Speaking with the general counsel of a large multi-national recently, I was struck by the number of opportunities that her external advisors had to impress her. Many law firms often complain that it is hard to develop close, long term relationships with clients because the clients only contact them when they have a problem; the “advisor of last resort”.
I think there are two key points to consider here. The first is that this highlights the fact that lawyers are largely used to solve client problems. Now this might sound like a no-brainer, but there are millions of companies worldwide trying to sell goods and services for which the client need is not so clearly defined. If a client has a definite problem, then the law firm has a distinct opportunity to help them. Note that “help” is the critical word. Buying and using the legal service shouldn’t be difficult for the client, and if done right can lead to a real sense of gratitude from the client. The bigger the problem and the better the service, the truer this is.
The second point is that many of these problems can be nipped in the bud early, or indeed prevented altogether, if the client has the right advice upfront. Rather than waiting for the client to arrive with a problem, law firms can sieze the advantage and proactively go and talk to clients and prospects about this, rather than sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. Note however there is a big difference between initiating a dialogue with a client about a problem they are facing or may be about to face, and going to talk to a client to tell them about a service the law firm can sell them. It may sound like semantics, but in reality it is about ethos and intention, and the law firms that get this right, have the opportunity to build trusted and enduring relationships with clients that many other suppliers and advisors would envy.
I think there’s another broader issue, which extends beyond the legal profession. ALL service providers want to get to the top of the Client mountain and plant their flag; ALL professionals want to be the ‘trusted adviser’ turned to for counsel.
The problem is that as we become more specialised in our disciplines, so we lose the ability to think (and look) laterally. When you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail. And if you’re following a career path with laser like intensity up the greasy pole of your company, so you miss the opportunities to experience the world from other disciplines.
It’s much easier to engage in broader conversations if you have a broader vocabulary gleaned from traveling different tracks.
But in an age of micro niches, the generalist tends to be looked down on. Not that I have a chip on my shoulder about this:-)
Nice point, and one which raises the question about career paths for lawyers. Many law firms are now looking at broader career paths from the more traditional one of “spend more time at the firm, building more and more expertise” to one which considers different objectives (sales skills, people management, operational management, account management, technical specialist), and I think this offers those people who wanted become the classic, well rounded “trusted advisor” a route to do that. To do so also takes a degree of courage from a specialist whose then market value is derived in large part from that specialist knowledge.
Good blog – I would have expected nothing less. I think one of the nuts to be cracked in all this “trusted adviser” stuff is how we as lawyers can demonstrate our (potentially considerable)transferable skills. Do all clients go to their lawyers just to learn about the law ? No. Those lawyers who are able to communicate intelligently (you dont have IPR in that word yet, my friend) and import their specialist knowledge seemlessly into a commercial “whole” are the ones who will win through. The irony is that we must be “more than just lawyers” – thankfully.
Good call. Interestingly I was interviewing CEO of a business recently and asking about relationship with lawyers. His view was that senior lawyers have some good business insight, and could add a lot of value at a strategic level, but were just too expensive. By contrast he didn’t think junior lawyers had sufficient breadth of business experience, particular when compared to say a mid-level audit manager at an accountancy firm. That then raises some interesting questions about how lawyers add value, and in particular the balance between specialising and really understanding an issue in detail, v being a broader based advisor. Clearly teams and firms need both to be effective, but how those skills are distributed between individuals is a question that is perhaps not explicitly addressed enough.