Corporate clients commonly say that the lawyers in their outside law firms “need to understand my business.” But what does this mean?
Having facilitated scores of what we call “client insights interviews,” we know that there are a few possible meanings: projects or inquiries are over-lawyered; responses are not laid out in simple and actionable business terms; or the legal advice provided doesn’t take into account the nuances of the client’s business model, industry, or risk tolerance.
Client insights interviews can be a productive way to break down this barrier between law firm lawyers and in-house clients. Whether formal or informal, your firm probably does some variation of the classic client feedback interview, which tends to focus on how the law firm has performed, and what the law firm could do to improve and get more work. But client insights interviews are not about the firm at all; they are entirely focused on how the client is doing, what operational and business challenges clients are facing, and how the in-house legal team is being expected to serve the business.
If you think that now is a bad time to ask corporate clients to make space on their calendars to discuss these issues, think again. Most in-house counsel are facing the same challenges as law firm stakeholders — staying engaged and connected in a virtual world, managing larger workloads with fewer resources, and feeling more pressure to have the answer quickly and efficiently. As such, most clients would welcome the chance to discuss these challenges with their law firm peers and are happy to receive ideas about how their law firms might offer new resources to develop creative solutions.
Most clients would welcome the chance to discuss their challenges with their law firm peers and are happy to receive ideas about how their law firms might offer new resources to develop creative solutions.
But can you really have this type of discussion virtually? Even we were skeptical at first, particularly since we come in as third parties to facilitate these discussions and need to quickly build rapport and trust with law firm clients. Yet, we have found that meaningful insights — particularly during this time of pause and introspection — can be offered, even over a screen.
The first step is to be clear-eyed about who should conduct the interview on the law firm’s behalf. The law firms we work with often send us to interview clients on their behalf, finding benefits from a neutral party being able to facilitate these discussions and translate pain points into opportunities. In other cases, law firm leaders conduct these conversations themselves. One note of caution there: you’ll want to be sure that whomever the firm sends has the right mindset — rather than looking for discrete legal problems they know the firm’s timekeepers can crack, they should instead be looking for business and operational challenges that the firm may (or may not, at least at first glance) be able to solve.
In our experience, this is one of the greatest challenges for law firm lawyers in facilitating client insights interviews themselves. We once had a managing partner join us for an interview, and he walked away saying, “Well, I didn’t hear anything there for us.” And we were shocked because, knowing his firm, we had a list of specific opportunities they could tackle immediately — just not the litigation or M&A opportunities he was tuned to find. Rather, the client was looking for support in developing systems that would make the company’s contracting work more efficient, for example.
Tips for conducting virtual client insights interviews
If you have a client whose company is rapidly growing — for example, one that has recently appointed a new general counsel or created a legal operations function — or one for whom the work is “going fine,” but hasn’t grown for some time, here are some tips for conducting a client insights interview:
1. Ask for 45 minutes — We all tend to block out our days in 30-minute increments. If you ask your client for a half-an-hour, you can bet they will stack another meeting in the other half of the hour. But by asking for 45 minutes, you allow the conversation to continue to the end of the hour if the client is engaged and enthusiastic. Otherwise, you’re giving them 15 minutes of free space to catch up before move onto the next thing.
2. Listen. Listen. Listen — Really listen to what’s going on within the client’s law department, company, or in the client’s professional, and even personal world. Resist the urge to only perk up at the bits that might mean more legal work.
3. Take detailed notes — This can, and should, be done by a “second chair,” which should be someone who not only can take the notes but can also ask follow-up questions. If you must go solo, you can record the discussion, although we’ve found some people to be less candid if they know they are being recorded. And, even though we said that client insights interviews are not about the firm, be prepared to receive some client service feedback. It is imperative that you carefully capture that information and share it with the client relationship attorney or other relationship owner within the firm.
4. Put together a report — Your detailed notes should be quickly turned into a report to be shared with the relevant stakeholders inside your firm. This document should capture the key themes discussed, with quotes (even if they are paraphrased), and should identify potential actions the firm can take beyond just the immediate opportunities for new matters.
5. Be prepared to execute — When you come back to your firm with these client challenges, you’ll need to be able to translate what you heard into opportunities to design and deliver solutions. These will likely involve technology, process improvements, data analytics, or staffing ideas, in addition to legal expertise.
6. Bring together a cross-functional team — Brainstorming ideas based on the insights you gathered from the client might mean bringing together the whole client team, including professionals from marketing, IT, finance, and billing, or bringing in outside third parties. Narrow down the possible actions from your report and make sure to assign responsibility for actions to members of this cross-functional group.
7. Keep the client engaged — When we’re building solutions for clients, we encourage the law firms we work with not to go more than three weeks without going back to the client with some ideas — even early, very raw prototypes. Resist the urge to wait until something is polished before bringing it back to the client — often, that might take months. Rather, bring your client along for the design process, iterating again and again with their input.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the effort of engaging a client in one of these new kinds of conversations is worth it, for both sides. Law firms don’t always find that one “lightning bolt” that transforms the client relationship. But we frequently hear from clients that “our law firms have never asked us these questions before.” We’ve heard in-house counsel call the client insights interviews “therapy,” and ask when they can do it again.
Just know that, regardless of what you produce for the client, you will learn something from going through this process, and your client will feel more supported. They will see you differently, and they might even feel like you understand their business much more deeply.
Kate White and Andy Peterson are co-founders of Design Build Legal, a consulting agency focused on helping law firms innovate and enhance client service. Design Build Legal facilitates Client Insights Interviews on behalf of law firms across the country, helping them identify and execute on opportunities to deliver innovative solutions to some of their clients most pressing challenges.