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Guest Blog: Jim Cochran, President, Cochran Client Development

9-minute read

Lawyers and other professionals often struggle to collaborate on client development – but it can be both crucial and achievable

The economy is uncertain and challenging right now – and professional services firms of all stripes would be wise to pay close attention to their relationships with clients. But it might also be hard to justify the time and money required for a formalized client development program to some key stakeholders at the moment.

So, a client development program must clearly pay for itself. But, it also has to focus not only on securing more work but also pursuing higher-value work – the kind of matters that generate and create a non-transactional, trusted advisor relationship between lawyer and client. Often, these matters arise from client needs that can be described as, “VUCA” – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous – which require a collaborative approach to solve.

Dr. Heidi Gardner, author of Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, has already explained the significance of engendering collaboration to go beyond mere ‘cross-selling’ and creating greater value for clients – but how can firms achieve this while a large percentage of employees across the globe are still working remotely?

We’ve identified and ranked the top six obstacles to collaboration lawyers often experience, both in the office and at home, and have offered ways firms can overcome them.

1) Know (and value) others’ expertise

The larger the firm, the more difficult it is for a lawyer to fully understand what we call ‘Firm Capabilities.’ Even if a lawyer has a reasonable knowledge of the firm’s legal services, in many instances they don’t know the specific capabilities of its partners. And, because they haven’t worked with those partners, they can’t assess or evaluate their expertise from the perspective of a client.

Our program teaches groups of highly diverse lawyers how to build a more robust, sophisticated internal network across offices and practice groups. Partners practise having substantive conversations about each other’s clients, industry-specific issues and current trends, building a rapport and increasing the chances that they can find new and constructive ways to work together.

2) Build trust

Inter-partner trust is critical for proactive collaboration with partners in other practice groups and offices. This trust typically develops when lawyers work together on a common project and directly ‘experience’ the others’ competencies. For this reason, developing trust can be difficult for new lateral hires who lack opportunities to work directly on firm matters. Training can put partners together in small teams to meet one another and discover the sophisticated legal needs of a real or mock client. Using a common process and group meeting format – recorded and reviewed on video – also helps improve trust.

3) Develop selling skills

Confidence in implementing a client development plan comes from the ability to use the correct selling skills at the correct time. So, partners need to be taught via a proven business development process how they can advance the prospect/client relationship to the desired outcome: engagement.

However, we don’t believe partners can become confident and competent at sales without the help of practical, real-time application – that’s why we train alongside implementing the plan in question. Firms’ goals should be to win profitable and sustainable business, not to deliver a programme that merely provides awareness and knowledge – making ‘learning in the field’ an irreplaceable instruction method.

4) Refine interpersonal skills

In order to sell effectively, lawyers need to know how to identify another person’s communication style and priorities and how to adapt to them. We use a diagnostic workplace behavioral tool to help lawyers create interpersonal familiarity and trust with colleagues and clients. This helps build confidence in both selling and collaboration efforts.

5) Reduce inefficiency and time pressure

All partners face significant and urgent client demands which, in many instances, are a higher priority than working on persistent business development plans. Often, all that ends up getting done are discrete ‘marketing’ activities with a low probability of winning high-value work. Teaching a common business development process – from the identification of an opportunity through to how engagement can be fostered – reduces the time wasted on unproductive and costly efforts. In order to yield better results, firms should have partners focus on a smaller number of relationship development opportunities, get them to understand the relevant legal needs, collaborate on specific solutions and get a definitive decision.

6) Provide meaningful rewards

Compensation and other rewards are important for fostering collaboration with colleagues and clients. But the payoff should be reciprocal and occur on a peer-to-peer basis, as well as top-down. Partners should, for instance, share new client and new matter credits where possible. This “sharing is more” mentality supports significant collaboration in managing and growing existing clients and developing prospective clients. We’ve worked with law firms that use everything from heavily weighted individual lawyer production to closed-book systems; however, we’ve never asked a firm to adopt any particular compensation metric or system. Rather, we find that lawyers who participate in our program are more likely to share credit because the impediments to collaboration are reduced, or removed, when they understand and trust the value their partners bring.

Apply those solutions – and make it easy

Above all, make it easy for lawyers to collaborate. Tools like ObjectiveManager can generate triggers that prompt action and make it easy for people to share. These technologies can help bring peopleand information together, making it much easier to collaborate.

Conquer these obstacles and the way to collaboration is open. While there are no guarantees of increased revenue with any such initiative, the next few months are likely to show how important it is for firms to keep pushing client development plans – and how crucial it is to properly implement those plans through clear objectives. And, as Heidi Gardner’s webinar shows, the worst economic climate can be weathered by working together. 

Cochran Client Development is a US-based consultancy that teaches lawyers collaborative processes and a common language, enabling them to approach each client as a team. To get in touch, contact Jim at:

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