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Somehow, it continues to be news that companies want -- and are beginning to require -- their outside law firms to understand their industry, business, products, and the overall context within which legal advice is formulated and rendered.

An Inside Counsel magazine article, Growing and Maintaining Client Relationships: Aligning Business Understanding with Client Expectations, quotes a number of corporate counsel, who say, in essence, what the GC of a technology company said:

"If you don't understand our legal needs in the context of our business and our industry, you will never have as much value to me as someone who does understand."

The surprising quote, though, came from the managing partner of an unidentified 750-lawyer firm:

"A strong business understanding is essential to maintaining and growing client relationships, especially for succession planning. It takes years, 10 or so, to prepare for the next generation to take over a client. This is true primarily because knowing the client's business, their appetite for risk, how an issue is going to impact their business, etc., is critical to building loyal relationships."

Ten years? Seriously?

Ten years to understand the client's business well enough to know how a legal issue will impact the business? What client will wait that long for anyone, much less a would-be account-leadership successor, to demonstrate relevance and grasp of the business? No business is that complicated.

It takes 10 years only if your overall business acumen and awareness is currently nil, and your learning is limited to what gets accidentally revealed while discussing legal work with clients.

If a senior lawyer commits to become an industry expert, reads industry publications and blogs, attends conferences (or merely reads conference agendas and programming), she should be able to initiate relevant business-issue discussions within 10 hours, and achieve an acceptable level of business relevance in 10 weeks, not 10 years.

How am I so sure of that?

Because a client team heavily populated by very junior lawyers (1-3 years) achieved a high level of relevance and engagement in about six months -- and they continue to sustain it.

They not only did a masterful job of industry-monitoring and issue-spotting, but they also successfully discussed such issues with senior executives at their firm's largest client, and got those executives to refer them to other executives for informed comment.

So, while this managing partner patiently waits 10 years for his troops to learn enough about the client’s business to be considered relevant, and welcome in discussions about emerging issues, other firms will be eating his lunch and encroaching within his clients long before that.

Mike O’Horo

Here are three posts about the criticality of being relevant to clients and prospects:

Make business development simple: focus on relevance

Coda to "Make business development simple: focus on relevance"

Relevance isn't a team jersey, to be donned and doffed