Relationship Development in Today’s Law Firm

Law firms are in the business of relationships. Solid work product is important and legal results matter, but for the client to come back, it’s all about the experience they had and whether the relationship is one they want to continue to invest in.

Nearly a decade ago (pre-social media days) while conducting client interviews with in-house counsel, I learned a lot about the various reasons businesses need to hire law firms. More often than not, it was explained to me that the reason my law firm was hired was because we had “deep experience” within the industry (i.e. we could start closer to the answer than the in-house legal team could) or we were better situated to handle the volume of commodity-level legal work. Interesting feedback but not exactly intelligence I didn’t already know. Then on several occasions, I was pleased to hear the story of how the client started his legal career at my firm and was only too happy to have his former colleagues “make him look good” at his company or learn that the managing partner coached the client’s daughter in high school basketball. This intelligence was something I couldn’t see in our time/billing system and it provided me a perspective I was curious to learn more about: was there a correlation between client relations and the client’s legal spend?

Initially my client interview reports would cover three key points: what are we doing well, where could we do better, and whether there was an opportunity to assist with legal work we weren’t currently handling. Once I started digging I could easily see a trend; the clients that had a relationship beyond the day-to-day legal matters consistently yielded more (and more profitable) matters.

Far from being a creative genius and recommending that my firm create a “prime” brand to get more business from a certain segment of legal services buyer or monitoring time/billing algorithms to profile and identify the most profitable type of client, I simply recommended a more human approach to business success—build relationships. Was that a naïve recommendation?

Practice Makes Perfect

Most Little League World Series baseball players believe they will play in the Major League World Series someday, however, according to only 12 players currently have achieved this distinction. So what makes a law school student think that once they pass the bar they will become a successful lawyer? Most successful lawyers understand that law firms are in the business of relationships. Todd Flubacher is a partner at Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell LLP in Wilmington, DE and when asked whether relationships are a part of his practice he said, “Look at the nature of what we do. When we represent a client, we often literally act on their behalf and stand in their place. If clients do not feel any sense of personal connection to you as their lawyer, it is far more likely that they will call someone else who they personally like better, or with whom they have a relationship.”

The global law firm of Reed Smith went so far as to make The Business of Relationships their tagline. Reed Smith partner Diane Frenier of Princeton, NJ shared insight about how the tagline has directly complemented her practice. “The business of developing relationships with clients can include many things, but usually includes making opportunities to communicate other than in connection with matters that we are working on with them.” Diane shared that she recently invited a key client to join the Reed Smith firm wide partners’ meeting to talk with the partners about what they look for and values in their relationships with law firms. “This insight helps develop a better understanding of what is important to the client and they appreciated being asked because it told them that their opinion mattered to us.”

The Challenge

If relationship building is the silver bullet, why are so many law firms hiring pricing officers, fussing with alternative fee arrangements, and paying attention to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Value Challenge? “Clients of all sizes have transformed how they purchase services,” said Deborah McMurray, CEO of Content Pilot LLC. “Personally, I believe that a client relationship is the result and not the cause of successful selling (lawyering). It is the reward that the salesperson (lawyer) earns by creating value.” In 2011, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson published The Challenger Sale—Take Control of the Customer Conversation, where they interviewed 1,100 business-to-business customers looking for complex products and services. The research proved that relationships are no longer the underpinning of all sales success. They aren’t suggesting relationships aren’t important, but that “…the relationship and the purchasing decision have become decoupled. This matrix of law firms/lawyers includes comprehensive, weighted data on responsiveness, communication, pricing, subject matter expertise, jurisdictional strength, geographic reach,and much more. Lawyers who naively believe that they will get hired because they have a solid relationship with the general counsel will be disappointed,” says McMurray. “They must step up the sophistication and relevance of what they bring to the selling table or they will be left behind.”

Law firms are doing just that. Fenwick & West has one of the top start-up practices in the country and their relationships with top investors are a key reason companies want to work with them. Kevin Vaarsi, a product manager at the firm said, “Our long-standing relationships with investors are important to our clients, and we recently formed a Venture Capital Services group that helps to manage our relationships with investors and the entrepreneur community.” Fenwick’s relationship facilitation helps clients raise venture capital. They identified a key role in this viable ecosystem that helps clients and keeps them informed. Win-win!

Mary Gay Scanlon, pro bono counsel at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, shared examples of how pro bono projects with clients have deepened relationships. “Since 2007, Ballard Spahr has regularly partnered with Exelon to stage Wills for Heroes Clinics, providing free wills, powers of attorney, and living wills to first responders, veterans, and their spouses. In addition to providing an important public service, Exelon also views these clinics as a team building experience, so top management always participates in the clinics.” Another valuable pro bono program is the firm’s partnership with cable giant, Comcast. Together they team up in Philadelphia to host bimonthly legal clinics for the homeless. Often, the clients include veterans seeking assistance to get disability benefits in order to obtain stable housing. They have since broadened the initial scope of their joint project to train and accept SOAR cases, a special fast-track path to social security benefits for veterans and other eligible claimants. “Although it’s difficult to quantify whether Ballard obtains additional business because of the pro bono activity, it is clear that the good will and relationships developed during these activities paved the way for future business referrals,” Scanlon said.


What Came First?

Whether you believe the relationship (i.e. action) creates business (i.e. reaction) or business (i.e. legal service) is a result of perceived value (i.e. purchasing methodology/analytics) there is a place for you in the world of legal. If I’ve learned anything as a legal marketing and business development professional, I know that one size does not fit all. Gina Furia Rubel, CEO of Furia Rubel Communications, Inc. who regularly works with law firm clients, reminds us, “Relationships don’t just grow because you want them to; they grow and evolve because you (the lawyer) have exceeded expectations.” Whether that’s via billing, creative legal remedies, or regular communication, making the client successful should always be the  number one goal.

About the Author

Jennifer Smuts is the director of business development and marketing at Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell LLP in Wilmington, DE. She is a founding member and past-president of the Legal Marketing Association-Metro Philadelphia Chapter. She can be reached at or on Twitter @jennsmuts.

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