Focused Client Development Efforts Produce The Results International Practice Groups Seek

What is Client Development?

by Byron G. Sabol

(This article appeared in Strategies – The Journal of Legal Marketing September, 2003)

Success in marketing an international law practice depends today on what you market as much as how you market. Specialization of practice is important in the global market. Becoming well known to domestic clients for expertise in specific areas of the law and successfully transferring that visibility to an international market is important for producing cross-border work. One of the more viable means for becoming known as a resource within the international market is through membership in an international law firm network. But does membership in a law firm network produce new business? The consensus among colleagues in numerous countries is that some do and some don’t.

Law Firm Networks

Law firm networks come in a variety of sizes from those that limit members to a few firms to international networks comprised of hundreds of law firms across several continents. The issue for marketing purposes is not the size of membership, but the effectiveness of the network to generate new client work. Critical success factors for law firm networks include: 1.) Synergy among the network members and consistency in communications among member firms. 2.) Lawyers who are motivated to look for new business opportunities outside of their own practice area and outside of their own law firm. 3.) Ensuring quality control by knowing the quality of the work performed by lawyers to whom work is to be referred is critical to continued success of the law firm network.

Finding A Niche

Creating a unique market offering within the international market through a culture specific alliance among complimentary law firms is one means to generate cross-border business. One such entity is the Law Firm of the Americas, an independent group of law firms based in business centers primarily throughout North and South America and the Iberian Peninsula. While understanding the local civil law system does not make this organization unique, its understanding of the local culture is a unique market offering. Not only do most of the firm member lawyers speak Spanish, they share a common understanding of Latin America culture, which can be very attractive to the market. Their motto is clearly consistent with this strategy: Global Reach, Local Knowledge.

Internal Firm Programming

Marketing within the firm is an important, and often overlooked, marketing tactic. At a minimum, all firm partners should know the firm’s international capabilities. Educating firm partners can be achieved by making brief presentations at firm practice group meetings. The purpose of the presentation is not to deluge the partners with data, but to make them aware of capabilities of the International practice group and for whom the International practice group works. These presentations also serve to educate the International practice group about the capabilities of the practice group to whom they are presenting.

Existing Clients

Existing clients with cross-border legal needs can provide a fountain of new business opportunities. The challenge for many law firms is to maximize the utility that these clients represent to both the International practice and firm-wide. Client service teams, directed by an effective client relationship manager (CRM), are proven generators of cross-border work. The CRM assumes a broader role than the traditional client partner (CP). The CRM is responsible for answering two important questions: 1) “What are all of the legal needs of this international client?”; 2.) “What is your plan for maximizing the utility that this international client offers our firm?” The answers to these questions do not fall exclusively on the shoulders of the CRM. Client service team members share in the responsibility to understand the full complement of the client’s legal matters and service quality needs. As the service team members acquire this knowledge, new service opportunities are produced. A proven means for identifying new business opportunities for the international client is through Client Service Planning.

Client Service Planning focuses the attention and talents of partners from various practice disciplines servicing cross-border clients. The sharing of knowledge that lawyers have of a client is a key to expanding the relationship with any client. The agenda for the client service planning session stimulates discussion among the partners that identifies both key client relationship issues and realistic new service opportunities. The service team lawyers may be located in the same office; they may be located in multiple offices in the same country or they may be located in offices in several countries. Information generated during and after the client service strategy session is shared among the lawyers servicing the client in a variety of ways. Client specific information can be placed on the firm’s Intranet to be shared on a read-only basis by all firm lawyers or the information can be available only to those lawyers who service the specific client. Some law firms use contact management software to keep lawyers abreast of the client. A poignant example of new work opportunities missed because of the absence of a well managed client service format is found in the remarks of the senior executive of a large UK-based international consumer products company to the client partner of a law firm servicing this client for years: “I didn’t know you did that kind of work. I’ve been sending it down the street for years”. Client service planning eliminates these kinds of new business oversights.

Targeting Prospects: Meaningful Research

While volumes can be written on researching international new business opportunities, the following search sources can save considerable time and energy:

1. Consult the CIA World Fact Book 2003 for information about specific countries throughout the world. Major products and exports are listed for these countries;

2. U.S. State Department: Business Center contains a host of information relating to how to do business to new areas of business and possible contracts and business leads;

3. U.S. Treasury Department contains a collection of websites regarding country exports and U. S. imports;

4. Search the Internet using one of the more powerful search engines like Google for the following indicators: a.) Postings relating to a targeted country or product; b.) Stories about economic activity or business climate or sales of a particular product or commodity; c.) Foreign government sites for posting of economic forecast outlining business conditions and related relevant information;

5. Lexis/Nexus: Search the News File for the country and economic stories relating to it. Search the Business Files once you have determined a country or product as you can locate addresses and major players in that arena;

6. Search Martindale-Hubble for law firms that represent a targeted foreign country. Check their list of major clients for possible clues;

7. Identify foreign professional organizations via the Internet and Directory of International Organizations;

Targeting Prospects: Key Factors

Not All Agencies Are The Same

Because companies planning to initiate cross-border activity are often identified through word-of-mouth, being know by key economic, finance, and related agencies is important for a law firm’s International practice. Active involvement in select organizations is a proven means for establishing a firm’s profile among important gatekeepers. While nearly all European countries have economic development agencies with offices in the US, not all of these agencies are a proven source of new business for law firms. Many agencies are reactive, primarily responding to requests made to them. Agencies that are worth law firm involvement are those that: 1.) Seek opportunities to refer resources to foreign country economic agencies, companies, and key individuals exploring new business interests in a specific country; 2.) Agencies that are the first point of contact by companies and entities contemplating doing business in a specific country. The London office of California Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency; Invest UK; and Trade Partners UK, with commercial trade offices in 13 US cities, are a few of the more worthwhile trade agencies for law firm involvement.

“Door Knocking” Can Be Productive

Face-to-face contact with specific partners within specific practice specialties [“door knocking” as one of my UK-based clients calls it] has proven to be an effective cross-border generator of new business for a variety of law firms. Law firms based outside the US have produced substantial new business in North America through personal meetings with targeted US and Canadian law firm partners. Prior to such meetings, the non-US law firms had no business relationship with the US or the Canadian law firms. The key to this successful relationship is the ability to identify specific partners who are motivated to refer business to a prospective law firm coupled with ability of the partners who are initiating this contact to sell themselves to the potential referring firm partners.

Lawyers have limited time to invest in client development whether they are marketing services across the street or across continents. Focusing on the above activities has proven over the years to generate attractive new work for International law firm practice groups.