A few years ago the managing partner of a mid-sized London firm said to me ‘The most important role a partner has is to sell the bill to the client.’
He went on to say that most of his firm’s write-offs were due to partners doing good work for a client without the client being convinced that the work should have been done.
Interestingly, the good partners did not always have to have pre-authorisation for the work and poor partners often fail to get paid even though the client had apparently agreed that the work should go ahead.
It’s true, isn’t it? The challenge of selling the bill is not a legal one; it’s a commercial one.
The client knows that instructing a good law firm is expensive. So what they want to know is that they haven’t been ‘taken for a ride’. Just like anybody entering into an expensive transaction they want to be able to explain to other people why they got value for money. What was it that your firm did which ‘added value’?
Value is far more than what something cost. Value the sum total of what a client believes they contributed (money, time, people) set against what they believe they received from you (legal advice, prompt service, commerciality).
So what can a partner do to sell the bill?
All client research indicates that it is your first and last impression that sticks in a client’s mind. The beginning of any client transaction is therefore the chance to impress – the chance to show that the partner to understand both the job and its importance. This is scoping, which is the first stage of legal project management. To do the scoping well requires a partner to ask good questions – beyond legal ones – and listen well. A complex transaction is the crucible in which client relationships are made or broken. With good scoping and subsequent plan the client is crystal-clear on how they will be communicated with, and what decisions will be taken by whom and how. In this way, when the transaction gets sticky (and most do at some stage) the client knows they can trust you.
The client will remember your final communications with them far longer than the technical work you undertook mid-transaction. Don’t let this final memory be a fee dispute. Check fees with a client in the run-up to the ending, not just at the final point. Note that checking with a client is a conversation, not an email. If a client hasn’t responded to your email warning them of a forthcoming invoice they may be brooding and unhappy, not delighted with your work. It’s even better when you can finish with a simple feedback meeting, where client can discuss what worked well/not so well as well as consider how you will work together better next time.
Run the matter well
Good transaction management makes sure that the client has agreed how they will be consulted, how changes of scope will be agreed and how invoices will be paid. You then need to follow these agreements. A client will never be able to track your legal expertise, so they use your efficiency as a proxy measure, on the basis that if you are responsive and pro-active all else is well too. This may not be true, but if the client believes it’s true it will be the basis for their judgement.
Ensure there are no surprises
As an experienced lawyer you should have been able to anticipate most risks, even if most of them would not come to pass. A good commercial lawyer will explain these risks to their client upfront, so that new developments – although perhaps unwelcome – will not have been a complete surprise to the client. Only if something is a complete surprise to the lawyer should it be a complete surprise the client. Your overall job is to make the client look good, and if the transaction history is one constant change you’re not helping your client manage their internal profile.
The final fee note is the culmination of everything that has happened in the transaction. It is expressed as ‘£’, but it brings up every aspect of the matter into the client’s mind. It is the outcome of the challenges of the transaction and the result of choices the client made.
For a partner to sell the bill the client needs to have been committed throughout, not just a paying audience.
Jamie Pennington’s consultancy, Pennington Hennessy, provides mentoring, coaching and training to law firms. You can read his blog here.