In our recent webinar, HighQ's Ryan McClead, Ben Wightwick and Stuart Barr, along with Ron Friedmann of Fireman & Company and Prism Legal, discussed what constitutes a smart law firm.

They identified culture, clients, intelligent use of technology and process as the aspects of SmartLaw - a firm that remains competitive and can keep up with the legal market and changes that face the legal industry in the next 50-100 years.

The panel agreed that culture is at the centre of everything. This is because without the right culture in a firm, it is tough to get buy in for new technology, it’s difficult to get everyone working in a smart way, and it’s hard to become a client-focussed firm.

Firms must have a client focus to stay competitive

Up until very recently, a law firm’s relationship with its clients has been based on one-off transactions. A client comes to the firm for a service and the firm provides that service for a fee, usually billed by the hour.

Today, clients have come to expect a more consultative, almost partnership-like arrangement with the law firms they engage with. It’s no longer enough for firms to provide a one-off service that simply answers a client’s question.

Instead, clients are seeking to establish long-term relationships with the firms they employ. Firms must be empathetic to the needs of the client, fully understanding their unique needs and challenges so they can provide clients with a rounded service that meets their needs.

Client engagement is key to this. Firms must listen to, and fully understand, the needs of their clients. They must communicate with clients regularly and transparently, and shift culture from being revenue-focussed to client-focussed.

It's a matter of survival

Making this transformation to becoming a firm with a culture of client engagement is crucial to the survival of law firms. It’s imperative that firms do that because they’ve got to be agile, productive, efficient and change the way they practice.

Client pressure is already driving change in the legal market, having an effect on many firms and the way they deliver services and how they approach work through fixed fee deals and alternative fee arrangements, forcing firms to react and adapt to market pressure.

Make the most of your knowledge and content

In order for firms to remain competitive, firms must offer added-value consultative services that clients are used to receiving from other professional services providers.

Rather than searching for firms each time they require legal service, businesses see it as far more efficient to engage with one firm (or a handful of firms), who they can turn to when they require legal advice or services.

There are more benefits to clients here too. It’s not just a matter of convenience of not having to tender a series of firms each time they require legal service. It means that they gain access to the expertise and knowledge of the law firm when they need it.

Law firms have the advantage of having huge volumes of content and institutional knowledge at their disposal. They can maximise the use of this expertise by offering it to clients through the creation of online services and products as part of the added-value service.

These digital products provide clients access to this information 24/7. They help the client keep abreast of legal changes and challenges that may affect their business, and helps them to stay one step ahead.

This combined with a personal relationship with lawyers who can act as advisors rather than problem solvers, solidifies the firm/client relationship, and will help law firms to keep clients loyal and helps to guarantee long term revenue.

Look beyond the lawyer for client services

Today’s clients are looking for better value for money when it comes to legal services. This means delivering service that goes beyond problem solving and one-off transactions, but an on-going relationship with access to expertise from across the firm, not just lawyers.

Delivering legal services isn’t just about providing clients with access to a lawyer anymore. Clients are looking more rounded advice, not just from lawyers but from the business side too, including knowledge workers and IT teams.

Until recently, it was unheard of for anyone other than lawyers to interact directly with clients. This is beginning to change now, with business-side professionals being invited into client meetings.

Increasingly, individuals from pricing, technology and knowledge teams are directly interacting with clients. This starting to be expected by clients who understand that the delivery of the service they want takes more than just the lawyers.

On a firm level, instilling a culture of client engagement is about changing your approach to how you deliver services. Firms should take a client centric approach to everything that they do, the way they work, and the way they deliver information to clients.

Increasing transparency about what you’re doing and how you’re working for that client is key, and will come from changing cultural mindset from thinking of the firm as an outlying service provider, to an integral part of each of your clients' teams.

Chances are, unless you’re a senior partner, you as an individual employee don’t have the power to change the culture of your firm. But there are things you can do to influence change towards a culture of client engagement.

On a personal basis, the way you work and interact with your clients is something you can start doing today. Start a dialogue, start engaging with the rest of the firm about how it’s engaging with clients and start asking questions of senior partners and senior managers.

Have those conversations with clients as well. Ask questions: What do they really want? What’s most important to them? Spend time understanding their business and start scoping matters and trying to lift the budgets.

Influence those around you to work in a client-focussed way. Advocate for more transparency with clients firm-wide. Look to implement client engagement software.

Ultimately, cultural change can only come from the top. But that doesn't have to stop individuals from leading the way and making cultural changes on a smaller scale that will positively impact the client experience.