It is your job as a legal concierge to tap into the wealth of information that your firm possesses in order to make relevant and important information available to your clients. You should regularly monitor state and federal rules, statutes, executive orders, court rulings, and similar strands that make up the country’s legal tapestry and put that information into a central repository that’s accessible to every lawyer in your firm.
Many firms are not only aggregating the information; they are disseminating this information to their clients. It is no longer enough to provide your clients with information about your field of expertise. You should use the vast resources of your firm to provide clients with information from every practice area that affects their business. As information can be the lifeblood of in-house counsel, it will greatly benefit your practice to use your position as a trusted counsel to become a source of critical information for your clients.
Ways to Share Information With Clients
Once you’re committed to informing and educating your clients, it is time to decide the best way to go about doing it. There are five ways that are effective:
1. Provide Regular Updates
A number of ways to communicate information to your client are available, but with most clients, email is the most effective. Every week, you should sift through the deep repository of knowledge that your firm has, aggregate the information that is most important to your clients, and e-mail each one with the intelligence that applies to the client’s business.
If the information represents a monumental shift in the legal terrain for your client, get the information out right away—don’t wait to include it in the regularly scheduled email. For important matters, let your clients know that you and/or your colleagues are available by phone or in person to answer any questions they may have. If your firm has a group that directs the firm’s knowledge management efforts, use that group as a resource to help set up processes to identify, categorize, and disseminate information more efficiently.
The information you pass on to clients does not have to be groundbreaking opinions or watershed pieces of legislation. If you find an article that generally deals with your client’s business, pass it on. Your client will appreciate the information and the fact that you are showing an interest in his or her business and staying abreast of relevant news.
Many firms that send out information, send it via an email blast “From the law firm of Blake, Blake & Blake” rather than from the lawyer representing the client. Every client and contact in the firm’s database receives the same email about “a recent CFPB appointment,” for example, regardless of whether the content of the email is relevant to the recipient’s business. Some firms will filter their messages so that only banking clients and contacts receive banking-related updates, while healthcare clients and contacts receive updates on recent HIPPA rulings.
Although the initiative behind these emails is to be applauded, and there certainly is some informational and branding value in them, these mass emails actually miss a tremendous opportunity to connect personally and positively with the client. To maximize the effect of educating your client, it is important that you, the lawyer who owns the relationship with the client, personally send the email to the client. The email should briefly summarize the legal issue being forwarded, and briefly state why the client may find the information important. This is a better means for delivering your message for several reasons:
An email from the law firm, rather than from the lawyer, is far more likely to viewed as being spam! Clients don’t want spam; they want to be informed about changes in the law that affect their business. Don’t give your clients the impression that you are marketing to them; you want them to understand that you are informing them. The email blast from the law firm feels far less informative, and a more like a general marketing piece.
If outside counsel is doing a good job, an in-house lawyer will rely on and trust her. In fact, in-house counsel often looks to outside counsel for guidance in areas of the law about which in-house counsel is less familiar. That’s why an e-mail from outside counsel will be read, while the mass-mailed “spam” from the law firm, often will not be. Make sure the message gets through, and let the client see that outside counsel has the client’s interest at heart and does more than advise on matters for which she is retained.
Taking the additional step of summarizing the legal issue being forwarded to the client and tying the issue to the client’s business is the stuff of real lawyering. Any plain vanilla legal service or paralegal can simply pass along information, but a lawyer who summarizes and applies the legal issue to the client’s business exemplifies the type of skilled communicator and counsel that every in-house lawyer seeks out. By providing updates and explaining how legal developments may affect the client’s business, you demonstrate that you understand the client’s business and are looking for ways to safeguard the client’s interests. This type of team player can be a valuable asset for in-house counsel.
Finally, sending the email under your name ties your name to the issue and gives the client someone to call if she has questions or needs more information. If the e-mail comes from the law firm of Blake, Blake & Blake (and if the client actually reads it), the client may think to call another lawyer with whom she has worked if there are questions. With your name on the e-mail, it is your phone that is most likely to ring.
