It’s no secret Big Law firms make the most out of their leverage to maximize profit, often mixing and matching matters and timekeepers. But some analysts say it’s now less common for corporate clients to work with the same lawyers at a given firm from matter to matter, making it easier for those relationships to diminish and for clients to ultimately move work around more.
Although clients are spending more money on outside counsel, clients have been using fewer and fewer law firms in recent years, narrowing their panel of firms, according to recent reports.
Some of that law firm consolidation could be a result of client relationships becoming more transitory, said Bill Josten, strategic content manager for Thomson Reuters.
Besides a couple of partners who may have a steady relationship with the client, he said, general counsel aren’t building as much of a rapport with a team of lawyers at a firm as they once did. He said in spite of a general trend toward consolidation, his group’s research suggests clients have grown increasingly willing to move work from one firm to another over the last few years.
“Lawyers are constantly being shuffled around, and there’s a lot of free agency and trading that happens within practice groups and law firms, so you’re not working with a consistent matter team,” he said. “The teams are being mixed and matched, so that impacts firm-client relationships as well. That makes those relationships easier to move around as well.”
To prevent client relationships from diminishing, law firm partners and managers are striving to make client teams as consistent as they can.
Mike Hammer, CEO of Dickinson Wright, said if a firm has a significant, repetitive client, a team typically gets built up that specializes in assisting them. The goal is for the lawyers and groups to understand each other well enough that they don’t have to start from scratch on every new matter, he said.
“While it changes at different levels as needs change, I think keeping similar people is helpful for a client. It’s comforting and efficient for them to keep the same people,” Hammer said.
He acknowledged that increased lateral movement across the industry can influence that, but “unless there is something inefficient or not working, we’re not necessarily looking to mix and match the teams so much unless the client wants a change or it’s helpful for an attorney for their development.”
Steve Young, leader of the tax and benefits group at Holland & Hart, said his firm emphasizes maintaining a consistent client experience, and one of the avenues for that is its sabbatical program, in which every equity partner takes a few months away from their practice every five years or so. He said the firm “insists” upon it, not just for the individual wellness benefits, but because it helps cultivate a “team-centered approach” to managing client relationships.
“Because I know I can’t leave for three months unless that client knows other people at the firm,” Young said. “So it has a real impact of creating this culture around here where no one views the client as ‘Steve Young’s client,’ or that I have the sole ability to help them. It’s more of a Holland & Hart client.”
He added that the remote work environment has challenged that aspect of firm-client relations.
“When I’m in the office, I’m much more ready to brainstorm with some other lawyer that’s down the hall, or bring that other lawyer into conversation with a client, because they’re right there,” he said. “But when I’m at home, I just think instinctively, ‘Oh it’s not worth thinking about, or checking if they’re busy, or ‘I don’t want to get them involved.’”
Still, sometimes mixing up the staffing on a client matter ensures the firm is doing its best work for the client. Lisa Smith, a principal at Fairfax Associates, said as a client sends more and more matters to a firm, it makes sense to work with different lawyers and different teams. Those matters may require different skill sets, she said.
“What clients don’t want is people who try to do everything, even if it’s not their expertise,” she said. “As a relationship expands, there may be more people involved, because they’re going to be calling on different people with different expertise.”
Even as associate attrition and partner lateral moves resulted in more volatility in general last year, there were aspects of the working environment brought on by COVID-19 that brought firms and clients closer together.
Gretta Rusanow, head of advisory services for Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group, said while the ubiquity of remote work increased lawyer portability, and firms are still trying to figure out ways to imbue their culture to far-flung employees, “firms will also tell you that in a remote environment, there was a lot of time and a shared experience aspect to COVID that enabled firms to actually become closer to clients, to actually move their relationships beyond just the transaction to more of a personal relationship.”
As with any successful relationship, firms and clients also thrive when there’s good communication, said Joe Mendola, senior director of sales for the Wells Fargo Private Bank Legal Specialty Group. That’s especially the case when demand hasn’t increased.
“I think clients expect their counsel to have frequent conversations, to check in, see what they’re working on,” Mendola said. “Any good salesperson, if they’re looking at a softer demand environment, the first thing you want to do is go out and hug your clients, and make sure they’re OK. Because if you’re not, someone else will be.”