Planning the Orderly Succession of Clients

by Joel A. Rose
 

David, Michelle and Harry established their 36-attorney AV-rated firm 32 years ago. David and Michelle, the principal rainmakers, established close personal and professional relationships with the CEOs and the principals of many of the firm's top revenue-producing clients. With the exception of a few other partners, most of the firm's attorney work on client files referred to them by David and Michelle.

Recently, the two senior partners announced their intentions to change their status. Michelle intends to withdraw from the firm to become a principal in a client real estate development firm. After celebrating his 67th birthday, David requested to be relieved of most of his administrative activities and to work only on selected matters for a few of his major clients. In light of the alternative career objectives of the senior partners, several mid-level and junior partners questioned the firm's ability to retain and service existing clients and to attract potential clients. The senior partners suggested that a consultant be retained to analyze the firm and recommend an action plan to enable the remaining partners to achieve their professional, economic and personal objectives.

It became apparent that certain changes were required in the following four areas: (1) the working relationship between the senior, mid-level and junior partners; (2) the partners' attitudes about devoting time to certain consequential, non-billable activities such as training and practice development; (3) the criteria affecting partner compensation and the administration of the compensation plan; and (4) the establishment of a marketing committee responsible for evaluating the firm's resources, recommending the expertise needed to service existing and potential clients, and overseeing the preparation of partners' personal marketing "game plans."

As an integral part of the firm's culture, reinforced by the partner compensation system, partners assigned to other attorney work on specific aspects of client files, rather than assign the entire matter, or the client, even when the attorneys were competent to perform and/or manage the entire file or client. The assigning partners conveyed to their clients the notion that they were responsible for the quality performance of the matter and that other attorneys working on the file were merely "assisting them."

The senior partners used those junior partners and senior associates capable of performing the work and whose hourly rates were lower than mid-level partners. The senior believed that by using attorneys with lower hourly rates, the client was being served, thereby reinforcing clients' desire to refer work to the firm.

Those mid-level partners who initiated their own client work followed a similar practice. Hence, with the exception of research and drafting or seeking assistance when conflicts arose, mid-level partners performed most of the work for clients they generated. This practice created "partner boutiques within the firm."

Clients' exposure to other partners was limited, resulting in a narrow perspective of the firm and its areas of expertise. Consequently, the executives of the senior partners' clients, who were comparable in age to the firm's mid-level partners, were working with older and younger partners and associates, rather than partners who were their peers, a situation that did not engender the orderly transfer of the senior partners' clients to mid-level partners.

The recommended action plan called for partners at all levels to distinguish between the performance of client relations and the performance of legal work. A partner was designated to manage/coordinate each of the firm's major practice areas and/or clients.

Also, where practical, the senior partners were to meet with their clients in order to identify a mid-level or junior partner to serve as their "alter ego" or liaison. With the approval of the client, each liaison attorney would perform as much legal work for that clients as they are competent to perform. Over a period of time the senior partner would attempt to transfer to the liaison partner primary responsibility for client relations.

Further, the concept of partner peer review was adopted to obtain clients' perceptions about those mid-level and junior partners with whom they have worked. Partners were invited to provide their perceptions of other partners' abilities as liaison attorneys to the senior partners.

To reinforce client relationships, mid-level and junior partners who were identified as liaison partners were instructed to obtain their clients' views regularly on both client relations and legal work performed during "client satisfaction conferences." Liaison partners would be evaluated on the basis of internal reviews as well as client input. Liaison partners who do not perform well would be replaced. Good performance as a liaison partner would be rewarded in compensation, just as an attorney would be rewarded for contributing significantly to the profitability and betterment of the firm.

The senior partners were expected to make those special efforts to introduce and cement that new liaison partner relationship with the assigned client, with both seeking to continue to do work for that client, and ultimately leaving to the client the choice of who will be the liaison partner. This process would be monitored by the executive committee, consisting of the senior and more influential mid-level partners.

For the senior partners to be willing to delegate more of their clients to the mid-level partners, they has to be confident that the latter would transfer more of their client work to junior partners. It was agreed that the senior and mid-level partners would meet regularly to identify which clients and work would be transferred "down" to the next level competent to perform that work and to those partners with whom clients would be compatible.

