As I said in my previous post, SmartLaw: The firm of the future, every firm claims to be client-focused - and they probably all believe they legitimately are. But "client focus" is more than a marketing buzzword, it means understanding your clients and their businesses.  

It means communicating transparently, at the level of the firm, practice group, and the lawyer. It means sharing data and information about matter status, task completion, budget to actual costs, and team communications.

Client focus as a competitive advantage

But client focus is not just a forward-thinking, hippy-dippy, progressive law firm move - it’s also about as conservative and defensive as you can get. Law firms today are not just competing with other firms and new types of legal services providers, but they also are in direct competition with their own clients.

In-house legal departments are growing at a faster rate than ever before. They’re bringing more work in-house and supplementing their workforce with technology and in-sourced lawyers. And they’re willing to disaggregate the work to be performed in the most cost-effective manner, by the most efficient provider available.

Whereas, once upon a time, outside counsel would have gotten most of the legal work for a particular matter, today the client may rely on technology for a first pass contract review, send due diligence to an LPO, perform all of the work they can with their internal or contract lawyers, and send a small fraction to outside counsel to advise. 

Firms can’t compete with technology, alternative providers, or especially their own clients on price. Technology and alternative providers are cheaper, with lower overhead, and good understanding of how to be profitable.

From a client’s perspective work done in-house is FREE, in the same way the firms think technology built by their IT teams is FREE. You can’t compete with FREE on price. Reputation and great lawyers might keep bet-the-company business coming a firm’s way, but unless your firm is the elite of the elite, that work is probably not sufficient to keep the firm profitable.

To be competitive with all of these alternatives, firms have to provide a better client experience. That means reducing general counsel’s complexity and friction. Making their lives easier. Giving them what they need, when they need it, in the form that best suits them. 

That requires real empathy and understanding of a client’s processes, culture, and difficulties. Designing tools, products, and processes that can solve general counsel’s problems so well that they are willing to pay a bit more for them, requires design thinking.

Design thinking and secondment

Margaret Hagan, Legal Designer Extraordinaire and leader of the Open Law Lab project, defines design thinking as “an approach to find creative, innovative solutions to wicked problems.”

There is much that firms can learn from Margaret, her project, and design thinking in general, but a key element to design is “getting out and spending time observing and living with users, not just reading about them, or doing quick surveys or consumer research.” The good news is that law firms have a long history of doing something like very much this, for entirely different reasons: they call it secondment. 

A smart firm could do a lot of good for themselves by giving a handful of associates a course or two in design thinking and then seconding them each to a key client to work for three or four months. Heck, go ahead and do this free of charge to your client. They’ll love the help, it will still strengthen the client relationship with the firm, and you’ll get some truly invaluable information.

When the design thinking associates all return from their various client sojourns, put them together on a project with a designer and a handful of legal engineers to begin to create new firm products, services, and processes based on everything they’ve learned.

Wash, rinse, repeat and in no time you’ll have a client-focused firm that clients will never want to leave.