In April 2019 Lexis Nexis published a report entitled ‘Client Experience – the new differentiator for law firms’. It opened with the following:
The marketplace for top 50 law firms in the United Kingdom continues to be challenging.
What is it about the legal sector that everything has to start with a ‘state the obvious’ statement about how increasingly tough things are and continue to be?
Traditional methods of differentiation such as deep focus on practice areas and industry sector are yielding diminishing returns. Evidence from clients suggests that these are at best threshold criteria for selection in panels.
Instead, clients are increasingly concerned about the quality of experience and value provided by law firms. Client experience is emerging as the new frontier on which law firms are competing. This is not surprising…
Well… no, it isn’t… To be fair, legal marketing people have been saying this for years… In fact, it was one of the first things that I was told when I started out as a junior business development executive almost 20 years ago. It was drummed into us… clients assume that you’re good at the law by virtue of the fact that you are employed by a respected law form… they expect that firm to deliver a complete and expert range of legal services… by what they don’t know (and the only thing we can use to differentiate and ‘sell’) is whether they like you, trust you, engage with your approach and want to work with you.
But while the Lexis Nexis report appears to be a case of money for old rope, there is something in paragraph two that jumps out:
However, a focus on client experience is new to many law firms, especially in the light of past research that shows persistent disconnects between them and their clients.
When read within this context the report makes sense. In every client care report we’ve produced for law firms and chambers there has been a repeating theme – client relationships matter. And, more importantly, clients expect more from them than they are getting. When you did down, the lawyers are spending time and money banging one drum, while clients are often asking for something else. An example of this is a chambers I worked with that spend thousands, every year, doing bespoke in-house training for its local authority clients. The Senior Clerk maintained that they valued this above anything else (it was a ‘deal-breaker’) and that the clients didn’t want to attend seminars or conferences. However, when the clients were asked they all said they would value a seminar (with attendance by other local authorities) over any other form of marketing. It transpired, after some digging, that the clerking team just didn’t really like organising seminars in chambers because they disrupted the working day… so, over years, they had convinced themselves that what THEY wanted was what THE CLIENTS wanted. How many of us could tell a similar tale from our law firms or chambers?
Viewed within this context the Lexis Nexis report suddenly becomes valuable and pertinent.
Many [law firms] have invested in client facing technology, but payoffs are slow. More generally, law firms appear to be struggling with the question of how best to improve their client experience to the point of differentiation.
The Lexis Nexis research ‘examines client experience, its impact on the law firm–client relationship, and what can be done to improve it. The research addresses the question by taking a closer look at the granular aspects of the experience: modes of engagement, resolution of problems, disconnects, and practices that add value. It identifies systematic patterns of interaction and gaps in performance and makes suggestions for the future’.
So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What does this report actually recommend?
Right at the start the report sets out some examples of firms that (supposedly) get client relationships right. These firms have a clearly defined processes for client engagement. These draw on best practice not only from within the legal sector but further afield. Some of the things they do include:
- They have studied client journeys and pain points. This means plotting typical client journeys (based on each of their top ten clients). The journeys were mapped into client experience/ outcome metrics. The analyses were used to re-define client journeys that were then piloted with selected clients (including some whose journeys had been mapped) before being rolled out across the firms.
- They have invested in training on client relationship and engagement management, for all seniorities and roles.
- Technology was reconfigured to support the refined client journeys. These include client-facing technologies (such as portals to provide greater visibility on current work) as well as technologies for internal use (workflows, alerts and other mechanisms for joining up across specific client journeys).
- They have clear processes for problem resolution, backed by significant investment and well-defined accountability.
- There is a significant degree of strategic coherence in targeting, selecting and projecting client experience. And this is often linked to the strategic value of the client, to the firm. This means that, for a highly strategically important client, a partner will spend a significant amount of time getting to know the client’s business and ensuring that the knowledge gets suitably embedded in the delivery mechanism. This understanding then drives delivery. The partner in charge is responsible for connecting the dots within the firm and cascading this down.
- They have considered how to filter a culture of client care down through the firm. This might mean including engagement metrics within KPIs for all staff, using client experience as an important criterion for recruitment and retention of talent, actively seeking individuals who are outward looking and have a client-oriented mindset.
As this diagram from the report shows, only 10% of firms fall into a category that adheres to this best practice. The majority have a sense of awareness of what they need to do but lack clarity in processes, have little joining the different areas of work and seniorities, deliver an inconsistent client experience and have little linking client care to their strategic plans/objectives.
Importantly, although the report itself is sketchy in terms of the data supporting this, it suggests that there is a clear link between being ‘strong’ at client experience and raising the firm’s probability of being selected for panels/winning work, maintaining client relationships and delivering higher profit margins.
There are some useful recommendations for law firms, however (and the report should be read in full to understand them properly).
- Truly understand what it means to be a client
- Improve the client experience through structured processes
- Focus on value networks to improve collaboration in the ecosystem
The report also makes recommendations for clients wanting to improve lawyer relationships:
- Help law firms understand your business
- Help law firms with scoping prior to instruction
- Become the primary catalyst for collaboration
- Incorporate multiple levels of feedback
So, how useful is this report?
At a basic level this report doesn’t say very much that most didn’t already know. Law firms have been saying, forever and a day, that they need to get better at managing client relationships. What few managed to connect however, is this latent need and the ‘what next’ as well as the ‘why’. This report is useful because it not only presents examples of best practice but two further scenarios (tentative and modest) that more firms will recognise themselves in. This allows a comparison that can more easily link to action. And, all of this is supported by anecdotal evidence (at the very least) that suggests greater profit margins and success in pitching, if firms get client care right.
Where the report falls down, however, is in the sort of practical, plain English advice that I think is so important. The report clearly states that both the tentative and modest group are aware of the ‘need to do this’. And it goes into detail explaining all the areas they’re struggling to be ‘strong’. But while there are some recommendations these are rather jargonny and consultanty… and they don’t explain how to move – in practical terms – up through the three levels of success. Managing Partners recognising themselves in the tentative or modest sections could be forgiven for nodding along but then feeling frustrated at not knowing much more than they did before.
Finally, there is a sense that this report has been written to make a thought-leadership point, rather than to say anything new. Is client experience a new differentiator? Well, I’d argue that it isn’t… I’d argue that it has always been a strong differentiator… but what’s new is that law firms are finally waking up to the connection between client experience, strategy, structure and profit. Gone are the days of viewing it as a touchy, feely marketing initiative to get people going out for more expensive lattes and beers… we now seem to, finally, be seeing a move to view client care as a fundamental cornerstone of organisational strategy – something that can be both planned and measured. Now THAT is new… and THAT could really lead to differentiation.