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By Kevin Wheeler
Historically, partners in commercial law firms have had their own clients who they have advised, bringing in their associates and fellow partners when required. This lack of firm-wide ownership of the client relationship has left firms exposed when partners choose to move on, as these can easily take their clients with them.
In fact, the lateral hiring of partners in the legal sector only takes place because many clients have greater loyalty to the partner than they do to the firm and therefore partners can take their books of business with them to a new firm. Such lateral hiring is much less common in other professional services sectors where the firms ensure that more effective key account management ties the client into the firm rather than one particular partner.
Senior management teams in law firms are slowly realising that they need to put key account management practices in place to tie clients into the firm and to ensure that they are not exposed if partners decide to depart. A focus on key clients also has other advantages, including:
With such an approach comes the need to redefine the Client Partner’s role. Each of the firm’s key clients needs to have an assigned Client Partner. This partner is responsible for the overall success of the firm's long-term relationship with that client. They are no longer focusing on personal metrics like the number of hours that they and their team have billed but are instead responsible for the overall level of fee income from the client, the profitability of this work, the number of different services provided by the firm, the share of the client’s legal spend being captured, and the client’s satisfaction with the firm’s different services.
Client Partners should be chosen on the basis of:
Senior Management will almost certainly have to take tough decisions when appointing Client Partners, as the partner who has historically looked after the client may not be the best person to do so going forward. To ensure the “best fit”, it is important that clients are consulted about such appointments. It may be that the client prefers to deal with several partners rather than having a “point” relationship with a Client Partner. In that case, the Client Partner has to play more of an internal role, co-ordinating the firm’s approach in the background.
A Client Partner’s role encompasses responsibility for the following:
In order to bring about the required behaviour changes expected from a Client Partner, the firm’s remuneration system will have to be aligned with the objectives set for Client Partners. In other words, an individual Client Partner’s remuneration will need to be dependent in part on the achievement of client-wide targets.
In the past, many law firms have struggled to adopt such a key account management approach, mainly because partners have resisted attempts to make them “share” their clients with the rest of the firm. In the largest firms, the competitive nature of the legal market combined with the increasingly complex and international nature of clients’ needs is now forcing partners to engage more with their colleagues to provide an integrated service which meets these needs.
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Kevin Wheeler has been advising professional services firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for more than 30 years. As a consultant he helps firms to manage and grow their key clients as well as to win new ones. As a Meyler Campbell qualified coach he works with partners and those approaching partnership to improve their BD skills.
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