You can’t sell what you don’t understand.

To be successful over the long run, law firm partners have to master the ABCs—i.e. acquire, bill, and collect fees that are commensurate with other partners in the firm. This requires enormous talent, energy, and skill.  Yet, in recent years, the job has become harder because of the growing number of in-house lawyers who are turning to outside counsel to help them cope with the relentless pressure to do more with less.

The lack of foundational training in innovation and related disciplines makes this challenging for both lawyers. However, it’s truly harrowing for the law firm partner because they’re the service provider in the lawyer-client relationship. Thus, there’s zero doubt who’s expected to lead.

How, exactly, does a partner navigate this transition period?

Here’s the good news: the bar is not very high—your client is likely to appreciate your sincere effort to help if combined with a candid acknowledgment of your limits.  But here’s the not-so-good news—you can’t sell what you don’t understand.  Thus, it’s going to require an investment of your scarcest resource, which is time.

This post, which is based on a chapter in the forthcoming Ark book about Business Development for a New Legal Ecosystem, provides guidance on how to make the most of your client’s expressed interest in more value. It also draws upon another ongoing project, which is building online innovation training for partners.

Beware of innovation silos

Most big firms today have someone focusing on innovation. It may not be a full-time dedicated role. It may be called something else. It may be run by a committee. Whatever it is, the existence of that function sends a message that the firm is trying to do something creative.  That is a great first step, but it must be substantiated with action.  These roles are routinely paraded in pitches and in proposals but then are not heard from once engagements are discussed in detail.

Here is the brutal truth: if you are managing a client relationship, innovation is becoming an ongoing requirement of your job. Although some partners are still selling their subject matter expertise on a time-and-materials basis, this formula is out of step with today’s clients’ needs.

So how do we bridge that gap between what clients need and what law firm partners are selling? The education of the partners and future partners is a necessary first step. Without education, we’ll miss a whole generation of lawyers who will spend their days selling law the way it has been done for decades. They will lose revenue, weaken relationships, and ultimately lose clients.

Look up from your desk

Most lawyers are used to selling their knowledge and experience, packaged up in the number of hours they worked using those skills to deliver a piece of advice or work product.  That experience becomes the basis of the “marketing” that lawyers are accustomed to.

In the clients’ eyes, this low-investment approach is part of the problem. To be perceived as innovative, a partner should start with a simple two-step approach: (1) understand the range of possible solutions, (2) identify the right scenarios to effectively present them to a client.

Between these two steps, the first part is definitely the hardest. This is because the vast majority of lawyers were trained at a time when selling legal expertise was the state of the art.  Yet, while they have focused on billing their hours—and finding the next tranche of paid client work—the legal ecosystem has evolved to include AI technology, legal outsourcing, and the explosion of data to enable effective project management.

To understand the art of the possible, you have to look up from your desk and take in the broader trends that are taking hold within the industry.  With sufficient time and focus, it won’t take too long before you can credibly formulate a solution to one or more of your clients’ business needs.

Start with your client’s data

If you want to look innovative and value-oriented in the eyes of your client, there is likely no better place to start than learning the ins and outs of your client’s own data.

Relationship management in law firms has always been driven by both personal connections and personal relationships. Very little has changed.  But because of the growing influence of data in business, future methods of relationship management are destined to veer away from the personal and move towards more objective and empirical foundations.

Insights derived from the law firm’s data can provide significant value to the clients, as there are patterns that reveal recurring problems and inefficiencies that no one, including your competitors, are looking at.  Similarly, in those same billing reports, there are great insights into how the work is being staffed, which can reveal opportunities to reduce costs to clients while also increasing profit for the firm.

Indeed, competition from alternative legal services providers (formerly called Legal Process Outsourcers) is putting pressure on law firms to re-think who does their work. But the options are not limited to partners and associates. Other professionals can do aspects of the work being done by lawyers. Disaggregating legal work is not a new concept; nonetheless, too few practicing lawyers are taking advantage of alternative staffing models—which becomes obvious if one takes the time to truly review and understand the client’s data.  If you are looking for an early ROI on your attempts to learn data, start with clients that you know are under pressure to do more with less.