In conjunction with the transference of work to the level below, the question was raised about the amount of time the senior and mid-level partner would devote to train the liaison partners about their role in managing client relations, to raise the level of expertise of the junior partners to enable them to perform more sophisticated work, and devote more time to marketing activities (on a selective basis, in conjunction with personal marketing game plans) and make an adequate profit.

Partners understood that it would not be feasible to bill clients for all of the training time required to properly implement the above program. They recognized that training time has to be perceived as a firm investment and must be regarded as a cost of doing business in order for the younger partners and associates to become competent in the firm's substantive practice areas. Absent the partners' willingness to invest in this training time, the firm would be a "one-generation" firm.

Compensation System

The partners' compensation system, administered by a compensation committee, analyzed the objective and subjective contributions of each partner and recommended bonuses for the current year and percentages for the following year. The following criteria are considered by the committee for each partner: (1) business origination from existing and new clients for the last three years or longer; (2) hours billed; (3) fees collected; (4) write-downs, write-offs of work-in-process and receivables and costs advanced, write-ups of time and billings; (5) personal production; and (6) seniority.

To reinforce the importance of the transference of clients, it was recommended that the committee continue to determine partner compensation subjectively and that the following four criteria be added to the factors considered: (1) an assessment of the senior partners' transition of clients and client work to mid-level and junior partners; (2) an assessment of the mid-level partners' transition of clients and client work to junior partners and associates (when they possess the expertise to perform the work); (3) an assessment of the mid-level partners' training and development of the junior partners and associates; and (4) an assessment of the junior partners' personal and professional development.

The following statements were incorporated into the Partners' Understanding of Compensation Arrangements: For the continuity and betterment of the firm: (1) Mid-level partners are encouraged to, on an ongoing basis, consult, work together with and train all junior partners and associates and involve the junior partners and associates on the work of the clients of the mid-level partners to the extent necessary to cause, assist and enable the junior partners and associates to be able to satisfy such clients, that junior partners and associates are competent and able to perform the work of such clients and to represent such clients on significant matters, and (2) Senior partners are encouraged, for the benefit of all members of the firm, to consult and work together with the mid-level partners and the junior partners to agree upon and take steps reasonably deemed necessary by all such parties to retain clients of the senior partners as clients of the firm upon the cessation of the practice of law by the senior partners.

Existing Clients

The partners decided that the best method of marketing to existing clients was to ensure the performance of quality work in a timely and responsive manner and be sensitive of the client's legal and nonlegal needs.

Under the directions of the recommended marketing committee, designated partners were assigned responsibility for managing-coordinating each of the firm's major practice areas and key clients. Partners were instructed to ensure that their work product and/or general interaction with a client was tailored to satisfy the needs of that clients, as perceived by and in concert with the client, not exclusively by the attorney.

To accomplish this, wherever and whenever possible (and practical), liaison partners, assisted by other partners, were urged to befriend and establish a good rapport with clients. This can be done by engaging in social and business pleasantries (luncheons, entertainment, providing unsolicited information likely to be of interest to the client), calling periodically to inquire how the client is faring, visiting the client's place of business to better understand the business, etc.

Partners should also find practical and economic solutions to enable the clients to achieve their objectives. Clients should not be told that a desired course of action is inappropriate without suggesting alternative approaches, if at all possible. Providing clients with the tools to make a decision, without forcing the decision, is the best course of action.

It is important to meet deadlines and to identify the client's needs and interests beyond the scope of the current work. Partners should be sensitive to how the client is faring and explore the "bigger picture" to determine if other legal problems exist and how they may be resolved.

The client should be educated about the firm's capabilities. Partners received information about the expertise and accomplishments of other partners and were told to make certain their clients were aware of the full range of the firm's services. They were also encouraged to introduce other partners and associates to their clients at every opportunity and to inform clients of specific developments in the law of which they should be aware.

Partners were instructed to be sensitive to the position of the client's contact person. They can assist in advancing that individual's personal needs and goals to the extent such activities do not conflict with the client's representation. Partners can also assist on another in marketing existing and potential clients.

Potential Clients

Under the direction of the firm's marketing committee, strategies for attracting potential clients were developed. These strategies included continued individual initiative combined with a marketing team. Partners were encouraged to take the initiative, which included a team marketing effort. They were expected to identify and approach at least 10 potential clients each year.

