White paper

“We can handle that”: How broader expertise helps your firm anticipate client needs

Let’s say your firm specializes in divorce. You’ve been practicing for years; you and your colleagues handle these cases smoothly and skillfully. One day, a client who is in the midst of her divorce proceedings calls you. The business she started needs to restructure its debt and she thinks the best course of action is to file for bankruptcy. The company she built became successful, but it’s run into financial problems during an economic downturn and she’s not sure what steps to take. Could your firm offer her legal guidance on how to go about filing for bankruptcy? What are the appropriate steps? What documents are needed?

In other words, the client is asking if you can help with a legal issue that falls outside of your firm’s sweet spot. Whatever your specialty, it’s likely that something like this has happened to you and your firm. So how do you respond?

You might think: “I wish I didn't have to refer out cases like this. But I'm already stretched too thin. I'm not prepared to take on new practice areas. And I don’t have the expertise I’d need to get up to speed on this, and fast." But you also might be thinking: “I can’t afford to turn away new clients – or new types of work from existing clients.”

In today’s uncertain and ever-changing legal market, it’s more crucial than ever for your law firm to be client-focused. This might seem self-evident to the point of obviousness. Haven’t law firms always focused on clients? After all, without clients, there is no practice.

And while these are challenging times for most firms, it’s also worth noting that these are also difficult times for most clients. Current and potential clients are looking for you to be a trustworthy, accessible, and expert resource.

If you want to maintain or grow your caseload, you should ask yourself how to be the type of legal representative your clients need. That means considering whether to expand your expertise beyond your current specialties. That can be a particularly attractive opportunity for small and medium-sized firms, as their size positions them to provide a closer connection with clients. Being the lawyer that clients look to in times of trouble means being prepared for whatever questions they might throw your way. Meanwhile, the pace of legal and regulatory changes is increasing rapidly. It’s simply not good enough to stick to the basics or maintain the status quo.

This white paper will discuss why client service is more than just answering clients’ questions. It’s about being prepared to address clients’ needs before they even ask. Knowing how to serve a wider variety of client challenges can make your firm the choice of any potential client seeking answers to nearly any legal problem.

By becoming the go-to law firm for almost any issue, you won’t have to refer out cases. In addition, you can get a jump on other firms your size by taking on matters they can’t. If you’re properly equipped with broader expertise, you won’t have to worry about whether you have the ability and capacity to handle more cases without suffering a drop-in service. In fact, becoming an expert on more topics and knowing where to start will mean better client service. You will be able to provide answers more quickly, and with greater confidence.

In short, to meet clients’ changing needs, you need to be ready to expand your practice, knowledge, and resources. This doesn’t mean you must abandon your specialized niche. Having a specialty remains a strong selling point. But firms shouldn’t overlook how the practice and the business of law is changing – and how firms need to change accordingly.

So how do you go about becoming that go-to firm – and build business as you do so? Let’s start by looking more closely at the challenges small and midsize firms need to overcome to achieve these goals.

The challenge: Gaining and keeping clients

Expertise is crucial, of course. According to the Thomson Reuters U.S. Consumer Legal Needs Survey, 47% of surveyed legal consumers said that they selected legal representation based on whether an attorney has a specialization in the applicable legal field. In addition, when it comes to choosing legal representation, 24% of these consumers cited that expertise was the most important consideration.

As a lawyer, you probably don’t find this surprising. Most attorneys in small and midsize firms would say that having a specialty or niche is one of the most powerful ways a firm can distinguishes itself. If your firm has a niche, the market perceives that you have deep knowledge in that practice area. You’ve seen and experienced similar situations – you know the potential pitfalls, and you have an intuitive sense for how to approach a legal matter involving, say, bankruptcy or family law. In addition, with more people searching online for legal representation, having a specialty practice makes it easier for potential clients to find your firm. 

And in a down legal market, it becomes even more critical to bring in new business. The Thomson Reuters Institute surveyed more than 400 law firms and analyzed the challenges they face. According to the report, 26% of respondents said that acquiring new client business was their most significant challenge. A major factor with respect to this challenge is that clients themselves can be difficult. According to the same survey, 59% of firms are facing the challenge of clients demanding more service for less money.

Here’s another noteworthy finding from the survey: 83% of firms measure success by client satisfaction ratings. In fact, only overall profits were cited by more respondents as their primary marker of success. At the same time, more than half aren't even tracking this metric. What is particularly striking is that the firms surveyed in the report also note that competition for clients is increasing – often from larger firms, but also from DIY and pro see.

Given these competitive pressures, your law firm should put more emphasis on measuring and boosting client satisfaction. That means both attracting new clients and keeping current clients happy.

One of the most effective ways you can build and maintain client satisfaction is by keeping current with the changes in laws and regulations that pertain to your practice. For smaller firms, staying up to date can be a struggle. According to the firms surveyed, 38% say the increasing pace of legal and regulatory change is a significant or moderate challenge – though it’s also worth noting that 74% say they haven’t made any changes to confront the issue. Attorneys and law firms understand that they need to address the increasing pace of legal and regulatory change. It’s likely that one of the biggest barriers to addressing this challenge centers around the perceived time investment tackling it requires.

Given the growing competition for clients, you simply cannot afford to be complacent. The challenges firms cite aren’t going to disappear. By failing to make changes to improve client service, you’re unknowingly putting your business at risk.

In the current economic and professional climate – one that probably will be status quo for quite some time – few firms can afford to turn away work. They’ll need to add clients or provide additional services to existing ones. Or both. At the same time, it’s unlikely that these firms have the resources to hire additional lawyers with the experience in other specialties that clients and potential clients might require.

