Professional Services: Build client relationships: leverage knowledge

Professional Services: Build client relationships: leverage knowledge

Harriet Creamer of Gulland Padfield examines how law firms can maximise the return from their knowledge-led business development activities.

Every professional support lawyer (PSL) and knowledge management (KM) team will, at some stage, be asked to support their law firm’s public face. This may involve anything from helping to produce a regular newsletter, delivering or assisting with a client seminar to a one-off, in-depth Thought Capital campaign.

Evidence in the legal market and from clients suggests that traditional client-facing activities, such as newsletters, client guides and memoranda, have a limited effect on work generation and client relationships. As resources are finite, law firms need to focus their efforts on activities that are most likely to have a real impact and on communicating developments to clients in innovative and interesting ways. This article explores how law firms can maximise the return from their knowledge-led business development (KLBD) activities. As well as identifying some practical steps, the article looks at the strategy behind KLBD initiatives.


Aligning knowledge with firm strategy
A law firm’s investment in KLBD is unlikely to generate an appropriate return unless it is closely aligned to and supports the firm’s strategic objectives. Typically, the non-fee earning teams, KM, PSLs and business development (BD), which are involved will have limited resources. Where fee-earners are involved, the impact on their fee earning hours brings with it a considerable opportunity cost, so it is important to prioritise activities that will support the law firm’s business goals. This requires engaging with the law firm’s strategy, something that is not always shared with PSLs. It is important that the PSLs are clear about the clients, markets and sectors which the law firm is prioritising: without this insight it will be almost impossible for them to focus their KLBD activities appropriately or to identify content which will resonate with clients.

It is also important that strategy is shared with the wider KM team. Increasingly, information and library staff are delivering business and market information to partners and others. If they understand the law firm’s strategic objectives, they will be better placed not only to focus the material which they circulate but also to provide market context to PSLs who can then use this to judge the likely impact on key clients of legal and regulatory developments.

Understanding the client needs
Apart from the most widely targeted profile-raising material, KLBD is unlikely to deliver returns unless it is targeted at specific client needs. Getting this right will start with an understanding of the client’s particular perspective: this may be a group of clients in a particular sector or market or a small number of individual clients who are likely to be particularly affected by or interested in a specific issue.

Building a relationship with the BD team
It is enormously important that the BD and KM or PSL teams work together well. The best relationships are symbiotic, where each understands the other’s needs and expectations. The BD team should rely on the PSLs for ideas and content and the PSLs should rely on the BD team to include them when business development initiatives are discussed. There should be a regular exchange of ideas. However, developing a productive relationship of this nature will need support and encouragement at partner and director level.

Thought Capital
Thought Capital (Gulland Padfield approach to thought leadership) is a specific area to which law firms are devoting increasing amounts of time. Larger law firms, in particular, are adopting tactics which the leading management consultancies and Big Four firms have successfully used over the last 15 years to build relationships and broaden their brands, and putting global programmes in place to support their relationships with corporate clients. If performed well, Thought Capital can be an effective tool in reaching the board and other high level stakeholders who are crucial to the development of key client relationships. The following four elements are essential to a successful campaign:

1. Planning. Law firms which engage in successful Thought Capital activities tend do so as part of a programme of well thought out KLBD activities. In these law firms, an annual programme will typically include a mix of:

  • On-going activities, including traditional activities such as regular updates for clients in key sectors, and more innovative activities such as regular updates on social media.
  • Planned, regular but less frequent output which will be principally based around demonstrating thought leadership in a series of core themes or topics.
  • One-off activities relating to issues, for example, new legislation that is of particular significance to clients.

2. Choosing a topic. In law firms where there is a regular, productive dialogue between the BD and KM teams, topics for effective KLBD should be surfacing regularly. For a really effective Thought Capital campaign, the chosen topic should be one on which the law firm can offer either the first or a novel view, which will be of practical interest to clients. Ideally, the law firm should identify a number of possible topics which can be tested both with partners and clients operating in the relevant sector in order to make sure that there will be enough interest in the firm’s conclusions to generate a sufficient level of return. Some analysis of competitors’ activities is also advisable at this stage (or open space mapping), to make sure the topic is not one on which everyone has already had their say. Finally, the topics selected should be part of an overall master set of themes (or theme architecture) which aligns with the firm brand and business strategy. 

3. Partner and fee earner engagement. Partners and other fee earners involved in producing the analysis, or delivering the project conclusions to clients, must have engaged with the topic and understood both the expected output and the process by which it will be produced. Once the process is complete, the results and conclusions must be fully shared with everyone who may be involved in conversations with clients. There is often a degree of concern about the amount of time which should be devoted to these activities. A properly designed Thought Capital process should take no more than 25 hours of individual partner time in the creation of a piece of content. 

4. Agreeing measurable outcomes. The objectives of the campaign need to be clearly expressed at the start of the planning process. Ideally, the law firm should agree a series of tangible outcomes or KPis for the piece. These go far beyond a general aspiration to raise brand awareness and focus on business development return. Although these outcomes should be more challenging than simply listing the numbers of reports despatched to clients, they need not be complex. For example, they might include numbers of meetings or conversations with clients based around the report. Some firms may wish to capture the numbers of actual instructions received as a result of the report, but for most firms immediate work generation will be a secondary objective: the primary goal is to create opportunities for positive client contact.


Generating content

Identifying appropriate content and matching it to client and law firm needs is often challenging. PSLs’ breadth of knowledge about developments in law and practice and their overview of activity within the law firm, across practice groups, sectors and offices means that they are ideally placed to identify content and to upcoming developments which are likely to impact on clients’ activities. Ideally, PSLs should attend sector and practice area BD and key client discussions as a matter of course. Where lack of time makes this difficult, busy PSL and BD teams may prefer to meet less often and to set up a regular group email. Here the BD team shares strategic client and market priorities and the PSL team, in turn, identifies recent and upcoming developments from which the firm may be able to generate opportunities for client contact. It is important here to balance the technical with the more strategic challenges which clients are facing. The temptation is often to focus on technical detail. The client insight conversations and Thought Capital projects which Gulland Padfield have completed demonstrate the need to balance the technical with the strategic. Analysis must allow busy GCs, Heads of Strategy and Senior Executives to lift their eyes to the horizon from the demands of the day-to-day role.

Identifying the goal
As with any communication, internal or external, the key to format, tone and content is to identify the goal. The approach will differ depending on whether this is to generate work directly, build a client relationship with a view to generating work in future or raise the profile of the law firm or an individual lawyer.

The goal should identify both the immediate aim of the particular KLBD activity and its intended outcome. For example, the aim might be to explain the practical impact of a legislative change to clients in a particular sector; the anticipated outcome might be that clients contacted about the change will instruct the firm to advise them on amendments to documents and contracts affected by the change.

Tailoring the medium to the message
Increasingly, law firms are turning to more innovative methods of delivery such as podcasts, videos and social media. However, there is little research to date on the effectiveness of social media in a business-focused, as opposed to consumer, professional services context. Unless the aim is to raise the law firm’s profile in the broadest sense, as a general rule the more personal the contact, the better. This is particularly so where work generation is the immediate aim. Approaches might include a direct phone call or personal email, where a PSL might script or provide explanatory background material to support the partner or other fee earner who will actually make the call or send the email.

Harriet Creamer is a principal at Gulland Padfield, which provides client relationship and knowledge management advice to professional services firms and other businesses. She is a former partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of PLC Magazine Please visit to view the original.

Gulland Padfield have completed over 150 thought capital programmes for major professional services, financial services and business services organisations. Over the last 14 years and based on our own research with GCs and other buyers of advice, the Gulland Padfield team have developed a more business development and ROI-focused approach to creating knowledge-based content -Thought Capital. Our approach focuses explicitly on developing content assets which our clients can leverage to have the most effective conversations with clients and prospects to drive fees as well as raise profile. Gulland Padfield supports clients from in the creation of internal Thought Capital capabilities as well as in the end-to-end tactical execution and creation of programs of compelling and differentiating content.

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