Knowledge of Your Clients

August 31, 2005

Whatever the size of your firm, and whatever the size of your IT budget, the effective exploitation of knowledge within your firm can both enhance the service that you provide to existing clients and reduce the cost of gaining new clients. Whether you have a sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) system, a collection of paper files, or simply people who know things about your clients, you can use this knowledge to aid both marketing and client care.

Effective targeting of prospects

A firm may select its targets strategically, or opportunistically; but you can use various sources of knowledge in order to build a profile of each prospect which will then enable you to create a tailored pitch. You need to obtain knowledge of the prospect’s industry or sector, and understand how your firm’s strengths and weaknesses in technical areas relate to the needs of clients in that sector. External research sources have a role to play, but when using them does the marketing department employ the skills of the firm’s information professionals? In the selection of a winning target, does the firm tap into the personal knowledge and connections of all its staff? Does one of your partners play squash with your target’s finance director? Does that director have any say in the selection of legal advisers and if not, can you use him to get to know the person that does?

Tenders and proposals at a reduced cost

Typically, you will have limited time to respond to a formal invitation to tender, and a less formal presentation opportunity may require an even faster response. The cost of the offer depends on the speed with which those compiling the tender can access key documents, tailor them as appropriate to the pitch, and present them in the desired format. Here, IT systems and physical collections of information come to the fore. You can use a skills database to help you select the right team for the presentation. You may wish to create a system that enables up-to-date CVs of fee earners to be produced, to demonstrate particular legal experience or knowledge of particular industry sectors. De-brief sessions held after each presentation or response – whether or not the pitch has been successful – can help in the gathering of materials which may be useful in the future and can also help with strategic determinations such as the re-assessment of hourly rates and competitive position.

Any system designed to assist in the preparation of proposals should be able to collect and make available information about the following.

  • What you have done before: which tenders were successful, and why?
  • Which fee earners were involved? Was it just the personal factor that led to success? Or was it solely the price that won the job?
  • How long did the tender take to prepare?
  • Standard brochure type documents or templates for presentations
  • Typical questions and answers
  • Client testimonials or reference contacts – preferably pre-cleared
  • Who else is pitching and how are they viewed from outside, eg by the press?

You will also want to make best use of the financial information the firm has about its current work (clients and matters), for example by extracting relevant information from the firm’s practice management system.

Knowledge for managing the client relationship

Most firms identify, for each of their clients, a client relationship partner or other key contact within the firm. He or she will inevitably build up a collection of knowledge about the client that should be made available to others in order to inform and enhance future dealings with the client, and to identify gaps in the service. By giving some thought to how that knowledge is captured and disseminated, a firm can get the best value from the knowledge and can reduce that risk of that knowledge being lost to the firm on the departure or retirement of the client partner.

In whatever form the information is held, it is likely to include:

  • information about the client’s business and market sector
  • legal know-how relevant to the client’s work
  • looking from the point of view of the client, who’s who, and who is in touch with whom at the firm?
  • information about the most recent client care exchanges or other ‘non-case’ contact with the client
  • which marketing materials and techniques are being employed?
  • contract information – charging rates, billing procedures, profitability data
  • links to the client’s Web site or a map of their location.

However, knowledge management principles can also be used to equip the client partner with the tools and skills required in order to perform this key non-legal role. If fee earners maintain ‘watch lists’ of key targets, should a person, or CRM system, be responsible for ‘pushing’ key information to them, rather than just making it available? The client partner needs to know where the value is being added in a particular client relationship in order to leverage its benefit for the firm. And this in turn may require the firm to be both more transparent about the costs of ‘relationship management’ activities, and more supportive of all members of its staff in their business development activities.

Can those serving the client identify who are the real ‘experts’ within your firm on a particular topic? When the experts are identified, is their legal and industry knowledge at the cutting edge? Does the receptionist or telephonist have the resources at her fingertips to enable her to direct a call to the appropriate person?

Do you have a robust mechanism for ensuring that not only are client complaints dealt with satisfactorily, but that any feedback that the client provides (whether positive or negative, and whether given voluntarily or in response to a questionnaire) is communicated to all those to whom it may be relevant?

At the July meeting of the SCL Knowledge Management Group, Michael Michaelides, Global Head of Corporate Business Development at Allen & Overy LLP, described a firm’s client feedback programme and the KM challenges that it presents. There may be hundreds of client responses, each identifying several different themes or areas where service could be improved, and each having many different audiences within the firm (partners, HR, marketing teams, finance staff and so on). The firm will need to identify someone who has the relevant information management skills but is also both commercial and tactful. Michael also emphasised that the feedback process needs to be ‘hard wired’ into decision-making and planning at a senior level, and should be clearly directed at a particular management or client service rationale. When complete, the lessons learned from the process should be incorporated into all the firm’s internal communication channels such as the intranet, newsletter, best practice guides, and training.