Should you bill for providing updates? No! Updating your clients is part of the job description. Billing for updates is akin to restaurants charging customers extra for providing plates and forks.
2. In-House Training
When you have an opportunity to get quality face time with your in-house counsel client or other employees of the institutional client, seize it. Those opportunities don’t come along very often, but they can strengthen the bond with your client. One way to get that valuable face time and educate your client at the same time is to provide on-site training to in-house lawyers or other employees about a particular area of the law or a specific issue.
If your client maintains and protects numerous valuable trademarks, for example, and a recent case establishes new standards for protecting trademarks, arrange a meeting with your client to discuss the case and what steps the company will need to take to continue effectively protecting its marks. If your client is a financial services company, offer an in-house presentation to summarize the myriad financial regulatory reform measures being passed or proposed, and explain how those measures will affect your client’s day-to-day operations. If your client has been sued or plans on filing suit, convene a meeting to discuss the client’s e-discovery obligations and to assist in implementing and/or executing a document retention policy that ensures compliance with the client’s litigation hold obligations.
The on-site training can pertain to your area of expertise or to an area that is particularly important to your client. If the subject matter is not in your area of expertise, arrange to have somebody at your firm who has the expertise to join you and lead the training session. Identifying areas of interest to your client and providing the legal training and guidance in those areas is the mark of the quintessential customer-service lawyer. The ability to identify those areas goes back to getting to know your client’s business. The more you know the client’s business, the more you’ll understand what the client’s needs are, and the more you’ll be able to tailor in-house training opportunities.
Many larger law firms are CLE- and CPD-accredited providers in multiple jurisdictions. Accordingly, much of the training that they provide will allow attendees to receive continuing legal education or continuing professional development credit. Yet many of these firms only provide this training to their own lawyers, rather than making it available to their clients. It should be a law firm’s mission to have multiple in-house training programs scheduled with different clients each month. The clients get valuable information, and the law firm builds unmatched credibility.
For example, a labor lawyer in private practice has monthly meetings in his office with a group of in-house employment counsel and HR managers and directors from around the metropolitan area in which he practices. At the meetings, he leads a discussion of the recent employment-related court rulings, changes in the law, and other hot employment issues of the day. At each meeting, between thirty and forty members show up to take in his pearls of wisdom. Your clients are hungry for information … feed them!
Should you bill for providing training opportunities? It is strongly suggest that you do not bill for in-house training. Though it will take hours of your time (and possibly the time of other lawyers at your firm) to prepare the training materials and to conduct the training activities, providing the training at no charge has three major benefits:
It will increase the likelihood of your client agreeing to have the training in the first place, and your primary goal is to be a source of valuable information to your client, while getting that valuable face time.
As a customer service lawyer, you want to ensure that your client knows that your primary focus is to serve them in as many ways as possible. When you make a suggestion to train at no cost, the client immediately understands and appreciates the value you are offering. Conversely, if you suggest the training and bill for it, the skeptical client is likely to view the training merely as an opportunity for you to generate revenue for your firm.
Simply put, providing training will allow you to further strengthen the bond with your client and increase your chances of receiving substantive billable work from your client in the future. It is a business development opportunity, not a revenue-generating one.
3. Create Networking Opportunities
A simple and engaging way to provide clients with information is a networking event at which clients can inform each other about their businesses. Your clients will often have synergies across their businesses, and one way to identify those synergies is to bring the clients together. With a strong understanding of your clients’ businesses, you will develop a sense of what business opportunities they may be contemplating pursuing, and which of your other clients might be able to assist in that pursuit.
Make a concerted effort to introduce clients to each other and to third parties who can support your clients’ businesses. Your clients will appreciate your efforts to grow and support their business, and introductions are a great way to stay in touch with clients and let them know you are thinking about their business.
