Thursday, 20 January 2011

It's client care, but not as we know it

This is a copy of a letter I have not yet received and nor am I sure if it has been drafted yet:

“Dear legalbrat
In recognition of the excellent relationship Big Law LLP has with the Financial Times, and Big Law’s recognition of how important the FT is as a client, we have decided to provide the FT with access to a dedicated Account Manager.  We anticipate, with your permission of course, that your Account Manager will spend up to 90 days a year working directly on site with you and your team at the FT, will continually monitor legal developments that affect your industry and filter them to you in an appropriate manner that works for you, and will ensure that all advice delivered by our firm to you is provided in a manner that makes it instantly usable by you within the business.  We anticipate that you will also have your own ideas about how you might wish to work with your Account Manager.  Prior to joining Big Law LLP your Account Manager spent 5 years leading the in-house team at Big Client Limited.  We are delighted to offer this new service to our key clients such as the Financial Times free-of-charge.
Love from Big Law LLP"

First of all, what this is not.  This is not an in-house bleat about what outhouse should do better (don't worry, there will be plenty of those in the future).  This is an in-house proposal about what outhouse could do differently and how in-house needs to help outhouse get away from the joint obsession with the concept of the "client relationship partner".

I think a lot about the relationship between in-house counsel and our external advisors.  It is a critical relationship and the onus is as much on in-house counsel to make it work as it is with external counsel.  And whilst it is easy (and of course unequivocally correct) for us in-housers to bleat on about the iniquity of the hourly rate and such, it is also incumbent on us to make constructive suggestions for improvement to the way in which in-house and outhouse work together.  This is a firm belief of mine. 

So here’s a suggestion and here is the elevator pitch: law firms need professional account managers in non-fee earning/account management roles dedicated to key clients.  And what's more, ex-inhousers would be ideally suited to those roles.

Why?  Okay, here is the conundrum.

Clients want: our outside lawyers to understand our business and indeed our industry (but we’re not going to pay to help them get that understanding coz we’re tight like that); one or two consistent points of contact at partner level who are readily available often at unsociable hours; a move away from the hourly rate; undefined “better value” from our law firms; and to have our cake and eat it which eventually will lead to indigestion.

Partners want: to understand their clients’ business and indeed their industry; their clients to believe that they understand their business and industry far more than they really can be reasonably expected to do; to service many different clients; for each client to believe they are “special” to that partner; the associates in their teams to help them achieve all of this; the associates in their teams to like them, or at least not to hate them; and probably to leave the office from time to time.

Managing Partners want: what clients want; what partners want; oh yes, and higher profits and happier staff, but not at the expense of what clients want and what partners want taking a hit.

It doesn’t add up, does it?  This is an equation that doesn’t balance.  It is not easy for partners to draft, advise, strategise, make small talk, do the corporate entertainments stuff, be available day and night, understand multiple industries, understand multiple clients, write client newsletters, Tweet (let's not go there again), bill their hours, prepare the invoices, negotiate the invoices (sorry guys), prepare the invoices again, do the law firm politics, win new business, manage staff, keep existing business and keep up to date with the law.

So here’s a question for clients.  Why do we expect our main contact at our relationship firms being a partner or other fee earner?

And here’s a question for law firms.  Why do partners have to be the sales team, the account managers and the implementation experts?

Is there a role in large City law firms for a lawyer who has no billing targets but whose role is to act effectively as an account manager for a small number of major clients?  I think there is.  But this would only work if it is a real role, it cannot be farmed out to business development or marketing.  To succeed from a client perspective it has to be a role undertaken by a lawyer.  And to succeed from a law firm perspective it has to be undertaken by someone who is not burdened with hourly targets and all of the other rigmarole that I’ve referred to above.  This person’s JD is to “make the firm’s clients happier”.

So on the plus side of the balance sheet, this is why I think this idea is a flyer:

These are the most difficult aspects of my job: prioritising; managing workflow amongst our legal team; not knowing what question I might be asked tomorrow; managing client expectations; keeping our team happy; keeping our internal clients happy; predicting the issues that need to concern us; fighting the fires whilst keeping the BAU flowing.  No outside law firm knows how I deal with these issues.  It's very hard for law firms to understand the process flow in an in-house legal team: by this, I mean how we receive our “instructions”; the expectation from our clients in the delivery of our advice, both in method and timing; the business issues in the background; the personalities involved; the decisions we as in-house legal are often expected to take, quickly.  

