. We prepared for a client visit, during which they’d meet with about a dozen principals. Our strategy was simple: Avoid the pitching behaviors that clients hate, and instead seek to earn Relevance by engaging in conversations that would help us understand each stakeholder’s context, challenges and success definition.

During our post-visit debriefing, it became clear to the two partners and me that there was a huge opportunity to grow this client in many ways. There was just one problem: It was far too big a task for two lawyers to tackle. I told them, “You need help. You’ve got to get many more hands on the oars, or you simply can’t do this.”

The Problem with Client Teams

Typical law firm client teams too often achieve very little relative to their nominal manpower. Too many consist of conscripts and hangers-on, with no clear purpose, direction or role clarity. The team exists because it exists. Team members are on the team because they’re on the team. Nobody knows what they’re doing, and so they all wait around for Mom or Dad (usually the senior relationship partner) to dole out assignments.

As Daniel Pink pointed out in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” his excellent book about “Motivation 3.0,” humans are hard-wired with three powerful needs:

As typically set up, client teams satisfy none of these needs. The senior people tell everyone else what to do and how to do it, reducing them to task-implementing robots. Nobody develops new knowledge, skill or capability. The purpose of the team is usually something fuzzy like “strengthen the client relationship.” Now, that’s inspiring, indeed.

The Solution: A Radical Approach

By breaking all the law firm rules, this client team process delivers on all three of these core human needs.

  • Because the team is self-directed and self-organizing, it offers almost absolute autonomy.
  • Since everyone starts at the same level of ignorance re: the team process, there’re plenty of mistakes to make and lessons to learn en route to mastery.
  • By establishing a truly audacious and noble mission, the effort and meaning are both larger than any member’s role or scope.

To be effective and purposeful, the team requires goal clarity and role clarity. Its purpose is threefold:

  • Dazzle the client by creating and honoring service standards that stimulate passion and loyalty
  • Create success for all stakeholders inside the client, derivatively creating success for the firm
  • Prepare for evolving futures, both the client’s and the firm’s 

Foundation

We beta-tested this process with a 200-lawyer firm and an energy client throughout 2008, a difficult period since the severe economic downturn that later became known as Great Recession had begun in December, 2007. Like most corporate clients, this energy company had declared a flat legal budget for 2008.

The process was neither pretty nor smooth. In fact, it was described as “chaotic, messy, loud, frustrating and, at times, contentious.” Such are the symptoms of major growing pains.

Law Firm Results

Despite all that, at the end of the year, the first client team reported dramatic results:

  • Accomplished each of the team members’ individual goals
  • Penetrated two new classes of legal work
  • 35% year-to-year revenue increase
  • Broke the Legal Dept’s longstanding chokehold on access by outside firms, earning the right to speak with any executive in the company
  • From August onward, the team took over the process completely and I stepped away; there was no umbilical chord to an outside consultant

Client Results

According the company’s VP, Legal:

  • Legal services delivered far more efficiently; greater bang for the buck
  • Outside legal advisors more attuned to company’s needs/business
  • Less time spent bringing people up to speed, explaining context
  • Outside lawyers better able to anticipate need vs. merely react to requests
  • Higher confidence re: quality of advice company gets
  • Outside lawyers’ greater eagerness to serve; “effort bigger than themselves.”
  • More frequent, meaningful conversation between relationship partner & VP Legal re: what was going on
  • Greater transparency = less guessing, wasted time; greater awareness of mutual needs, less re-work
  • Firm has better sense of culture & requirements when selecting lawyers to serve client; able to filter choices re: personality, style & skill
  • Adds to stature of Law Dept when outside counsel participates in meeting with execs and is “in the know” about what’s going on; inside execs’ time used more effectively
  • “What you focus on gets stronger.”
  • Allowed VP Legal to identify a unique value-add for Law Dept & company; stakeholders saw a difference
  • Firm stature remains enhanced years later.
So few firms have mastered a quality client service team that manifests some improvement to the client that merely by doing it you’ll differentiate yourself. Typical service is so bad that the mere act of doing it will wow a client and say ‘these people care.’ Nobody is doing it. I have 105 law firms in the stable, including some of the best firms in the US; they’re all doing same thing. Nobody is thinking about our business.
— VP Legal, Fortune 500 Energy Co.

Mike O'Horo

To learn more about how this process can transform your client relationships, develop your people, and delight your clients, call or send me an email.