Redefining Client Partner roles: firms are taking control

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:

  • Increasing the amount of work from a particular client by identifying all their legal service needs and subsequently winning a greater share of these instructions through more effective business development.
  • Using client feedback programmes to identify and rectify service failings, to identify opportunities to displace other incumbent lawyers, and to identify the client’s future legal service needs.
  • Investing in understanding a client’s business and industry allows the firm to identify opportunities to better advise the client.
  • Investing in client-specific know-how and training provision to engender increased loyalty with the client.
  • Providing secondments to gain a better understanding of the client’s business and legal needs, and in the process building stronger relationships with key decision-makers and again increasing client loyalty.
  • Increasing practice profitability as satisfied, loyal clients are less likely to haggle over fees and will not demand that your firm has to tender for each piece of work. Also, a steady stream of instructions from one client allows for more effective utilization of a lawyer’s time and hence increases practice profitability.

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:

  • The strength of their relationships with the client’s key decision-makers.
  • Their experience in handling legal issues faced by the client.
  • Their experience of the client’s industry.
  • Their ability to lead and motivate the firm’s team.

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:

  • Understanding the client's needs and expectations.
  • Assembling the appropriate service team and co-ordinating the delivery of services to the client.
  • Motivating the service team.
  • Ensuring the overall quality, value and timeliness of all services to the client.
  • Achieving client satisfaction and retention, and improving service penetration.
  • Arranging regular client feedback to include post-transaction and relationship reviews, and taking appropriate action following each.
  • Preparing a client service plan in consultation with the service team and agreeing this with Senior Management.
  • At least every quarter, checking progress against the plan to ensure that it is being implemented and targets are being achieved.
  • Maximising long-term, profitable revenues from the client.

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.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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