And here are the reasons why as an idea this could seriously crash and burn:

First and foremost, selling the concept of a non-fee earning lawyer to a partnership of fee earning lawyers is not exactly an easy sell, because additional non fee-earning staff = potential for decreased PEP.  Yes, I know things are more liberal (in a North London Islington-sense of the word) out there in Big Law these days.  For example PSLs are taken seriously and not regarded as the couldn’t hack-its they once (unfairly) were and it has even radically become acceptable for lawyers to admit they don't want to be partners (they even get special job titles like Director so the others know who to smile at sympathetically).  Couple this with the fact that many client relationship partners will be reluctant to let another member of the firm too close to their prestige client (aka eat what you kill), and we have a serious barrier to entry.  Thirdly, measuring the return on investment would be difficult and (rightly) law firms are all about ROI.

I am not naively arguing that this new Account Management role should necessarily sit within the equity level of partnership, particularly in remuneration terms. But, equally importantly, for this to work any partnership would need to embrace the new generation of Account Managers as welcome additions to the firm who had clout, influence and something to offer, and not as unwelcome cost centres who are somehow inferior to the fee-earning engine room of the firm.

Whilst I truly believe in the benefits that the role I am outlining might bring, part of me feels my own scepticism as I type this post as to whether it could really work. But those of us interested in influencing the manner and method in which legal services are delivered in the future - and I am - need to take risks.  If you don’t buy a ticket, and all that.  And why couldn’t it work if delivered in the right way?  Wouldn’t any sensible equity partner welcome the idea of an ex in-houser “riding shotgun” with them and frankly taking some of the intolerable pressure off their shoulders and educating them how particular clients like their legal services to be delivered?  And at the same time educating clients who enjoy the benefit of the Account Management service on how to get the best out of their firms, which as in-house counsel we always like to say we know how to do, but maybe don’t always get right.  And do you know what?  If anyone tries it and it doesn’t work out, so what.  It leaves a few people older and wiser and not much worse off.

Why am I advocating that only in-house alumni should enjoy these new roles within law firms?  Well, like anything else, I’m sure the situation shouldn’t be that binary.  I will always recognise the technical excellence of law firms and their ability to deep dive into almost any vertical subject matter and emerge with the right legal answer.  That said, however technically excellent an outhouser is, until they have worked in an open-plan environment, with no office door, where the CEO and most junior salesperson have equal and immediate access, and where you have to decide what cannot be done on any given day against what must be done, then there remains a gap between the skills of delivering legal advice and implementing legal advice.

Still need convincing?  Think about it in this context then.  Much has been made of the fact that the Legal Services Act will permit third party investment in law firms.  Imagine that the private equity guys want a piece of the action (and one board level director at a silver circle firm tells me he is convinced that they will).  Will the p/e boys want to see their sweatiest assets (not literally of course) doing as much of the non-chargeable work as is currently expected of the rainmakers?  Nope.  Ignoring professional services, look at most other industries - IT, construction, financial services, publishing, professional education - do we expect the salesforce to implement the product or service that has been sold; or the account manager to sell; or the implementation expert to account manage?  Of course not, that would be totally inefficient.  Take the most successful IT companies: sell, implememt, manage account - 3 separate workstreams, 3 separate skillsets.

There has been plenty of blogging lately making clear that firms have to do something different to stand out.  But as clients we have to help,which in this case means not freaking out if the client partner says "meet your new account manager".  So as lawyers, whether we're clients or law firms, let's work together to see if this off-the-wall idea just might have some legs, and let's prove that there is such a thing as innovative lawyers.


  1. Your dream will come true, I think. I know that a number of law firms are now starting to experiment with proper account management along similar lines to that practised by advertising agencies, where the creatives have a separate role from the account specialists.

    Whether this should be a role for lawyers, I am less sure. We have a tendency to make new roles for lawyers in law firms, even though they are (a) more expensive and (b) less expert than specialists in the relevant areas. As a client, why would you want a lawyer in this role (especially as, almost by definition, they would be the poorer performers) rather than someone who knows how to learn the right things from you and to communicate them back to the firm?

  2. Whilst agreeing with the post, you should acknowledge the original source.