Using Research to Build a Firm Around Clients' Concerns, Needs, and Desires

Vol. 3, No. 9

Carol Schiro Greenwald, Ph.D. is a professional services business development consultant and coach. She is also the author of Build Your Practice the Logical Way: Maximize Your Client Relationships [ABA, First Chair Press, 2012]. She can be reached at 914.834.9320,, or


It’s a given that the lifeblood of a successful firm or practice is clients. Yet traditionally, lawyers took their clients—especially long-term, loyal clients—for granted.  It didn’t seem to matter in the old days when law firms had a monopoly on the practice of law. Today it matters because more legal services competitors, less demand for traditional work, and clients in the driver’s seat have made client retention a crucial differentiator in terms of firm profitability.

Today, innovative firms are dropping the traditional benign neglect model in favor of client-focused innovations to resolve clients’ problems. The 2013 Financial Times list of most innovative law firms in client service included four American firms:

  • DLA Piper awarded for creating an in-house lawyer network that trains lawyers on the law and their careers, and also for creating a program to help clients in emerging markets modernize
  • Baker & McKenzie for designing a proactive global risk-management tool to prepare companies for dawn raids
  • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for helping design case management software used in the “largest ever private dispute”
  • Axiom for developing a contract data tool for in-house lawyers to use to improve the efficiency and transparency of their work flow.

The common theme is the focus on specific client’s needs and the use of creativity and leadership to craft and deliver new solutions. These are all examples of a client-centric mindset in action. All four show the impact of a 360-degree understanding of these clients—their problems and opportunities in their worlds. The innovative solution emerges from an innovative, research-based approach to defining quality client service.

Using Research to Build a Firm Around Clients Concerns, Needs & DesiresWhat is a Client-Centric Firm?

In a client-centric firm, all resources are aligned to respond to the needs of the client and to build mutually profitable relationships. A firm’s culture, processes, procedures, resources and attorney reward systems need to be focused on proactive initiatives to meet clients’ needs.  In client-centric firms, silos within a firm and between the firm and its client dissolve, replaced by teams focused on collaboration.

Where Does Change Begin?

Change begins when lawyers realize that client service that evolves out of a total understanding of the client in its own world is a true differentiator that will resonate with current and future clients.  This perception underlies the trend to create what Peter Zeughauser (see “Stuck on You,” The American Lawyer, October 1, 2011) calls “stickiness,” an expansion of a firm’s bonds with a client.  To create this bond, “firms must require their lawyers to meet or exceed client expectations about quality, service, cost and results on every measure—as measured by the client’s desire to come back for another matter or to refer additional clients to the firm,” Zeughauser wrote.

A client-focused practice begins with understanding how each client feels about the matter at hand in terms of institutional and personal impact. For their company, clients want concrete outcomes—results, predictable costs, efficiency, process transparency that facilitates their collaboration in resolving the matter. Personally, clients are looking for safety, control, financial security and their future.  They want their lawyers to treat them with respect, provide customized, personal service, show business acumen and resolve matters quickly.

Attorneys with a client-centric mindset will go more than half way to meet this combination of needs, wishes and expectations.  To do so presumes a much deeper knowledge of the client than can be gleaned by working on a series of discrete matters.  Herein lies the innovation—the understanding that this kind of intense focus requires lawyers to ”walk a mile in their shoes.”

How to Develop a 360-degree Understanding of the Whole Client

This kind of deep, personal, detailed understanding includes both the internal world of the client and the external world in which it operates. It presumes an intensive and ongoing research commitment supported by online services for small firms and research teams in large firms.  It should be limited to a handful of key clients—typically top revenue providers, with interesting issues and representative of the way the practice should grow.

Once embarked on research, the possibilities seem endless. To focus on “need to know” rather than “nice to know” it is helpful to use the “5 Cs” as a guide.  These provide a framework for understanding:

  • The who, what, when, where and why of client needs, wishes and expectations
  • The capabilities of the law firm to meet clients’ requirements.

Using Research to Build a Firm Around Clients Concerns, Needs & DesiresThe Five Cs These categories can be used to structure research on corporate clients, individual/family clients and the firm itself. Looking at each category:

  • Company: who they are: mission, goals, organization, date of creation and its stage in terms of a growth cycle, geographic reach—physical and virtual, revenue, culture, decision-making hierarchy and style, key decision-makers, interpersonal relationships, products, services
    • Who the firm knows and who their strategy suggests they need to get to know
  • Clients: characteristics of, location
  • Competitors and context: reflect the reality of the world in they compete for reputation, market share and growth
    • Competitors: in terms of products, services, locations
    • Context: industry trends, issue trends, inventions, customs, rules, regulations, court decisions, legislation, laws
  • Collaborators: people, media and outreach channels used to reach clients, markets; suppliers of key goods and resources, complementary entities they partner with

The same categories should be used to analyze the law firm from the point of view of resources currently used by these clients and resources they may need. These become the building blocks for client teams—an institutionalization of the collaboration in the service of client centricity. The analysis also suggests attorney capabilities the firm needs to develop, practice capabilities to be enhanced or down-graded and technological capabilities to align the firm’s legal process with the client’s preferred way of working.

Transitioning from Research to Action

The first step is to develop a basic SWOT analysis that summarizes the firm’s resources [strengths and weaknesses] against external opportunities and threats. A similar analysis should be completed for each key client.


What are you good at?
What advantages does your firm have?
Why do people hire you?
In what ways is your firm / practice different?
Consider also:
    Firm resources – people, geography, technology
    Reputation – of firm and individual attorneys 
    Unique selling proposition
    Practice area strengths
    Client base overview:. . .
        Industry or demographic breakdowns
        Foundation clients
    Successes / track record

STRATEGIES for capitalizing on strengths


Where can you improve?
What resources do you need to compete more effectively?
What mistakes have you made that create buying obstacles?
Consider also:
    Gaps in your / your firm’s expertise / experience
    Gaps in your product / service offerings
    Gaps in your client service implementation
    Financial area weaknesses
    Leadership / personnel / leverage issues
    Resource inadequacies
    Technology inadequacies

STRATEGIES for minimizing or remediating weaknesses.


What trends lend support to your strengths?
What is your practice’s expansion potential over time?
How, when and where will you grow your practice?
    Market trends
        Size of market share
        Client needs
    Context trends, e.g.:
        Lifestyle changes/consumer tastes
        Role of the internet/social media
        Pace of technological change

STRATEGIES for leveraging opportunities


What challenges do you face?
Who are your competitors?
What are your competitors doing?
What trends hurt your selling proposition?
     Market trends
        Demand curve – clients’ company business cycle
        Size of market share
        Fee pressures
    Context trends, e.g.:
        Economic, Political, Legal
        Lifestyle changes/consumer tastes
        Internet/social media
        Pace of technological change

STRATEGIES for eliminating or minimizing threats

By studying these analyses in relation to each other, a picture emerges of opportunities to pursue in relation to a specific client or a class impacted by the same forces, be it Dodd-Frank or the Affordable Care Act. The collected data provides a guide to the resources needed, the people involved in these particular activities and the program to present.  The firm can then put together the client team, appropriate technology, a shared-risk fee structure and collaborative process appropriate to the opportunity.

Building Profitability from Client-Centricity

Client-centric plans are a natural outgrowth of a firm that has as its core mission to create value for its clients. Attorneys can maximize their knowledge investment and research by building out from their foundation clients. Client teams, project management techniques that encourage transparency and cooperation, alternatives to the billable hour method of computing fees and guidelines for personal service that meet clients’ needs are all tools for turning a client-centric focus into an engine of growth.


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