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How Deep is Your Bench?

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A close and trusting relationship between an engagement partner and client is the mortar that holds a law firm together. We all strive to achieve the type of symbiotic bond that engenders the free flow of information that allows us to do our best work.

But what happens when that faithful client calls in “crisis mode” on a day when the lead attorney is out of the office? Who picks up the ball? Or if a huge case creates an exceptional demand on the partner’s time? Or, heaven forbid, the attorney is incapacitated or dies unexpectedly?

These and other, less dramatic situations, make it evident that having a clearly defined “#2” contact person and support team is important to a successful client relationship.

In interviews with clients over the years, I have discovered that, while almost all feel they have a strong relationship with their attorney, they also look for more depth from the law firm. Clients want assurance that their needs are being met by more than one person and that there is a team of people they can count on – and call on – when necessary.

Unfortunately, a number of the clients interviewed have expressed to me that they do not have the same confidence in their “backup lawyers” as they do in their engagement partner. Some, worried about overburdening their attorney, have admitted to giving some of their legal work to another law firm – they simply did not know whom else to turn to at their primary firm.

It is in the best interest of both the client and the law firm to institutionalize clients, making them part of the fabric of the firm and not just a temporary guest. Extending and expanding the relationship beyond a one-on-one with a single attorney opens the door to new services and additional billing, while letting the client know how important they are to the firm.

This makes it essential that a firm develop a strong “bench” to support the lead partner in every engagement, and that the client become familiar and comfortable with the team members serving them. Steps to achieve this objective include:

  • At the very start of an engagement designate a #2 attorney who, while not responsible for the day-to-day relationship with a client, becomes acquainted with the client and keeps up with ongoing activities
  • Establish a core team of attorneys and paralegals who will work on the account (understanding that some flexibility will be necessary)
  • Make sure the client meets the team members early in the engagement, and on a frequent basis going forward
  • Provide the client with direct contact information for all attorneys, paralegals and staff members working on their account
  • Keep all team members informed and involved with the client, either through regular update conferences or written reports

Corporate clients in particular understand and appreciate the benefits of cooperation and teamwork. But law firms have been slow to adapt to a team service model. Part of this comes from the reluctance of a lead attorney to share. The value of an attorney to a firm is tied up in his or her book of business, and splitting a client diminishes that value. In addition, lawyers generally loathe divvying up billable hours they feel are rightfully theirs.

But, for the sake of the client, stability and continuity in the way legal services are delivered is necessary, and should become an integral part of a law firm’s culture.