By Mitchell Roth
In law school, future lawyers are not trained how to think like business people, how to run a business or even how to read a financial statement. Say the phrases "increasing revenues" or "improving margins" to most attorneys and they first think of building their books of business rather than increasing their clients' top lines. This is unfortunate because lawyers generate greater value if they develop a client-focused business mindset.
As a former business owner, there are many lessons from that experience that helped me become a better practitioner.
Lesson No. 1: Know your client's definition of success.
"The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary." Vidal Sassoon
I've known very few people who have achieved success without a significant measure of hard work. As an entrepreneur, this means constantly thinking about how you can best serve your customers, differentiate your product and grow your business. As an attorney, it means essentially the same thing — thinking about the success of your clients. And the best way to do that effectively is to put yourself in your clients' shoes and ask the kinds of questions that can lead to valuable insights and better business performance. These might include the following:
What are the company's goals and/or vision for the future? Understanding this fundamental issue often helps attorneys advise their clients most effectively.
What are the dynamics of the business? Determine whether there are governance, partner or family-owner issues. Does the company have an independent board to help advise the executive team? Other critical dynamics can include banking, accounting, overseas manufacturing and/or regulatory issues.
Where are the risks and challenges for the business? An annual review of the company's vulnerabilities will help fine-tune their look at business risks or the so-called "black swan."
What are the company's opportunities? Attorneys can and should also help their clients leverage strengths and seize opportunities. For example, bring them insights or introductions that could deliver new customers, revenue streams or improved margins. Make suggestions on hiring or strategic partnerships or inform them about new developments in their industry that might represent growth prospects. The bottom line is that great attorneys understand their clients' businesses inside and out and, as a result, are well-equipped to suggest the most effective ways to mitigate threats while maximizing opportunities.
Lesson No. 2: Think and execute with passion.
"To be successful, you have to have your heart in your business, and your business in your heart." Thomas J. Watson
For attorneys, I would amend Watson's statement to say, " … have your heart in your client's business and your client's business in your heart." One of the best ways to demonstrate your value is to show your clients that you have their goals, needs and best interests in mind at all times.
For example, meet with your clients numerous times annually to learn about new developments in their businesses. This can often lead to new ideas or new ways of looking at things. Never underestimate the power of offering clients creative and innovative approaches to solving problems, increasing sales, saving costs or otherwise helping clients succeed. In addition, help your clients build a network of like-minded resources. This means introducing them to other strategic advisers who will be as passionate as you are about the clients' interests. Great leaders surround themselves with exceptional advisers.
Lesson No. 3: Lead with vision.
"Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders." Tom Peters
Good leadership involves establishing a service-focused culture in your workplace and leading by example every day. Responsiveness and accountability to clients are core tenets of this service-focused work ethic. In addition, a positive, productive atmosphere where everyone is treated with respect and rewarded for great service will certainly impact all client relationships positively.
Leadership also requires vision. Most successful business leaders have an idea of what their company will look like in five or 10 years' time. It is important for law firms to do the same. Work with others in your firm to formulate a shared vision for the future and encourage everyone within the firm to embrace and participate in the execution of the vision. If your current culture is an asset to the organization, take all necessary steps to protect it while working toward realizing your future goals.
Ultimately, client satisfaction is everything. To build a great service-focused firm, attorneys should increasingly apply the lessons that many of our successful clients can teach us. Success will be inevitable if you consistently exceed your clients'/customers' expectations and maintain a culture where this approach is embraced.
In the business world, everything else is secondary. Law firms will likewise be more successful and more valuable to their clients if they train their lawyers to think more like business leaders.