On a team basis, two or more partners were responsible for identifying potential clients and enlisting appropriate partners and other referral sources to approach these clients. Whether proceeding individually or as members of a marketing team, recommendations were provided on how partners may identify potential new clients and determine the client's "decision-makers" who assign legal work to law firms or approve such referrals.

Partners should evaluate the legal and nonlegal needs and objectives of the potential client and the chief decision-makers. They should also evaluate the firm's ability to meet the needs of potential clients and identify the contacts that the partners, the firm's existing clients or other friendly third partners may have with the potential client and the chief decision-makers.

All available information about the potential client and the decision-makers should be reviewed. When approaching a potential client, attorneys should select an appropriate method that would be properly received and that would provide an opportunity to educate the potential client about the firm (i.e., lunch, seminar, entertainment, direct mail, friendly third party, etc.).

The marketing committee should coordinate the efforts of attorneys in soliciting and/or servicing the potential client. Implementing various general marketing strategies and recommendations can create a receptive atmosphere to help attract potential clients.

General Strategies

General strategies to increase the chances of success in marketing current, former and potential clients include the promotion of a firm image - a universally accepted image of what and who the firm is, what the firm stands for, what is has to offer and the manner in which its services will be performed. This image must be appropriately communicated to the legal community and the marketplace.

Since many of the firm's partners were not as well know as the founding partners, it was important that the firm make a concerted effort to achieve this goal by developing an expanded mission statement to help the firm differentiate itself from the crowd and that goes beyond the credo of "quality legal services, on time, at a favorable price."

It should also prepare a two-page resume listing specific skills, accomplishments, honors, etc. to be circulated among attorneys and staff and made available, together with the mission statement, in an attractive binder and placed in the reception area, so that all could better appreciate the qualities that the firm has to offer. Partners were instructed to inform the marketing committee of any significant new experiences, honors, positions, etc., as they occur so that resumes may be updated. Finally, individual offices and common areas should be maintained.

The marketing committee suggested methods for placing the names of the firm's attorneys before the public in as many favorable forms as possible. The following were some of the methods employed:

  • Identification of the firm name, and informing the public that the firm is a "full-service" law firm;
  • Publication of articles in legal and trade magazines;
  • Participation by partners and associates in positions of authority and leadership in civic, social and religious organizations and bar associations;
  • Develop firm stability, public concern and a sense of paying "civic rent" by financially supporting, or offering pro bono services to, worthy community activities as a firm, where appropriate;
  • Each member of the firm was sensitized to become increasingly aware of the use of the media;
  • Institutionalizing the name of the firm by use of stationery that increases the emphasis on the name and changes the emphasis of listing individual attorney's names by seniority.

Recognition of admission to more than one bar was noted. The message communicated by these changes is one of a firm that acts as team having far reaching capabilities.

Marketing became a permanent agenda item for partnership and firm meetings. The marketing plan was enhanced by modest additional financial commitment. For example, a business development expense account was increased for certain partners and associates. Business development activities were budgeted at 1.5 percent of gross revenue.

Certain areas of practice within the firm were upgraded through inside and outside CLE training. Two lateral hires were employed so that the firm may be perceived as "a full service firm."

Each attorney was expected to attain a level of expertise in an area of firm practice which will enable that attorney to be "marketed" as a true leader in that field. Annually, every partner and associate had to identify his or her own goals and objectives for client development for review with the marketing committee.

Proper staff attitudes are a position marketing force. Each member of the professional and administrative staff was interviewed by a member of the marketing committee and told that what they communicate to others professionally and non-professionally about their jobs and the people they work for spreads a message about the firm.

Attorneys were encouraged to participate in the presentation of seminars sponsored by the firm or others targeted at specific groups of existing, former and/or potential clients or sources of referral.

Conclusion

The implementation of these organizational and marketing planning activities required a significant amount of time, effort, cooperation and enthusiasm on everyone's part. Given the current competitive pressures and the likelihood that they will increase in the future, the implementation of and adherence to a coordinated transference of clients, training of junior partners and associates, and a marketing plan were perceived to be the key strategies for the firm's future growth and survival.

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