In a previous post, SmartLaw: The firm of the future, all successful law firms will claim, and rightly so, that their close client relationships, wrapped around talented people, market insight and deep firm-wide experience, are the foundations of their success. We have heard a lot about client-focus over recent years, but is that really enough to ensure law firms are well-placed to meet the fast-changing demands of their clients?  Perhaps today, more than ever, law firms can learn from the consumer world—by evolving their very DNA to become obsessed about their clients. For some, this will require organization changes, new client management strategies, new skillsets, new technologies, and for many … a new client conversation and partnering culture.

Client obsession as a competitive advantage

Obsessing about your clients 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 under more pressure than ever to demonstrate better value to their clients.

In-house legal departments are changing fast, and perhaps the rate of change is knocking some firms off balance. They’re more willing to shape their legal service needs around a pick-and-mix approach by bringing more work in-house and supplementing their workforce with technology and in-sourced lawyers. And they’re quite prepared to disaggregate the legal work in the most cost-effective manner, by the most efficient provider available.

Whereas, previously, outside counsel would have received most of the legal work for a particular matter, today the client may lean on technology for a first-pass contract review, send due diligence to an LPO, perform more work with their internal or contract lawyers, and send a small fraction to outside counsel to advise.  

From a client’s perspective, work done in-house is FREE, in the same way that 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 sustain a future business model.

To compete in this fragmented landscape, law firms have to double-down on their client management strategies, and become obsessed. 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 very much like this, for entirely different reasons. They call it secondment.

A 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-obsessed firm that clients will always value.