Giving your knowledge to clients

A client’s demand for ‘added value’ from its legal advisors may include a requirement that the firm provides legal updates, briefing notes, seminars, or even template documents for use by the client. There is an understandable reluctance on the part of those who control the purse strings to allow clients to have valuable know-how for nothing. However, pressures from both clients and competitors mean that the provision of know-how moves from being the firm’s ‘Crown jewels’, through ‘added value’ to merely ‘the price of doing business’, over a period of three years or less in a typical client relationship.

The demanding client will expect its chosen legal advisor to provide it with something that is not available to the general public, such as workshops or seminars delivered at their premises and tailored to their requirements. If your firm employs business development professionals, they will obviously have to liaise closely with the lawyers producing the content for such a resource. Some law firms have created a client-specific area of their Web site which allows access to a greater volume of content or a more tailored know-how service. This also avoids arguments from partners that the firm has ‘given away the family silver’ by limiting the bounty to clients selected by annual spend or strategic importance. You should find, however, that any investment in knowledge management, whether in terms of collections of materials or in the employment of PSLs, reduces the cost of creating client-tailored know-how. It may even be possible to re-charge to the client some or all of the costs, bringing the argument full circle.

Exploiting knowledge to support cross-selling

Dedicated professionals may, surprisingly, have a high degree of ignorance about the talents of their colleagues. Equally, the fear of losing clients may lead a lawyer to be reluctant to introduce them to other departments (and of course an ‘eat-what-you-kill’ reward structure will not help). One way in which a professional trust can be developed between law firm colleagues to facilitate cross-selling is by co-ordinating the efforts of the know-how lawyers (PSLs, or training partners) and the marketing and business development teams, so that training sessions within the firm can be designed to increase the level of knowledge relevant to a particular client or industry sector.

Training may also be required in cross-selling techniques, and in the use of whatever form of marketing database or other marketing know-how the firm uses. In order to cross-sell effectively, fee-earners needs at their disposal all the firm’s marketing resources (including legal know-how provided to clients as added value) and details of the knowledge of their colleagues, both in terms of who knows what (an expertise database) and who knows whom (a contacts database, linking individuals within the respective organisations). They will also need to be informed about the matters being opened for ‘their’ clients across the firm.

Do not neglect the value of the informal knowledge held by a client team, or industry sector group, which may best be shared by meetings – even perhaps in meetings without an agenda, or ‘meetings’ in the staff canteen. Although there are customer relationship management systems which claim to render these unnecessary, where they are physically possible a face-to-face meeting of colleagues can disseminate most effectively the stories about the last job done for a client, or the last meeting with the client’s decision-makers, that help the firm identify successes and maximise its cross-selling opportunities. If a physical meeting is not possible, a bulletin board or other technology solution may be used.

Feedback from the Knowledge Management Group

At the meeting of the SCL Knowledge Management Group held in July, groups of participants considered the knowledge management issues raised in each of the areas outlined above. The feedback identified which knowledge management tools or techniques had applications in the business development context: many of them were identified by several of the groups (see table below). Perhaps not surprisingly, databases of various kinds were most frequently mentioned; but personal knowledge and contacts also scored highly. There was a strong theme that to make such initiatives effective they must be implemented pragmatically, with realistic aims and awareness of the limited time available in a busy law firm.


Client focus and retention can be assisted by the provision of sources of information centred around a particular target or a particular client. However, an equally important factor is the degree of success in overcoming institutional barriers within the firm which create localised centres of knowledge. Exploiting the firm’s collective knowledge requires that there is no compartmentalisation between groups of specialist fee earners, between the marketing team and the know-how lawyers, between qualified and support staff, or between fee-earners and the client relationship partner. Without removing or at least weakening these barriers, any expenditure on a CRM system will be merely a cost and not an investment.

KM tools and techniques identified as useful in business development activities

CRM or practice management information systems

Document management systems

External sources of information (eg business research)

Sector-based discussion groups within the firm

Law firm intranet

Building individual relationships within clients/targets

Recognition of business development activities in individuals’ appraisals

Skills and knowledge of information services and PSLs

Client extranet

Exploiting knowledge gained from client feedback

Duncan Ogilvy is KM partner at Mills & Reeve. Elizabeth West was formerly a partner in Manches.

Developed by the SCL Knowledge Management Group during the ‘Knowledge of Your Clients’ seminar (July 2005).