Strategic account management for law firms: How strategic account programs can support your top clients and position your client team as trusted advisors

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Designed and executed well, strategic account management programs can help law firms forge strong, sustainable alliances with clients whose businesses align with their own long-term growth objectives.

Say your firm wants to cultivate a strategic alliance with a retail giant because this client is expanding into global markets where you already have local offices and retail-related specializations. Partners across geographies with expertise in cross-border transactions, e-commerce, human resources, and real estate would work together to present themselves as a united front, thoughtfully packaging their range of specializations to demonstrate expanded value to the client — essentially offering a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Your firm would provide a client team that’s comprised of a group of lawyers dedicated to providing as diverse a range of legal services as possible for this client. The purpose of the client team is twofold: providing best-in-class client service and building a diversified book of business through cross-selling practice groups.

The marketing and BD team would conduct extensive research into the client and its competitors to build a holistic view of the client’s entire business and industry landscape.

As they build their knowledge about the inner workings of this client, the marketing and BD team can find more ways to add value: perhaps assisting in recruiting a new CFO, nominating a key contact for an award, or performing pro bono work for the client’s corporate charity. Such proactive gestures that go above and beyond the formal relationship are investments in goodwill that can transform the client team collectively into an indispensable trusted advisor.

Differentiating between key-client and strategic account management programs

Many firms offer key-client programs that provide a distinctly elevated level of service to clients who are top revenue contributors. Although key clients receive a range of special services — including planning ahead for future legal needs — they don’t necessarily get a client team that provides quarterly reviews, post-matter debriefs, and other benefits reserved for strategic accounts.

As their key-client programs mature, some firms will start to consider factors other than revenue when selecting key clients: industry, growth potential, and competitive position, for example. While a client that qualifies for strategic account management services is likely already a key client, most key clients won’t ever be a part of the program.

Qualifying clients for strategic account management

Unlike key-client programs, strategic account management programs require significant investment of firm resources — so selecting the right strategic accounts requires careful vetting. To select a client for inclusion into the program, your marketing and BD team should first assess the strength of the existing relationship and its projected longevity and growth as well as opportunities to achieve mutual benefit.

Begin by looking at the number of practice groups engaged as a key indicator of the strength of your firm’s relationship with the client. The more diversified the client is across practice groups, the less likely your firm is at risk of losing their business in the near term.

For example, if a client is spending $2 million annually on employment litigation, but not engaging with any other practice groups, the entirety of that business could go away if a client contact were to move on. By contrast, if a client is spending $2 million across employment litigation, M&A, and corporate governance, the loss of a single practice area could be mitigated by the diversified portfolio of business.

In addition to diversification, your firm should consider alignment with growth objectives as a key qualifier for strategic account status. When your firm and strategic account are moving in the same direction, the goodwill that you’ve invested will pay off. As your firm seeks to land and expand in new geographies, industries, and specializations, influential strategic account clients can make valuable introductions and provide sound advice.

Creating mutual benefit from aligned resources and objectives

It makes sense to view a strategic account as something akin to a large-scale lateral hire. Much like hiring an experienced lawyer who will bring a book of business and specialized expertise, you should invest in a strategic account relationship with the expectation that the client will deliver incremental business and opportunities your firm could not land on its own.

Say your firm is preparing to market a niche specialization commanding premium fees — for example, M&A in the healthcare industry. A health care client focused on acquisition as a growth strategy could be an ideal strategic account — not only to help fill your pipeline with a steady stream of business, but also to help your firm develop the infrastructure and expertise required to become the market leader for this highly profitable legal service.

Or say your firm is interested in launching a practice in an emerging sector with high growth potential, such as renewable energy. Partnering with a client that’s a market leader in the industry can help you build a foundation for building out your practice.

Because the role of strategic accounts in firm growth initiatives is so consequential — and because mutual commitment is critical — firms need to do their due diligence. Using a solution like OnePlace Marketing & Business Development, your firm can surface and analyze a wealth of information about a client’s organization and the strength of its relationships within your firm — helping to inform your decision about whether to move forward.

Becoming your clients’ trusted advisor

As in any successful partnership, trust, cultural compatibility, and aligned interests are crucial. Your clients will benefit from stronger firm relationships, exceptional service, and easy access to a trusted advisor who provides advice and support beyond legal services. Your firm, in turn, will also benefit from those stronger relationships — as well as the reliability of recurring revenue year over year and the doors that strategic accounts can open to help you succeed with your growth initiatives.

Laying the groundwork starts with careful planning: What are your firm’s growth targets and how will you get there? How can you support growth initiatives with lateral hiring? What role can strategic accounts play in expanding our business into new geographies, industries, and specializations?

Because the decision to elevate a client to a strategic account is complicated and nuanced, your firm can benefit from the objectivity technology can provide. Using a solution like OnePlace Marketing & Business Development, firms can surface who knows whom, and how well. They can also analyze the business patterns — such as historical billings, annual revenue, and the number of practice groups engaged — that show a consistent growth trajectory. Finally, the data should show that a client’s business is moving in the same direction your firm is headed. When objectives are aligned, both your firm and your strategic accounts win.

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Written by:

Chris Whitmore

Practice Group Leader, Marketing and Business Development

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