You don’t have to identify business opportunities to get your clients together. A few times a year, you should host networking events so your clients can get together and mingle. The events can be purely social affairs or a mix of professional and social, but either way, they should be set up to offer your clients a chance to get to know one another and understand their respective businesses. A networking strategy that is effective is one in which the firm hosts an hour-long CLE or training event that deals with a subject matter of high or immediate importance to clients. The training event is then followed by a cocktail reception, allowing the clients to network and learn more about each other’s businesses. These events allow you to display your firm’s depth of knowledge, as well as your commitment to supporting your clients’ businesses.
Whatever the form of networking you choose, it is important to make an effort to engage your clients in ways that support them and their activities, separate and apart from any legal work that they may have for you.
Should you bill for creating networking opportunities? I don’t need to answer this do I? Just to be sure—no!
4. Legal Audits
Legal audits take client education to a whole new level, one that can greatly benefit the client and lead your firm to substantially more engagement in the client’s business. A legal audit is an examination of a certain component of a company’s business (e.g., corporate governance, consumer compliance, risk management, etc.) with the goal of identifying any shortcomings in the company’s practices, and developing solutions to remedy those shortcomings.
Audits are generally performed after a company has already been exposed for some bad behavior and the client wants to weed out (or give the appearance of weeding out) any other nefarious conduct. Audits are also performed when a company is being merged with or purchased by another company, or is entering into a large credit facility or other financial transaction (although these audits are generally referred to as due diligence in these scenarios and are performed at the behest of the other parties involved in the transaction). It is not often enough that companies perform audits at their own initiative before the occurrence of any claim of wrongdoing or mistake. But failure to use legal audits as a risk-prevention measure should change, and it should be the law firms pushing for the change.
Each practice group of your firm should focus on hot areas in that practice and build audit programs around those areas. A firm with ten practice groups, for example, could have twenty-five different audit programs across the firm that can be customized to address each client’s circumstances. After the audit programs are established, each lawyer should thoughtfully consider where the firm’s advice and expertise can add value to areas of his or her clients’ business, such as
(a) the client’s corporate governance,
(b) its exposure to various categories of liability,
(c) its risk management policies,
(d) its document retention policy and general preparedness for litigation,
(e) its crisis-management plan,
(f ) its I-9 compliance,
(g) its social media policy,
(h) its anti-bribery and foreign practices policies,
(i) the soundness of its standard form documentation,
(j) the adequacy of its escalation procedures when serious problems arise, and
(k) other such areas where the company may be exposed to risk, whether formal policies exist or not.
After considering these areas and determining where the firm can help, offer to audit the client’s policies and practices in one or more of these areas to assess what risks, if any, these policies and practices pose to the company. The audit performed must be thorough, requiring you and your colleagues not only to review any existing written policies and procedures, but to talk to the company’s operators to ensure you know how those policies and procedures are implemented in practice. An understanding of the company’s business is a must, and the audit will allow you to gain a greater understanding of how that business operates, as well as the players involved.
Once the risks are assessed, create an action plan for the institutional client to mitigate or eliminate any such risks, and suggest changes to the policies and practices to reduce risks going forward. The action plan will summarize the company’s current activities, provide a legal framework in which such activities take place, and provide the client with a legal roadmap that will guide the company’s future activity.
Remember that in-house counsel typically operate as generalists, yet they are tasked to monitor and regulate the company’s activities across the board. The expertise that your firm deploys through the audit can shore up those areas where your client’s general understanding may pose risks to the institutional client, however slight.
Should you bill for performing legal audits? This could be argued both ways. On one hand, the legal diligence you perform and the advice and guidance that you provide your client through the audit process is at the core of your role as a legal counselor and should be billed. On the other hand, a client is more likely to agree to an audit if the company is not charged. As the audit is also an opportunity to learn your client’s business and discover areas in which you can provide more substantive legal services, these audits can serve merely as business development tools, and the time associated therewith can be written off as a marketing expense. A firm should bill clients for legal audits, but each audit should be billed for a reasonable flat fee for two primary reasons: the goal is not to profit from the audit itself, but to learn more about the client’s business, to identify areas of the client’s practice where your firm can provide other legal assistance, and to build closer relationships through which more substantive work will flow.
