Marketing Partner Forum: Differentiating Law Firms in a Crowded Landscape

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Law Firms, Marketing Partner Forum, Thomson Reuters

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Throughout the recent 24th Annual Marketing Partner Forum, one theme was a constant: Lawyers need to differentiate themselves. In a panel discussion led by Thomson Reuters’ Sameena Kluck, attorneys and legal professionals gave concrete suggestions as to how to do just that.

Chief among their recommendations: Understand your clients’ business. Partnering with your client, whether that means helping them with legal operations or embracing alternative fee structures, is vital to cement client relationships, the panel explained. And yes, robots can be a differentiator too — at least at Baker & Hostetler.

Digging into the Business

It sounds simple to say that lawyers need to understand their clients’ business. But it’s surprising, said Ama Romaine, General Counsel for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, how little outreach law firms actually do. When Romaine started in her position, none of her outside attorneys called her, even though she was approving their invoices. No one called to discuss her needs, or how she intended to run the department, or her business priorities.

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Goodwin’s Michael Caplan

“It’s shocking to me that I’ve been there now for nine months, and still people have not called,” she says. Just as Romaine can’t provide good service to her business partners if she doesn’t understand their strategic priorities, her outside law firms can’t provide good service to her if they don’t understand her challenges and requirements. “These are really critical conversations to have,” she says. “And they don’t happen enough.”

Rodger Cole, partner and chair of litigation at Fenwick & West, responded by saying, “It’s ridiculous for me, or any other outside lawyer, to be afraid to pick up the phone and ask ‘What’s keeping you up at night?’ That’s the first thing we all need to do.”

The Importance of Partnerships

One way that Goodwin seeks to partner with clients, said Michael Caplan, the firm’s Chief Operations Officer, is to bring members of the operations staff to pitches. Caplan says that shows Goodwin is prepared to help with more than just legal matters: It can help manage the selection of e-billing vendors, help with billing guidelines for outside counsel, and bring in experts on cybersecurity and data privacy. “What that does is create a dialog, say between me as a COO and the COO of a corporate legal department,” says Caplan, adding this can generate new introductions for the lawyers.

Another way to partner with a client is by considering alternative fee arrangements, the panel offered. The panel discussed some of features of various arrangements, noting, for example, that a fixed fee makes it easier to include more junior lawyers in important conversations, helping them learn more quickly.

Blake Lawit, vice president of legal for LinkedIn, said that it’s easier to come up with an alternative fee structure if it’s limited to a particular task. “It’s very hard to do this over an entire course of a litigation,” he says. “But absolutely, this is not a bad idea for differentiation — encourage your lawyer to find some discrete task with some upside and downside.”

For example, Caplan notes, Goodwin offers new clients five free hours of partner time for any new matter, for two years. At first, the partners were “horrified”, he says. Now, partners want that call to come in “because they realize that those off-the-clock discussions help build trust.”

Yes, Robots

Elizabeth Green, Partner and leader of the Bankruptcy, Restructuring and Creditors’ Rights practice at Baker & Hostetler, had perhaps the most creative answer to the question of how to differentiate a firm: Her firm has invested in ROSS, a legal research system based on IBM’s Watson. (And her firm does not charge clients for its use!) Because clients know that artificial intelligence will be a big part of the future of legal work, they’re eager to learn more about ROSS.

Romaine pointed out that initiatives like ROSS are related to branding ­— another potential differentiator. As she said to Green: “The real question for firms is, ‘What’s my brand going to be?’ and then you have to stick to that. I think, frankly, you are on the cutting edge of legal technology, and that’s what people are going to look to you for.”