A law firm leader recently asked me what it is that separates successful firms from the uber-successful, superstar firms – those that seem to grow exponentially, retain greater profits, and solidify decades-long large-scale client engagements. She asked what I see when I contrast the behaviour of those two types of firms.
The challenge is that it’s hard to define a singular characteristic that makes a difference; after all, each firm is unique, from its compensation system and leadership paradigm to its succession planning and culture. However, when I’ve consider those attributes, there is one commonality between those firms that consistently do well, year after year, regardless of the economy: a culture of collaboration.
This shows up in a variety of ways that other firms can model, especially as it relates to a firm’s client relationship management and business development efforts.
Partners collaborating on serving clients
Firms that take care of their clients by providing them with a range of cross-functional services in more than one practice area are likely to have stronger and more meaningful relationships with them. Firms supplying deeper and more varied value to their clients are more likely to do so because they have multiple personal connections at different levels of seniority within the client organisation, in comparison to the law firm that provides a more shallow service from just one lawyer or a single practice.
This paradigm of multiple inputs, up and down the firm’s hierarchy and between the law firm and the client’s organisation, is often referred to as the ‘zippering effect’. The zippering effect occurs when partners throughout the firm have relationships with various individuals within the client organisation. These relationships provide a strong glue in the client-attorney relationship. When a client is using a firm for more than one practice area, they are less likely to be viewed as an-easy-to-replace legal commodity. As Dr Heidi K. Gardner (author of Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos) has noted from the research for her book: ‘When it’s done right, cross-practice collaboration creates far stickier client relationships by creating barriers to switching. The skills of individual lawyers can be found elsewhere, but a cross-functional team is more valued and harder to replace.’
Partners collaborating on pitches
Firm leaders now understand that diversity, both in demographics and in perspective, is extremely helpful in problem solving. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in crafting approaches to new business. By bringing partners together to share information prior to pitches – whether it’s in thinking about possible approaches to resolving a case, or providing ideas and sharing contacts to get in the door – collaboration is at the centre of building a robust practice. The technology that is available to help firms market their practices is miraculous. It can save time, money, and aggravation for the firm, and can help everything from client intelligence, team building, and targeting new pieces of business. However, as amazing as these new tools are, a firm will never leverage them effectively unless the full partnership is involved. Whether it is building a CRM to gather the firm’s contacts or tracking experience, partners’ willingness to work together by providing information and data to help build and populate these tools can become a differentiator in how the firm operates as well as in how it develops business. By sharing and collaborating with one another, partners can take advantage of their cumulative knowledge and pursue opportunities with greater insight than they would on their own.
Collaboration is also beneficial when actually making the pitch. When two partners are in a pitch, it’s easier for one partner to present the capabilities of the other. Not many partners feel comfortable sitting with a potential client and telling them about their glories in the courtroom or how beloved they are by other firm clients. It can be awkward for them to state how illustrious their background is, and what results they have won for clients. However, most are comfortable speaking about their partner colleagues and speaking well of the other lawyers in the room. Having more than one partner in a pitch, enabling them to sell one another and be there to shine a light on the other’s talent, is a collaborative technique that literally ‘sells’.
Partners collaborating with marketing
Law firm marketing people are in a unique position within their organisations. They are often the fulcrum, tying together various cross-marketing programmes and tracking successes and failures within the firm’s practice areas. Members of the marketing staff have a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge in helping their lawyers to create individual, practice, and firmwide strategy. Not only can they suggest tactics to be employed by individual partners, they can supply connections to other partners at their firm who may be able to involve them in cross-selling opportunities. Those marketing folks are also more likely to remain longer at an institution where they feel valued for their work in a collaborative environment. Collaborating with marketing by including them in the initial discussions with partners surrounding strategy, lateral hiring, and growth – rather than bringing them in post-decision making – is the way to go.
By collaborating with their clients, fellow partners, and the firm’s marketing professionals, lawyers can take the steps towards building a more functional and stronger firm – one that will grow and secure long-lasting client relationships. It’s important for firm leaders to understand the importance of a collaborative culture and to take the steps necessary to incentivise partners to work together in establishing their own working model of successful – and collaborative – business development. n