Although audits can provide clients with critical information, from a billing perspective, you should think of them as an intricate business development exercise. The audit will not grow the client’s bottom line, nor will it be the impetus of an innovative new product or service. It is a preventive measure, and is, therefore, likely to be viewed with skepticism by the business-minded executives inside the institutional client. The flat fee will give the client cost certainty and will make it easier to sell the audit to the business people who control the purse strings.
5. In-House Committee
A bolder and more innovative way to inform and guide your client is to suggest that your client form an in-house committee to regularly review issues that are important to your client’s business. For example, if your client is a company that markets heavily to consumers, suggest a consumer compliance committee. The committee would review new marketing programs, marketing materials, sales techniques, contracts, the regulatory environment in which the company operates, and the company’s general compliance procedures.
Have the committee staffed with key in-house personnel and suggest that they tap two to five outside counsel with different specialties to serve on the committee.
The committee could be structured any number of ways, but it would prove more useful if the committee was chaired by in-house counsel familiar with the company’s issues, objectives, and plans. A week or two prior to each meeting, the committee chair should circulate a memo to each committee member, providing a detailed summary of the company issues on the agenda. If your client does not want to take on the extra work, you can offer to lead the meetings, prepare the pre-meeting memo, or both. The committee could meet monthly, quarterly, or on an ad hoc basis as critical issues arise.
While most companies can benefit from such a committee, the creation of the committee will not be an undertaking that will appeal to all of your clients. But for any client who has an aversion to risk, whose business activities are heavily regulated, or who is setting a course in uncertain legal waters, such a committee may have a strong allure.
Should you bill serving on a committee? Yes, for the same reasons it makes sense to bill for performing audits—value received for value given. In addition to providing valuable direction to your client, providing audits or suggesting a committee creates the following benefits:
Making meaningful suggestions that your client adopts instills confidence in your client that you are a smart and competent counsel who cares about making a difference in the client’s business. For this reason, you should continually be thinking about ways (especially non-traditional ways) that you can add value to your client through information, education, or other means.
The benefits of providing the company with sound and comprehensive legal guidance on a wide range of issues will ensure that the client shines to the board, the CEO, and the executive team. External reviews of corporate practices through audits or committees are well regarded by regulatory bodies, financial partners, and investors. These services will make your client look good.
The range and depth of the issues that you will address through the audit or committee process and the insight that you gain about the inner workings of your client’s business will considerably expand your knowledge of your client’s business. The increased level of knowledge will allow you to better serve your client in a number of ways, including identifying more opportunities to provide in-house training.
Creating the in-house committee will give you a valuable seat at the decision-making table. As the institutional client establishes policies that direct its operations, you will have a voice in charting the company’s course, to a limited extent. The more involved you become with your client’s planning activities, the more value you add and the more indispensible you become.
Finally, through the committees and legal audit(s), your client will likely be exposed to lawyers from other practice groups in your firm. The more familiar your client is with members of the different practice groups, the more likely your client will use those practice groups. The more practice groups you have providing solid legal support to a client, the more likely it is that the client will send work to your firm’s other practice groups. The more integrated your firm is with a client’s legal matters, the less likely it is that the client will leave the firm.
Keeping your clients informed and educated makes your clients look good because they have the tools they need to make adjustments to their companies’ operations and adapt to the changing legal landscape. Some lawyers fail to realize that protecting the client’s business is another way to protect your relationship with the client.
Don’t make your client look elsewhere for information that you have readily available. One of the goals of in-house counsel is to be proactive rather than reactive. Information is critical to in-house counsel’s ability to do his job and stay ahead of the curve, and if you become a main source of that information, then you will become integrated in the client’s day-to-day operations. The more integrated you become, the more indispensable you are. In any line of work, indispensability is a very good thing.
Improve the Level of Service You Provide
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication Succeeding as Outside Counsel. Written by in-house lawyer Rod Boddie, this book shares practical guidance on how outside counsel can deepen their relationships with clients.