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What Not To Do When A Client Retires (or is fired)

Having worked with countless law firms, one thing stands out more profoundly than almost anything else: Law firms hate change. They dread economic change, structural change, organizational change and—perhaps above all others—changes with clients.

One of the most difficult client changes is a client’s retirement or, even worse, a client being fired. When I ask relationship partners what they know about their clients’ future plans, they mostly say, “She might be approaching retirement” or “If the merger goes through, I don’t know what they will do with the in-house counsel” or “I’ve never asked what their plans are.”

Every firm partner should know exactly what each valued clients’ plans are for the future, particularly when retirement is obvious or two companies are merging (there will always be a loser).

While a firm’s strategy for what to do after change will depend on the situation, there is a critical list of what not to do when a client is fired, retires or simply moves on:

  • Never assume the successor has the same interests, tastes or styles as the predecessor.
  • Never think that you should wait until the new client is “settled” before reaching out.
  • Never assume that the firm’s reputation with the client extends beyond that recently departed client (invest in knowing the internal client early and often).
  • Never ignore the recently departed client. Help that person grow a network and offer resources until he or she lands the next gig.
  • Never wait to see what changes the successor has in store. New general counsel always have a favored way of working with outside counsel and pet initiatives (fee arrangements, etc.), and they both want and need to put a personal stamp on the legal department.

The bottom line: Be prepared for the unexpected. In-house counsel leave for myriad reasons, so it is essential to have deep relationships with not just the client contact but your client’s clients as well. 

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