By David Brown
For virtually every law firm, the current economic climate means the challenges and opportunities our clients face are constantly in flux. With a full recovery continuing to elude us, it is both fair and fitting for companies to consider the question, "How has my law firm changed with the times?" Whether counseling a CEO, business owner or general counsel, we must strive to be nimble and evolve to meet the changing needs of our clients. This means constantly asking questions, understanding client concerns, looking for solutions and taking action. Although that might sound like a given to some, as I look around and speak with clients, colleagues and friends, it is clear that many law firms are unwilling (or unable) to change.
In-house legal departments are under constant pressure to reduce costs, which means they are working harder than ever. Management's demands for leaner operations have forced legal departments to handle more work in-house and push outside counsel even harder to improve their own efficiencies. It is incumbent upon law firms to not only accommodate our clients' need for value, but also help make their jobs easier.
We serve our clients best if we think proactively about how we might meet their needs while working creatively and more efficiently. For example, given what you know about a certain client's business or industry, what can you do to identify and address the next set of issues on the horizon? How can you help your client consider these issues with an eye towards legal cost savings and risk mitigation?
Mike Roster, former general counsel of Stanford University and co-chairman of the Association of Corporate Counsel's ACC Value Challenge, indicated at a recent panel discussion that general counsel believe a 25 percent cost reduction in 2011 is achievable. Within that context, the panel discussed how general counsel often begin the value discussion by asking, "Don't you realize that global competition could put us out of business if we don't manage every aspect of our operations more efficiently?" This very real concern looms large and is something all law firm attorneys should seriously consider.
Many outside attorneys also find themselves in the role of business counselor to CEOs and business owners. Of course, these individuals have experienced their own sets of changes and challenges in recent years. But these may not always be readily apparent. As a result, attorneys should constantly dig deeper with their clients to understand what keeps the CEO or business owner up at night. If you find that those issues have changed or new concerns have emerged, it is time to find new ways to further support your client.
In recent years, I have been asked to provide much more general business counsel than actual legal advice. I've also helped recruit and hire attorneys for in-house legal departments. In the midst of the recession, I even went on an early morning run with a client where we discussed some of the major issues that were creating stress for him and his company.
Some of the most pressing concerns facing businesses today are revenue growth strategies, financing, regulatory matters and human capital issues. These are not necessarily the same challenges these executives faced 10 years ago. And they are all areas in which you can be of greater help to your clients today.
For example, if financing is a problem, introduce your client to your lending or private equity contacts. With all the new regulations emerging, consider bringing in a partner with a strong government affairs or environmental law background who can help your client navigate the often tangled web of related legal requirements.
A deeply ingrained attorney-client relationship cannot take shape overnight. It takes months — often years — to become a trusted adviser. On the flip side, long-standing client relationships — even those going back decades — are no longer a sure thing and might not even work in today's environment.
With this "new normal" in mind, clients should ask, "Is my law firm hungry, aggressive and responsive — or have they become complacent?" According to legal industry consultant and former practicing attorney Jason Mark Anderman, "People are often quite comfortable doing their work the way they've always done it, so substantially altering that focus means overcoming a great deal of inertia." But change should be an imperative for every attorney. In a highly fickle economy, we can hardly afford to be content with the status quo. An increased level of communication — asking how the relationship is going or conducting regular client surveys — will enhance the working relationship.
Firms should ask themselves, "Why do we exist? What can we do better than any other firm? Where are we today and where do we want to go?" This may sound lofty, but only with this level of self-awareness can your firm be its best for your clients. Understanding your clients' needs, looking for solutions and taking action is paramount in helping them navigate the legal and business landscape.
In turn, clients should ask themselves, "If I started over today, would I hire this firm again?" If your firm hasn't changed with the times, be prepared. The answer might be a surprising "no."