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Pizza parlors don’t sell sushi: Know who needs you and serve them well

This article is the second in a three-part series aimed at continuing a discussion on how law firms must compete in today’s legal market on client experience: the culmination of a well-defined culture, the right clients, and tailored, efficient legal service delivery.

Generally speaking, lawyers fear alienating any potential client. It may not be universal, but this statement is true and pervasive and not necessarily a good thing.

This means that often, in law firms of all sizes, attorneys are casting the widest net afforded to them by their firm and their personal capabilities — unfortunately, sometimes beyond their capabilities — and keeping whatever they catch.

Hobbs

Hobbs

Luxury car dealerships don’t sell used bicycles, and pizza parlors don’t sell sushi. Why then, in one of the highest echelons of professional services, would a white-collar criminal defense firm also dabble in commercial contracts for clients in industries well outside their bailiwick? There are many, many fitting examples at work in the profession, but anyone who has perused a law firm website likely understands this illustration.

“Your clients are not only confused when you tell them you can handle every type of case, but worse, they likely do not believe this to be true,” said Camille Stell, president of Lawyers Mutual Consulting and Services.

This is a recipe not just for ethical issues and myriad conflicts, but it is a risk management nightmare and a poor way to establish the last best experience.

Resources in law firms are limited and strategy, by definition, requires choices to be made among alternatives. Why not start by choosing which clients to serve? Good businesses have target markets and know their strengths. By extension, great law firms should know what clients they are best situated to serve and how to go about serving them well.

Every lawyer in your firm should recognize that there are “ideal clients.”

An ideal client — in this case used to describe the person who sends work your way and not the actual, legal entity you may be engaged to represent — is one whom the firm can serve well, and who in turn will consider the firm a true partner. The firm’s lawyers should know one when they meet one (though most firms have more than one ideal client) and be able to identify other, prospective clients because of this understanding.

But how can we ensure that all lawyers across the firm, or even across individual practice groups, share common definitions of “ideal clients”? A key step on the path to wide understanding is to establish what are known as client personas.

To create a persona, narrow the scope to a practice area you want to focus on, and consider your best client (you know you have one!) or a dream client for that particular practice. Is she in a general counsel role at a large company, or is he a small business owner?

In practical terms, you should be able to characterize the ideal client for one service area by asking questions like, “What is his or her position?”, “Does he or she have the ability to hire, send work, and sign off on our bills?” and, “What are his/her other functional responsibilities?”

Once you’ve nailed down the persona, possibly even given it a name, you can describe in detail his or her journey with your firm. This journey should lay out all the specific touch points this individual will have with your firm from before the person ever contacts your firm to the first meeting, through intake, billing, etc., to the conclusion of the first matter, and on through conversion to loyal client and advocate for your firm.

You may have variations in the journey map that are dependent on the company ascribed to the client persona; for instance, a company’s size (maybe your vetting process requires different processes for small unknowns vs. large entities), or industry (high-tech companies or other law firms might require more risk management) may alter the journey.

An empathy map, a second and deeper look into the client’s experience with the firm, covers questions like, “What is she thinking/feeling/doing when she receives our engagement letter/work product/bill?” and, “What pressure is this client under professionally and personally?” and, “Who are her internal stakeholders?” and, “What other priorities outside of procuring legal services are competing for his attention?” and, “What keeps her up at night?”

The empathy map should cover the entire client journey as well. This comprehensive work gives your firm insight into the opportunities for positive impressions along the way. Chandra Storrusten with the strategy consulting firm Visible Value encourages firms to “take the time to truly understand each client’s goals on each engagement — and ensure that every person involved understands them, too.”

Without this understanding, you’re much likelier to have an unhappy client and, in turn, unhappy colleagues. When you consistently have this understanding, you’re equipping your team to deliver a memorable client experience that will build your firm a sustainable competitive advantage. As law firms fight for talent and position in the marketplace, this is a definitive way to achieve your firm’s strategic growth goals.”

Establishing client personas and detailing their journey maps provide a solid start to creating experiences that will leave the right clients raving about your firm and sending more work your way consistently. And as Warren Buffet has said, “Any business with delighted customers has a sales force they won’t have to pay; you don’t see them, but they are talking to people all the time.”

In the next part of this three-part series, we’ll discuss how knowing your firm’s culture and ideal clients impact legal service delivery models.

Brandi Hobbs is the director of client service and strategy at Poyner Spruill. She works closely with the firm’s management committee, attorneys, and teams to increase efficiency within the firm, get to know the industries they serve, deepen relationships with clients, and get creative about their approaches to all of the above. She is also the leader of the firm’s client service department.

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