The event

Some of the Totum team recently attended the Lexis Nexis breakfast briefing – ‘Trust and transparency between large law firms and their clients’ – which detailed findings from new research conducted by Judge Business School and commissioned by Lexis Nexis. Here are our highlights and lessons that we took from the event.

Kishore Sengupta, Director of Executive Education at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, described the interview-based research that underpinned the event. The research objective was to analyse the success - or otherwise – of law firm-client interactions through each stage of a ‘classic transaction’: Pre-instruction, Instruction, Execution and Evaluation.

Research highlights

 

Overall, it was clear from the research that trust and transparency can, and often does, quickly break down between law firms and their clients. It starts at pre-instruction stage, with over 70% of respondents saying that at this point a task rather than relationship-based approach is taken – with both sides seeming disinclined to share information that could help build a deeper partnership.

This then sets the stage. According to the research, over 80% of the time, law firms are not involved in shaping instructions, even if this would help them understand underlying business problems so avoiding misunderstandings/problems arising and leading to a better outcome.

Over 80% of clients surveyed (comprising general counsel and heads of lines of business), then said they had been surprised by aspects of the execution – including lack of visibility regarding direction, progress, costs accrued and/or intermediate findings. By the end, it’s not surprising that the research pointed to a superficial evaluation stage with few substantive lessons learned that could genuinely improve future engagements.

There was a lot here to make us stop and think. But not only in terms of how law firms and their clients improve their relationships, but also in terms of how we approach our own partners in the legal sector. It seems that we could probably all do more to improve our performance throughout these stages to improve our relationships and achieve that end-game status of ‘trusted adviser’.

Lessons for the future

 

The aim, as suggested by the research, is to achieve ‘enlightened relationships’, including shared business insights, collaborative planning, more visibility (including more access to information on both sides), and a genuine desire for both sides to be involved in problem solving. Here are some of the more specific ideas and lessons we took from the event:

Pre-instruction – Sengupta talked about how lawyers need to demonstrate their knowledge and insight into the client’s business, the sector in which it operates, what the latest developments are in the client’s market, etc. Law firms need to be willing to connect the dots – but equally, clients need to be willing to provide context to underlying business problems. In terms of our business, we have an advantage, as we are the only recruiters specialising in business services functions in law – this gives us considerable market expertise to share. But we are also aware that every firm we work with has unique business problems and priorities that we seek to understand and help solve. This goes beyond just making placements.

Instruction – This stage has two phases: Exploration and Explanation. It is the main stage for engagement. At the event, they talked about this being the stage where lawyers collaborate with their clients and ensure that expectations are clearly mapped out together. So too in our world, this is when we engage with our clients to fully understand what our relative roles and action points will be, how we will conduct the project, the various stages and the costs.  As the research suggests, the process should be driven by ‘joint problem search techniques’. This is to avoid misunderstandings further down the line and to optimise the chances of a good outcome.

Execution – Sengupta talked specifically about communication here – ie, lawyers maintaining contact throughout a matter or transaction, and ensuring the client gets regular updates, more visibility on intermediate findings, and improved predictability through better project and risk management (interestingly both growing areas of recruitment for us at Totum). Similarly, clients too should provide visibility on aspects of the engagement that might impact the law firms concerned. This may all sound like common sense but in practice it can be difficult to achieve, especially if the relationship has not kicked off in the right way through the instruction phases. We know that if communication and understanding is good from the outset, it becomes much easier to handle unexpected situations as they arise – for example, in our context, if a role proves more difficult to place than expected. The right approach also enables potential issues to be addressed before they become critical.

Evaluation – The research suggests that this final step in the engagement framework is the one that requires the most progress, as law firms lag behind other professional services. It is also one that requires significant effort on the part of both law firm and client. Sengupta advised the use of independent reviews after the project has been concluded – and joint evaluations by third parties, which can be particularly useful for engagements with a difficult history. We too understand the importance of thorough post-project evaluation, to learn what can be done better but also what we are good at and what makes us stand out. It is all too easy to assume that filling a role successfully means that the client is entirely happy and not filling the role means the client is very unhappy – but so much can be missed in a superficial view.

Most of all, this research was a reminder to us that building prosperous relationships that can grow over time requires the willingness and commitment to go beyond the immediate transaction. And that takes work on all sides.

This is our take on the Cambridge Judge Business School research with Lexis Nexis but the research provides much more detail and potential actions for law firms to improve trust and transparency with their clients.  If you would like a copy of the report, please do get in touch: [email protected]

 

 

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