I suspect I have listened to and/or facilitated over 50 client panels in the last fifteen years. While some of the themes have evolved over the years, it always surprises me how consistent the messages are no matter the industry, age/background of the in-house counsel or size of the company. Given my extensive exposure to the voice of the client, I often feel as though I could finish their sentences.
Most client panels focus on client service—or lack thereof. It is difficult to avoid getting discouraged when clients are asking for the same things they have been missing for almost two decades. Clearly, there is a disconnect between information and action. However, last week we had the pleasure of listening to a client panel as part of a business development training, and the questions and feedback were refreshingly specific and clear. There wasn’t anything new per se, but the responses were an excellent reminder that “smart gets you in the door, but how you manage the relationship and treat others is what keeps you inside.”
I’m sharing the first five tips gleaned from the panel this week and will share the rest next week:
- Every lawyer can improve his/her skills around quick answers, proactive advice and clarity of final recipient. In-house counsel are smart, sophisticated and often as experienced as the law firm team. If they are asking you a question, they typically have someone in the C-suite or business unit demanding an immediate answer. Tailor your response time, advice, proactive outreach and final product to the needs of the project. If you are unclear of the answers to those questions, ask every time.
- Knowing the business, culture and industry are important and make you a better partner. Understanding how the internal team communicates (bullet points vs. executive summaries, phone vs. email, meetings vs. presentations, etc.), the culture of the organization and the ins and outs of the business and industry are highly valued by in-house counsel. They expect you to make personal investments of your time and on your dime to learn these aspects of the business.
- Face time is valued and not requested enough. Every panel or in-house lawyer talks about being busy, overwhelmed or not having enough hours in the day to get to the things they need to do, but in the same breath they talk about the importance of face time with the lawyers they have working on files. They don’t need to be entertained but want outside counsel coming to their offices to get to know their teams, learn their business and culture, build relationships and deepen trust.
- Clients are reasonable. Deadlines are real. 95% of in-house lawyers understand the difficult pressures and speed at which they are asking you to operate. They are under similar pressures and deadlines. They try to be reasonable and realistic with deadlines and not ask for projects at the last minute unless necessary. But when they are clear with a deadline, it is real and there are major repercussions to missing the deadline—for them and your relationship. If you cannot meet a deadline, notify them as early as possible and ensure it doesn’t happen going forward.
- Added value is defined differently by everyone but highly important in today’s market. When asked how lawyers and law firms can add value beyond the legal bill, the answers range from proactive advice and outreach to making the clients look good to helping them see around the corner. Clients appreciate introductions, both to potential customers and individuals who are facing similar issues. They appreciate when you notify them about an issue before they realize it will be a problem. Education, trainings and CLE are appreciated, but helping them do their job more efficiently or accomplish a project that has lingered really make an impact. If you do not know how to add value to your client, please ask them. They will not struggle to come up with a response.