Once on this journey, it is worth your time to seek out other professionals at the firm, who can help run reports, create visualizations of the data, and perform deep analytics. In turn, share these insights with your client.  That added value can be packaged as part of a broader service offering which includes regularly scheduled reports and actions taken based on the insights gathered.

Deciphering the actual need

Another skill that partners must develop is to decipher what clients need, as opposed to what they want.

Here, it is crucial to understand that law department lawyers do not go through any sort of transformation once they transition from a law firm to in-house.  They are accustomed to buying services in the same way they sold them.  See Post 040 (Casey Flaherty noting that “[t]here are few discernible differences between the modal in-house lawyer and the modal law-firm lawyer. They are the same people.”)  Thus, when clients ask for something, it’s an opportunity to evaluate whether they may actually benefit from something slightly different or related.

For example, today many clients are asking for their law firms to bring technology to their engagements. It is often a general request without clear direction and lacking specific requirements.

In fairness, the clients are either unsure of what technology is available or they are seeking the firms to demonstrate their capabilities in this regard. Regardless of why, such an open invitation provides two great opportunities: (i) it opens the door to share just about any automation experiences the law firm has, and (ii) it creates an opportunity to dive into the problems that the client is wishing to solve with technology.

Here is where it gets interesting, even for those firms who are not heavily invested in tech and for those partners who are not tech-savvy. In the first case, where it is an open door to show something—anything—law firms can dig into their arsenal of existing technologies, even basic ones, to identify unused features that might benefit the client.  Cf. Post 158 (Dan Currell arguing that necessity is the mother of adoption rather than invention). Likely there is someone at the firm who can help create a successful story of tech-enabled legal services, even with some basic efforts. It almost doesn’t matter what the tech story is, as long as one can be presented.  Conversely, it simply not acceptable to have no response.

If it really is hard to find a story worth sharing—which is a problem onto itself—then consider this request as an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with the client about the problem they are trying to solve with technology.

The reality is that many clients may not understand the problem they are trying to solve and are, in effect, putting it on their law firms to figure things out. So, law firms can be the shepherd for their clients and guide them through the analysis in order to thoughtfully respond with a game plane by being that trusted advisor to work with the client to begin a journey together.

Navigating the meeting

As discussed above, some clients are not quite sure what they want when they ask for innovation. Too often, there is a narrow focus on technology, when there are so many other ways to be innovative. Still, when a client is asking for something innovative from their firms, they at least need to see something different.

A few simple rules of thumb to follow when pitching innovation:

  1. Clients appreciate honesty. Showing off bright shiny objects is not the best way to lead. If a law firm has been successful with some automation, the pitch to the client should be honest about what it took to be successful. A transparent view of the investment needed from the client-side will be appreciated and open a deeper dialogue rooted in trust.
  2. Experience matters. It is valuable and important to highlight the people in the firm who have actually done something innovative. But don’t just talk about people who have gotten their hands dirty in the innovative efforts—bring them to the meeting and let them share their bruises and invaluable lessons learned.
  3. Skillsets must be diverse. Any sophisticated client will expect that any innovation includes the skillsets beyond those of practicing lawyers.  Cf. Post 126 (discussing the tremendous diversity of human capital needed to drive improvement in service delivery). Clients want to see allied professionals that will be part of the team delivering the innovative solution to the client’s problem. Without diversity of skillsets, it’s unlikely that the pitch will be seen as credible.

Timing and matching

Inquiries from clients are pushing lawyers to become more innovative. That said, some clients are simply not ready for anything too innovative.  Indeed, countless partners have invested enormous time to create value-based pricing structures that incorporate alternative resourcing and cutting edge technology, yet how does the client respond? “Thanks for the information, but we really just need a discount.”

There remains a very broad spectrum of client sophistication, which in turn disincentives law firms for making large investments in innovation.

As noted above, in-house lawyers and their law firms counterparts were all trained and socialized in the same way and thus are bound together with the same philosophical limitations. It takes the right law firm lawyer to be matched with the right in-house lawyer. See Post 048 (Bill noting that these mismatches result in confusing conversations and stilted progress).   Yet, every attempt to sell innovation is an opportunity to find such a match.