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Building better client relationships - understanding your clients from the inside out

A law firm's success is largely dependent on its relationships with clients. When a lawyer offers advice to a corporate legal department, they must consider — and truly understand — their strategic goals in the wider business context.

Listen to the second of three webinars in the series “Understanding your clients from the inside out" on demand to learn more.

In this webinar in the HighQ Smart Law series, panelists discuss that while technology can keep firms and clients connected, the human touch is also critical for maintaining that coveted “trusted advisor” label.

All law firms like to say they are client centric, but that's not always the case. Relationships require constant communication. To build trust, firms need to continually validate their relations and find out what their clients want. “It's the content and how you understand what your client truly needs and not what you think your client needs," said Kate Stanfield, Director of Knowledge Management at Collas Crill. “The challenge and the opportunity are that communication can often be better to get that understanding."

Many law firms talk about the client as the general counsel or the in-house legal team when, in fact, the client is actually the business receiving the legal service. Law firms can find it difficult to engage the actual client because they lack understanding of the needs of the wider business.

“How can external firms provide anything more than just black-letter law advice if they don't have access to all the knowledge that the in-house team has?" argued Dan Kayne, General Counsel for Routes at Network Rail. To offer better advice and legal services, firms need knowledge and visibility — something they can only get through a “one team" approach to collaboration.

Back to the communication basics

Due to the impact of work practices by COVID-19, the connections between law firms and their clients was tested. Because clients and firms were in the same boat — trying to work virtually — it broke down a lot of the traditional communication barriers and reluctance to pick up the phone that previously hampered client communications or created disconnects. The changes to communication brought by COVID-19 accelerated and elevated the whole learning experience.

“I just cannot imagine that level of collaboration having worked so well pre-COVID," said Stanfield. “But because we were all in this together, I think it led to much better communication. And the thing that we found our clients needed most was actually back to some of the basics." Tools like DocuSign, Dealrooms, and machine learning solutions proved quite valuable. Not only did they enable collaboration; they also encouraged more of it.

The emotional intelligence factor: Moving from IQ to EQ

Many lawyers focus on technical expertise, taking a transactional approach to client relationships. However, the end users do not necessarily care about the law. They want smart people who can solve problems in a way that's collaborative, collegial, and understanding of their needs. It's what Kayne described as having the smarts and the heart. “The emotional intelligence (EQ) has become just as, if not more, important than the IQ (intelligence quotient)" Kayne said. “EQ is going to play a huge part in how law firms and in-house teams gain credibility going forward."

Showing people that you care has nothing to do with legal advice. It's about being a good lawyer and listening to your clients. A genuine relationship should be open, transparent, and honest. Lawyers will learn from each transaction, meaning they should become more comfortable asking awkward questions to gauge their client's perspective on the outcomes.

EQ is not just “fluffy additional stuff," it also makes good business sense and can help firms retain and attract new clients.

“We're all humans. We all have feelings. We all have our own challenges," said Rebecca Rogers, Global Legal Knowledge and Training Lawyer at HSBC. Firms need to start being smarter about understanding how it feels to be on the end of something and acting with authenticity to create value to a client's business.

“We don't spend enough time as a profession reflecting on what we're doing. We don't spend enough time listening to each other," added Kayne. EQ is not just “fluffy additional stuff," it also makes good business sense and can help firms retain and attract new clients.

Maintaining the relationship moving forward

Many law firms know they need to know more about EQ and they are trying diligently to get that knowledge. COVID-19 showed that shifting to a more open culture is possible, especially with technology. It also presented a rare and auspicious opportunity for lawyers to identify new positive behaviors and stick with them — particularly an openness to change. There's no turning back to “the old ways.”

However, even with all of these technology-enabled transformations, it is important to remember that law firms are not software companies. “They have to have a return on their investment for those technologies," said Rogers. Mutual understanding of the value for both clients and law firms is critical. And this requires continuous, open, and honest communication.

Going forward, firms always need to keep the end user in mind. Inclusive leadership and a growth mindset will be key to building deeper relationships.

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