A Guide to Creating Meaningful Client Teams

by Joel A. Rose

In the past few years, many law firms have launched initiatives to form client teams. For a number of compelling reasons, law firms are reaching the conclusion that these teams make sense for both the client and the firm.

Client teams can help gain an in-depth knowledge of the client and their industry in order to help the client achieve their business objectives. They enable the firm to provide coordinated and integrated advice. They provide a portal into the firm for a speedy response when client needs arise.

Teams offer the client enough depth and breadth to serve all of their needs without having to constantly retrain outside lawyers about the business. They allow for the planning of the eventual succession of the client relationship from one relationship partner to another.

With a client team in place, the client is given the appropriate accessibility and availability of resources as soon as those resources are needed. They help the client achieve their goal of cost-effective legal services. They also help the firm build client loyalty and extend their relationships with existing clients.

Unfortunately, a number of law firms do not handle the implementation of these teams particularly well. When an implementation gets bungled, lawyers, clients, professional staff and firm management become disenchanted with the entire concept. They then often decide that client teams don’t actually make sense, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.

Implementing the Team Building Process

At a basic level, the implementation of client teams can easily miss its mark. In these instances, rather than reaping the benefits of client teams, everyone involved is left with the general feeling that the client team is little more than a lot of meetings and a bunch of meaningless projects. In order to avoid such problems, it is important to consider a number of practical steps at the beginning of the team’s formation. These will help make the team’s existence more meaningful for both the client and the firm.

1.  Begin with an audit of the client relationship. An audit usually takes the form of an in-person client interview coupled with desk research. For example, look at the client from all angles, including their media accounts, available financial information and data within your own financial and client management systems.

2.  Carefully determine team members. Each team member should add value to the team and to the client in some manner. You might consider a core client team — who performs the work and manages the relationship — and a larger team that meets periodically to share information and is more for marketing purposes. The size and nature of legal work to be performed for the client will determine the size of the team. Many firms reported having  client teams  with four to 12 members as the most effective size to be productive.

Be certain to clarify the roles of the team members and leader, especially for the core members. Also, you might need to periodically tweak the team’s membership to assure the client is always getting the right mix of lawyers.

 3.  Develop an action-oriented client plan. This plan should include items relating to providing exceptional service to the client to increase satisfaction and loyalty, as well as actions to expand and/or leverage the relationship. Each aspect of the plan should lead to specific actions. Set specific goals and monitor progress. Within the action plan, set specific goals for the team and for the relationship with the client, including consideration of resources needed to achieve the goals, time frame to achieve the goals and how you will measure and monitor success.

4.   Hold regular face-to-face reviews with the client. Meet with the client on a regular basis — off the meter — to gain their feedback in a number of areas, including an update of their business objectives and the trends impacting their company or industry; feedback on satisfaction and the team performing the services; opinions and impressions about the firm and its competitors; and assessment of opportunities to provide additional value to the client.

5.   Collect, compile and share knowledge about the client. This includes the client’s company as well as their industry. Consider compiling client dossiers and reviewing daily or weekly news feeds.

6.   Offer value-added services to the client. Consider ways to offer educational programs, CLE programs, training, publications and other complimentary services to enhance the client’s perception of the value they receive from the firm.

7.   Become involved in the client’s industry. If the client is strategically significant to the firm, then at least some team members should find ways to become involved in the client’s industry, such as participating in trade groups, giving speeches at conferences or writing articles for publications.

8.   Debrief regularly. To tap into the creativity and innovation that are the hallmarks of a high-functioning team, have regular sessions within the group to discuss how substantive work was (or will be) performed; how client service was (or will be) delivered; how marketing pitches went; upcoming opportunities, etc. When considering ways to expand the client relationship, focus on a limited number of areas that would truly provide additional value to the client — don’t try to offer every service the firm provides.

9.   Assess the constituents within the client. Know who is in the client’s organization, the role they play and the chain of command. Use this information to plan for broadening the points of contact between the team and the client.

10. Entertain the client. But do so according to their preferences for frequency and type of activities.

11. Keep the rest of the firm informed. Let others in the firm know about the client, so opportunities are uncovered for the client to interact with others in the firm.

12. Share knowledge. Use a knowledge-management system to warehouse information about the client, such as the history of the work and matters, organization charts, client service preferences, etc. Even if you don’t have sophisticated technology available, develop some sort of easily accessed system, such as spreadsheets, folders in your document management system, etc.

13. Plan for succession. Have a succession plan for the client relationship from the start. This will prepare the team for any eventuality.

14. Regularly train team members. To enable the team to progress and consistently meet — and exceed — the client’s needs, they should receive regular training in things such as substantive skills, client service delivery, marketing skills and group dynamics.

15. Budget carefully. Set, monitor and implement budgets for the client’s work, since this is becoming increasingly important as legal services continue to rise in cost and sophistication.

16. Educate the client. Develop programs and presentations to continuously educate the client about the firm.

17. Watch the team’s dynamics. At an advanced level, many firms are only paying attention to the practical and substantive tasks of servicing or marketing to existing clients — not to the team’s functioning as a group. It’s critical to learn about and work to improve the team’s dynamics, lest the members become distracted by underlying concerns such as giving up autonomy and control. The team should understand that they will naturally move through a progression of stages of development. They also need to understand these stages as well as how to respond to the issues that arise, including conflict, lack of trust, leader dependence and inclusion issues, to name a few.

Clearly, there is more to ensuring the success of a client team than placing a series of meetings on the calendar. When handled poorly, client teams that are not integrated and coordinated can actually hurt the relationship with the client. When clients perceive that they are not getting seamless service, they are reluctant to use the firm beyond whatever the main relationship partner can provide. On the other hand, when handled well, client teams can be an essential level of management within a law firm, allowing a firm to manage and leverage its most critical asset — its client base.

Managing partners and heads of marketing committees who have taken their firms down the value-added marketing path agree that if properly conceived and implemented with care, this new marketing concept will be beneficial for the firm's clients and will increase the synergism among and between attorneys practicing in the same and different specialty areas. Clients will take note of the changes in the attitudes of the attorneys toward helping them.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates