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Client experience “still walking around the dancefloor”

Client experience is not part of the DNA of today’s legal businesses. But that is changing. Jeremy Hopkins tells The Professionals that marketing and BD leaders need to take the driving seat.

Despite what many law firms will claim, the client experience is not always front and centre of partners’ minds, or indeed marketing team thinking. From the everyday touchpoints to legal project management, the client perspective is all too often missing.

A small but telling example is the seemingly innocuous client engagement and onboarding process. “This is quite onerous and irritating for many time-pressured clients,” says Jeremy Hopkins, Head of Client Services at Field Seymour Parkes. 

“Yet firms invariably insist on the ‘belt and braces’ approach, often requiring a director’s passport and utility bill in all cases without first making the effort to explore whether they really need to impose this burden on the client in the particular circumstances of the matter.

“To truly take a view from a client perspective, this approach should be front of mind. Better still, technology can be used to transform the process to the client’s benefit.”

Having previously worked client-side as an in-house legal operations manager, Jeremy would often simply say ‘no’ to these requests in cases where he knew it was not necessary and was not inclined to knock on his busy CEO’s door to ask for her passport. 

“The law firms would not ask again, which made me wonder why they did in the first place and rather underlines my point.”

Jeremy brings to the client experience debate roles with big law at Baker McKenzie, alternative provider Riverview and client-side at Signant Health and SecureCloud+. He joined Field Seymour Parkes, a law firm he had previously worked with closely as a client, in September 2019 as its Head of Client Services.

“Client experience sounds simple but is rarely truly on the law firm radar,” he says. “Historically, law firms have always been able to dictate terms, but change is being driven, albeit more slowly than perhaps has been observed, by buyers of corporate legal services armed with buying power and a compelling need for change.”

So, where should client experience sit inside a law firm?

“It needs to be embedded into the DNA of the law firm,” explains Jeremy. “It’s a leadership and culture thing, and that is often missing.

“Law firm leadership remains a lottery, with leaders chosen from the limited pool of lawyer partners for which the primary qualifications are hours billed and sales performance. It is by no means a given that a lawyer with these qualities has what it takes to be a strong leader, which renders it largely a question of pure luck whether a firm gets a strong leader or indeed one who wants to lead.”

“In recent years we have seen a trend towards law firms hiring professional senior executives from non-legal backgrounds. Yet too often, such roles do not come with the organisational empowerment conferred by the partnership and which is needed to influence and affect meaningful change. Partners may hire the CEO to challenge thinking and behaviours but rarely welcome that challenge.”

That is not to say firms do not genuinely care about their clients – of course they do. Being approachable, doing a good job, meeting deadlines and having a client care programme does not necessarily improve the overall client experience.

“Most client care programmes are not driven by improving the client experience but on increasing sales,” says Jeremy. “They will focus on what has been done for a client and less on how it was delivered. Lawyers find it difficult to hold back from trying to sell based on the expertise they have to offer rather than the problem the client is looking to solve.”

Jeremy believes marketing and BD teams are in a powerful position to drive meaningful change in client experience, shifting the focus from expertise to propositions.

“Take, for example, something that will be important to entrepreneurial businesses – a single point of contact, fixed prices and no quibbles. This is a low maintenance relationship and is what clients want. So how do we articulate that? That is where the BD and marketing teams are taking the lead.

“And BD teams should push back on activity and behaviour where it doesn’t meet or live up to the proposition. They are upping the game and rightly so.”

The client experience will change as GCs become more vocal, and we should welcome those outspoken GCs. Those firms that listen and act will give themselves a clear advantage in an increasingly crowded market.

“Yet it is still incumbent upon GCs to explain what value means to them and how they expect a firm to deliver it. This important relationship is not a one-way street, yet too often that conversation is still the equivalent of walking around the dance floor, too afraid to make the first move in case it results in anything other than resounding success. 

“Without the boldness to accept such failure as an inevitable part of the process, progress in improving client value in legal service delivery will continue to be frustratingly slow.”

Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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