Building the future

In helping many law firms win and retain business over the last 10 years, practice areas such as litigation have told us they are finding it increasingly difficult to predict where their next instructions are coming from.  Changes such as the Woolf reforms are affecting the size of their market and the potential it offers. Some lawyers even contend that the nature of their work means they can only react to their market. We disagree.

The traditional litigation market is indeed shrinking. As Grant Thornton said in its research report The Future of Resolution Advice: “External dispute resolution lawyers have to compete for their share of work not only with other law firms, but also with the increasingly self-sufficient in-house teams. Where external assistance is required, businesses gravitate towards law firms that can quickly identify their needs, meet them and provide perceived added value”.

Business opportunities do exist and will come from embracing the changes in the market. Dispute resolution departments therefore need to adjust their approach in how and who they win their instructions from and also what form those instructions will take for the clients of the future.

The allure of success
Traditionally, litigation instructions have been won on the back of the success of specific cases. Success raises the profile of a litigation specialist and instructions follow from clients, prospective clients and referrers hoping to replicate that success in their own case(s). 

It is unlikely that this will change much in the future.  What will be different will be the shrinking market, intensifying and increasingly specialist competition and a wealth of specialists to choose from.  Those firms who are more proficient in demonstrating their successes and those that have plans in place with the necessary steps will ensure continued success.

Raising your profile
So how do you plan to raise your department’s profile?  The starting point for a number of firms has been their past and current clients and their regular referrers of business.  These are the people who (if delighted by the service they receive) hold the key to the volume and quality of new instructions in the future.  And if they are real fans of your work, they’ll recommend you to their colleagues and contacts too. 

So consider your clients and referrers of business in the last 12-24 months.  Who did you do a great job for?  Who has the potential to refer more work to you and would warrant a plan, that both builds and protects your relationship with them?  Who do you need to motivate to enter into more dialogue with your department, so you can start to build an even stronger relationship with them.

Returning to the Grant Thornton study, in-house counsels’ second most important criterion for judging a dispute resolution lawyer’s performance was their understanding of the client’s strategic objectives and ability to act commercially (number one in this list was managing costs commensurate with outcomes). 

The more a litigator can demonstrate a genuine understanding and interest in a client’s world and understand what they are trying to achieve, the more they distinguish their department from their competitors. So invest time gaining an insight into your key clients and referrers’ businesses or business interests.  Much of this information is in the public domain, but don’t forget to also talk regularly with your clients and get their unique perspective on the burning issues for their business.  The information you glean will guide you on creating those targeted promotional and ‘awareness raising’ activities which will spark their interest and motivate them to want to talk with you further.

Widen your focus
Also look more widely and consider other individuals in your client/referrer organisations. Relationships are often built around the personalities of two key people – one from the client or referrer side and then from the litigation practice area. The more key people in each client and referral business your department knows, and who are very supportive of you, the greater your chance of further instructions. We have seen some litigation departments extend their relationship beyond a specific general counsel and start to get to know other people in the client or referrer’s organisation – these have included the other members of the in-house team, their influential ‘internal’ clients, the Managing Director, Financial Director etc.  The firm does this by mapping out who is important in the client organisation (in terms of influence and decision-making) and using the specific personalities in the litigation department to get to know and forge strong relationships with key people.  This planned approach often involves fee-earners matched according to ‘fit’ with the client contact.  These multi-level relationships help the practice area in question to gain a deeper understanding of the organisation which makes it easier to raise each contact’s awareness of the value and success that the litigation department has brought to them and similar clients. 

And this can apply to clients within your firm too.  Here your focus would be those colleagues and other practice areas who would be happy to cross-sell your expertise to their client base.  To build each colleague’s willingness to pass introductions your way, your department needs a planned approach.  Again, an in-depth understanding of their world will put you in a good position to introduce a number of promotional activities.  The focus of these opportunities would be to put you on those colleagues’ radars and then build their trust in you.  This might involve sending specific and relevant information, investing time getting to know them, inviting them to talk to some of your clients etc.  Your ability to tailor your expertise, knowledge and experience to bring direct benefits to them will ensure they soon recognise your credibility, trust your competence and above all feel comfortable that you are the litigation specialists they want to work with.

Changing your focus
And this comes on to our final point, the nature of what litigation departments will be offering in the future.  With current trends pointing to a reduction in litigation, litigators know that the best people to advise clients and referrers how to avoid disputes are the litigation experts themselves.  The challenge is convincing clients of this.  So looking ahead, there are tremendous opportunities on the horizon but with a focus on prevention rather than cure.

As Grant Thornton pointed out in their study, ‘Some firms are helping in-house lawyers to identify common causes of disputes, defining levels of acceptable risk and the trigger points for escalation’.  These firms are pioneers and are helping clients create metrics, systems and processes to help avoid disputes.  They are also becoming trainers and advisers to both referrers and in-house legal teams on the subject dispute avoidance.  Some of these measures may prompt new service lines and business opportunities for litigation departments in the future.  If the question is how to spot and realise these opportunities, the answer lies in the relationships you forge with your clients.  The closer you are to them, the more they trust you, the easier it will be to ask them and identify the areas in which your expertise can help them be better and more effective in what they do.

Changes in the legal landscape are causing particular practice areas to rethink the way they win and retain business.  The ones likely to triumph over change are those that embrace it.  By building strong relationships with their key contacts and using their insight into each client’s world, they will be able to provide more valuable solutions, ones that help those clients remain loyal in an ever-changing environment.


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