It makes sense that law firms would design their services, pricing and support services around the needs of their largest and most profitable clients.  Unfortunately, most law firms don’t.

In almost every firm, 20 percent of the clients make up 80 percent or more of the revenues and profits.  In some firms it is as little as 5 percent providing 80 percent.  The point is that, while we may not want to say it too loudly, some clients are more valuable than others and they deserve to be treated accordingly.   Simply stated, the first step in any business development program is to hang on to the clients you already have.

The way to start is to figure out which clients are most important to your firm.  Being a key client involves more than just high revenues.  Key clients are profitable.  They provide sophisticated work that lawyers enjoy doing.  Key clients are prestigious and representing them reflects favorably on the firm.  They provide access to industries, national or global interests, transactions and cases you want to be involved with and they refer other clients to the firm.  They are the clients you want to ensure at all costs you don’t lose.

Don’t try to select too many key clients; somewhere between 8 and 12 is about right, but it depends on your firm’s client base.  It may be that you only have one or two clients who are key, but the more clients you designate, the more difficult it is to make their relationship with the firm special.  Most importantly, make sure everyone in your firm — every lawyer, secretary and mail room clerk — knows who the key clients are.

A firm should review the key client list from time to time to make sure it accurately reflects your client base, but not too often.  If you amend the key client list more often than once a year, your lawyers and staff will lose track of which clients are on it and the list will lose its effectiveness.

Here are ten things your firm can do to create a key client program:

1.  Tell key clients they are important to the firm.  The whole point of the program is to make clients feel that they have a special relationship with the firm and are being treated uniquely.  Develop a package of special services and benefits key clients receive, possibly including the ideas listed below.

2.  Create a service team for each key client.  Select your very best partners and senior associates to be on a service team for a specific client.  By agreeing to participate they must spend time learning about the client’s business, briefing other attorneys in the practice area and coordinating work between practices.  Be careful not to make client service teams too big.  Six or seven people is probably the maximum.  Make being a member of a team a big deal within the firm.

3. Give clients the right to choose the lawyers who do their work – including the relationship partner.  If a client is of major importance to your firm, they deserve the pick of the litter.  Personality clashes, lack of responsiveness and other personal issues are the most common reasons for lost business.  Make sure the client knows they have the ability to easily rectify a problem without switching law firms.

4.  Offer key client’s most favored nations status in pricing.  Incredibly, many law firms offer their best rates to the smallest clients and gouge their largest.  Key clients deserve the best pricing.  You may want to qualify that a little by rates within the same practice area but, if you’re looking for an excuse to get rid of some of your commodity practices, make it a blanket offer.

5.  Provide key clients with preferential treatment in the resolution of competitive conflicts.  Common sense dictates that you don’t ever want to be adverse to your best clients’ business interests, but giving them the promise that they win all conflicts and the opportunity to tell you what competitors they don’t want you to represent demonstrates your firm’s dedication to their interests.

6.  Learn the client’s business by placing a rotating lawyer in the client’s office, at no cost to the client.  Every survey shows that the most important feature to clients in a professional service relationship is someone who knows their business.  By rotating every member of the client’s service team through a week or two of working in the client’s facilities – not just doing legal work on site but actually learning the client’s business – creates a basis of differentiating knowledge that competitors can never match.  Besides, your lawyers will probably come home with enough new business to pay for their time.

7.  Assign a paralegal to preparing and understanding key client’s bills.  Billing is perhaps the most frequent and important communication between clients and their lawyers.  We hear from clients that getting answers to billing questions is often among their greatest frustrations with their lawyers.  Assign a paralegal to the task of monitoring the client’s bill, making sure time entries are assigned to the appropriate matter and understanding the details of disbursements, changes in lawyers assigned to matters and similar billing details.  Then have that paralegal available to the client as a single contact resource to respond to or research bill questions.

8.  Provide preferential access to value adds.  Create special programs just for key clients and give them preferential access to all client programs.  Providing client lawyers access to the firm’s library, special extranets and first access to client seminars is basic.  Consider scheduling special events such as private briefings by government leaders or economists to which only representatives of key clients are invited.

9.  Use your key clients’ products and services.  Make key clients a preferred provider of any product or service the firm purchases.  Find ways of making introductions and referrals to potential customers that will benefit key clients.

10.  Give key clients regular management attention.  Every key client should be on a first name basis with members of the law firm’s management.  Frequent phone calls, visits, entertainment and awareness of important events in the client’s business are highly visible indications of their importance to the firm.  The managing partners of some law firms with active key client programs spend as much as one-third of their time dealing with their key clients.

Your reaction to the above may be that many of the ideas listed are either things you currently do for clients or certainly would do if the client asked.  That’s the point – you want to wrap these into a key client package that you offer before you are asked.  You’ll be surprised at the results.