Last month, I spent two days with my dear friend Sanju Kripalani at Wicker Park Group’s annual client event. Sanju has one of those careers that very well may be unique to him: pedigreed education, New York law firm, Portland partner, DJ, marketing partner, patron of the arts, club owner, general counsel, yachtsman and now, Director of Business Development at Lane Powell.
Needless to say, he brings a point of view and critical eye to the law firm-client relationship that is equally unique. In framing the challenges, Kripalani says law firm leaders face the Bermuda Triangle of problems:
- Slow growth
- Anti-nimble decision-making structure
- Demand for change
In his firm, each of these challenges has a specific meaning. For the 80-plus firms we have worked with in the last eight years, every one of our clients are addressing these same challenges and are all often stuck for the same reason: Consensus Terrorism.
I often say law firms are the only businesses in the world that have the chronic bad habit of sitting around talking about what the clients should be doing for them (to achieve their economic goals). Put another way, law firms expect to make more money every year regardless of what happens to their clients (thanks to a brilliant law firm leader for that one).
At law firms, practically everyone is involved in decisions and leadership. The core function Kripalani identifies for himself in his current role (having been on every side of the lawyer-client relationship) is essential for the future survival of his client, the firm. He has to force leadership to answer the questions based on the client’s needs.
Call it Client Service, Business Development, the Client Experience or anything else, but someone must play the role of holding leadership and all lawyers accountable for listening to the clients’ needs and acting on those needs.
As leadership debates rage on, they become the proverbial recipe for disaster. The topics include: competition, slowing litigation, realization challenges, other firms offering fee arrangements that can’t be profitable, the lack of knowledge of core client needs going forward and the lack of a strategy to protect those relationships.
Without the voice of the client—without asking fundamental questions about what the clients need going forward and how firms can put the clients’ needs first—the debate will be endless, the culture of consensus terrorism will prevail and firms won’t be able to smartly respond to the three core challenges of growth, anti-nimble decision making and the client’s demand for change.
So it starts with the fundamental questions asked to an individual: How can we make your life easier? What are your challenges going to be during the next 12 months?
Or as Kripalani puts it, act like businesses that are built for growth: venture capitalists. The VCs start with a list of questions/categories written on a white board. One you start having honest discussions around those questions, you gain an understanding of how the firm can serve its clients’ needs. When those questions are answered and the firm can respond, the business flows. And the debate ends.