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Firms should 'stop selling, start listening' when it comes to client development

Firms should 'stop selling, start listening' when it comes to client development

Relationship building - not shameless self-promotion - should be at forefront of a law firm's client strategy. Justin Whealing reportsThe head of legal at NRMA Motoring & Services has called…

Relationship building - not shameless self-promotion - should be at forefront of a law firm's client strategy. Justin Whealing reports

The head of legal at NRMA Motoring & Services has called on law firms to drop the hard sell and pay attention to in-house lawyers.

Paul Rogerson, who left his role as the head of compliance at Westpac to join NRMA earlier this year, told the LexisNexis* practice management conference, held in Sydney on 24 May, that law firms need to spend less time "cross-selling" - which involves private practice lawyers talking up the capabilities of their firm in other areas in an attempt to win more work - and more time listening to their clients' concerns.

"Find out from the client what is front of mind for them, and suggest how you can potentially solve those issues," advised Rogerson. "Rather than saying, 'You can deal with Fred over here, he is a fantastic M&A lawyer, and you can deal with Mary over there, who is a fantastic litigator'.

"If you are trying to sell the client something, what your client is thinking is, 'Why? Why are they trying to sell me something I don't necessarily need or want?' Find out from your client what they want or need, and see how you can meet that need for them."

When Rogerson asked the audience of mainly private practice lawyers if they engaged in cross-selling, many audience members nodded in acknowledgement. Hunt & Hunt partner and chairman Maureen Peatman said, "We are all asked to do it", before agreeing with Rogerson that the technique doesn't work very well.

Rogerson - who has extensive in-house experience in the banking and finance sector, including previous roles with ABN Amro and St George Bank prior to joining Westpac - said law firms have a much greater opportunity to put the client first compared with large retail banks, because they have significantly less clients to please.

"Banks always talk about putting the customer at the centre of everything they do," he said. "When you have 10 million customers, you can't possibly be fussing over all of them."

Rogerson related a story from his time at ABN Amro when a well-known national law firm would call him or a senior member of the in-house legal team, asking if there was anything they could be working on for them over the weekend.

"Every Friday afternoon they would ring and wrap up the week about where the matter was at, and ask if there was anything else that you wanted done over the weekend," he said. "They were happy to do it, because they got paid for it," he said.

"It was that sort of level of client care - and they are all indoctrinated to do it - that gave this firm a very positive vibe and distinguished itself from its two main rivals."

With his legal team at NRMA currently going through a tender process to select external legal advisers, Rogerson said the value of relationships is a key point of differentiation - not how many awards a firm has won or the quality of its work in areas that might not be relevant to the client.

"I was staggered by the amount of lawyers one firm put forward. They told me all about the wonderful things they have done, and how certain lawyers were in Chambers' top 500 for this, that and the other," he said. "I was thinking, 'Why do I need to have 15 lawyers?'"

Rogerson added that many in-house counsel are wary of firms that big-note their lawyers in an over-the-top manner. "Many of these lawyers are the desperate and dateless, looking for things to do, and they think they can possibly pick up a bit of work and make a bit of money," he said.

"But the truth of the matter is, that doesn't cut it... All of your competitors have those sorts of people, so what makes you different from anybody else? What can make you different is the quality of the relationship."

Beware the 'Time Lord' partners

Rogerson also spoke about the need for law firms to offer alternative billing arrangements to clients, citing an example during his tenure at St George Bank when he engaged a firm they "needed to be tough on" for a fixed fee of $60,000 for a particular piece of work.

"If the firm does it for $20,000, they still get $60,000, because what we are buying is their expertise - and I am happy to pay $60,000," said Rogerson. "I used to watch the bill come in every month, and I could see how things were rounding up because the special counsel would charge for two hours worth of work, while the supervising partner was charging for 2.5 hours to review the advice.

"This led me to conclude that either the general counsel should be fired, or the partner was what in-house counsel would describe as a 'Time Lord' - someone who can turn five minutes into five hours without any trouble."

Rogerson said that under the fixed-fee arrangement, he noticed that those sorts of exorbitant costs would diminish over the duration of the project being worked on. "This sort of thing happened all the time, but I didn't really care because we would remind them they were chewing through the billable hours at a great rate of knots, and that they were more than halfway through the cost but not halfway through the task," he said.

"So be careful," he warned, "Because when you get to $60,000, we are not paying another penny."

* Lawyers Weekly is published by LexisNexis.

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