Why IP Lawyers Need to Have Effective Relationship Management Skills to Survive

Why IP Lawyers Need to Have Effective Relationship Management Skills to Survive

The 20th Annual Survey of General Counsel published in the August 2010 issue of Inside Counsel (‘What’s Going On In Today’s Legal Departments’) has some significant pointers for IP legal services professionals who want to attract good clients and keep them on board for years.

First of all, it identifies IP legal services as one of 5 practice areas that increased in volume despite the turbulent economic conditions, with the comment “IP has become more important to everybody, whether it’s GM and whether [its employees] are authorized to use the word Chevy… or my company protecting creative rights for fashion.” – Lorraine Koc, vice president and general counsel, Deb Shops.

Secondly, the figures cited highlight the opportunities IP legal services professionals have to attract really good clients IF they take action to address some of the concerns in-house counsels have. Key figures to consider include:

Only 40.9% of law firms understand their business. Truly shocking! I have written a bit about the need to know the conversation going on in your prospect’s /client’s mind, and suspect that this figure is low because too many lawyers have no proper processes and systems to find out what their clients are really looking for. Even worse, they probably make no effort to learn about their client’s business.

Almost 65% on in-house counsels don’t believe law firms actively seek ways to reduce costs. Many IP legal services professionals don’t want to reduce costs because of the time they spend on various activities which they want to bill for. However, if IP legals services professionals systemised their client client attraction activity (as an example), some of the costs they subsequently quote could be reduced because of the reduced overheads. By proactively discussing costs with clients, IP legal services professionals can stand out when compared to those that simply don’t want to be flexible enough to discuss costs.

51% of law firms fail to recognise their clients’ budget constraints. First of all, I want to repeat something I have mentioned below. You do not want to be the IP legal services professional that is known as the lowest priced service provider in the market. That will kill your reputation and your business. Clients will always pay for value, but IP legal services professionals do need to consider the reduced budgets many of the clients have. Providing a hybrid model of fixed and billable-by-the-hour price plans, and perhaps thinking more about multi-year managed service options gives astute IP legal services professionals the opportunity to show their willingness to explore various pricing options.

If you have not read the report, do so now. The key figure to take away, and which hammers home the opportunities available for lawyers, is the fact that 31.5% of in-house counsels are unhappy with their current law firm relationships.

How that breaks down for the IP legal services sector is not clear. But if we assume – and I appreciate this is a BIG assumption – that 30% of in-house counsels are looking for a new IP legal services provider, then clearly there is a lot of business out there that needs to be won. Remember, IP legal services is one of the top 5 growth practices according to the survey.

If that is the case, you need to be smart about the way you go about trying to win new IP legal services business. Repeating old mistakes such as cold calling, running seminars to prospects you have built no relationship with, or failing to build trust by providing information that your prospects are looking for (without giving direct legal advice of course) will mean you simply repeat the mistakes made by law firms that many businesses are already unhappy with.

And this extends to smaller businesses that still need crucial IP legal services advice but where relationships are with owners themselves, or where there is no in-house legal counsel to deal with. With smaller prospects and clients, the problems associated with budgets are multiplied many times over. They simply don’t have the huge corporate budgets to play around with, and relationships here can be even more personal.

What this survey highlights is the need to understand customer life time values, and to make sure you have systems and processes to manage the various stages in relationships you have with prospects and clients. How you win clients determines the value they attach to the relationship with you. So what do IP legal services professionals need to do?

Right from the start, you need to find out the conversation going on in your prospect’s mind, and provide information that points them towards a solution or shows them how they can get rid of any frustrations they have.

You need a platform to systemise your communications with prospects, and allow them to give you feedback so you you don’t make assumptions about what they need. This allows you to develop trust with prospects and lets them get to know you via reports, seminars, newsletters, etc. You want them to make the informed choice to select you above all other options available in the IP legal services market.

You have to create a value proposition that takes into account the budget constraints many potential /current clients have. Think about the value of having a managed services offering, which guarantees fees over a given period of time and helps you plan your practice growth better. This means changing some internal structures so that you outsource non-core activities and focus on the stuff that clients value most, After all, that is what you trained for. For many IP legal services practices and solo practitioners, outsourcing of certain functions/activities is a great opportunity to reduce costs. All this, however, comes from understanding what your clients really need and making sure you have the flexibility, without killing your business, to deliver a great service.

Is all this simple? No, but the key thing to remember is this. Great marketing is not about coming up with the latest, fantastic idea. It needs, to be blunt, tried and tested systems that have worked already. More important though, success comes not from simply reading about such systems, but taking action to implement them. Once you have them in place, you will find yourself spending twice as much time dealing with customers that want to work with you and subsequently increase your income.

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