You may have decided that your firm needs to face the future and actively meet the challenges we’ve discussed. You want your firm to be the kind of practice that clients can rely on for a broad range of legal needs, not just a single specialty. That’s where you may find yourself facing another challenge: How do we get there?

The solution: A tool for gaining broader legal expertise

If your firm determines that its long-term viability and growth depend on becoming a proverbial one-stop shop for your clients, you need access to an extensive information “library.” To meet your clients’ growing needs, you need ready access to a comprehensive and dynamic repository of legal information. And it can be difficult to anticipate what kinds of legal expertise you’ll need.

To solve this challenge, it’s important to realize that you’re not alone. Numerous firms are in the same boat. And an increasing number are turning to online tools that provide access to the expertise they need to build their caseloads. A tool like Practical Law is designed to help monitor changes in the law to ensure you have the right resources while also providing the questions you should ask to guide you throughout the process. This type of dynamic tool gives firms of any size the ability to accept any kind of case, regardless of their practice specialty.

With Practical Law, you aren’t working on your own. Think of Practical Law as a 280-attorney law firm with expertise, institutional knowledge, and resources you can call upon regardless of the legal topic. These seasoned attorneys focus solely on keeping you up to date, informed, and knowledgeable in areas unfamiliar to you. What’s more, they have a profound insight into what firms need and how they operate. The information, checklists, and additional content that the Practical Law “firm” creates are designed to be easy to use and understand.

Let’s return to the scenario we began with in this paper. The client is grateful to you and your firm for all your help and understanding during her divorce. You and your colleagues know how stressful and emotionally draining this has been for her. She trusts and relies on you and you want to help her with her company’s debt restructuring.

It may not be a legal topic that’s completely foreign to you. You and your colleagues have dealt with complex agreements when sorting out assets for other clients. But the intricacies surrounding a bankruptcy aren’t your forte. You know you need to get up to speed with the latest rulings and related legal, financial, and tax implications.

This is where you can tap your “colleagues” at Practical Law. Its methodology is embodied in its name – practical. It offers straightforward guides and clear explanations of current laws in all areas of legal practice. It can provide a starting point that allows you to find the information you need quickly for completing the right filing documents and helping your client get her business back on the right track. It brings you the latest rulings on tax codes and guides you through the subtleties of business restructuring while steering you clear of the weeds.

Practical Law also offers a framework that helps you quickly understand what’s important while providing guidance on how to proceed. As one attorney in a firm with 1 to 10 lawyers recently observed, “Practical Law brings to a smaller firm the aggregated brain knowledge and experience of a larger firm without having to accumulate that expertise over a long period of time.”

Using Practical Law, you and your colleagues can precisely draft the documents your client needs to file for bankruptcy. And incidentally, this helps keep her divorce proceedings moving forward.

There are numerous opportunities for firms that serve clients in a variety of interconnected ways, if they’re willing and able to cross into other areas of legal expertise. For example, if you’re a family law attorney, having knowledge of intellectual property or tax law can be a great benefit to your clients. It can also help you attract clients who otherwise would not have considered working with you.

The point here is that a law firm doesn’t need to limit itself to a particular specialty. You’ve built up relationships with your clients that are invaluable. They trust you and your firm to provide caring, attentive service. By broadening your expertise, you can serve these clients in other ways. And using a tool like Practical Law, you can answer clients’ questions and solve their problems more quickly – whatever those legal problems might be. One small-firm attorney described Practical Law as “a very powerful resource. Let’s say that this was available back when I had just left my national firm, and I’m really wanting to expand my practice. I could have the forms, and I could have all of the backup, for moving into other areas.”

With broader expertise and ability to take on cases in different practice areas, you can better demonstrate your firm’s value to current and potential clients. This is something numerous firms are seeking to do: Proving value to clients was identified as a challenge for 41% of the firms surveyed in the report.

The interconnection of efficiency, client satisfaction, and profitability

Getting up to speed in a practice area isn’t only essential for your clients – it’s crucial to a firm’s efficient operation. And efficiency, of course, can help your firm build a more profitable practice. Client service and operational efficiency are interconnected. One attorney with a smaller firm that subscribed to Practical Law in early 2020 put it this way: His firm should have been sued for malpractice for not having Practical Law, noting the dramatic increase in the efficiently of his practice.  

In today’s legal marketplace, speed is more essential than ever. Findings from the report showed that attorneys spend 28% of their time on things other than practicing law and meeting with clients. And working faster as well as smarter is another of the strengths of Practical Law. The time taken up with research reduces the time your firm could spend working with clients and building business.

“Many clients will only allow two or three hours of research per file unless you get permission in advance,” said one attorney who has tried out Practical Law and its capabilities. “Anything that helps us avoid working for free or having to justify every minute would be good.” Another lawyer noted that “quicker legal search reduces client expenses, increases legal productivity, and reduces the time it takes to prepare motions or legal opinions.”

Conclusion: Set your firm up to be the solution to all client needs

The foundation of any legal practice is to provide clients with solutions to their legal challenges. For many firms operating in an increasingly competitive legal market, being client-focused is essential to remain competitive. As an attorney working within a small or midsize firm, that client-centered focus will most likely require you and our colleagues to address a wide variety of legal issues.

“It saves you time and effort because everything else in law is a lot of times less than ideal,” said one attorney who trialed Practical Law. “So, the more time you spend poking around looking for stuff, the less time you can spend doing what’s best for your client.”

As client needs change and grow, Practical Law is there to help you fulfill their evolving demands helping you meet and exceed their expectations when they need you most.  

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