Capital Program Recap: “Caring for Clients During the COVID-19 Crisis”

By Rebecca Edwards, senior marketing and business development manager at Williams Mullen and 2020 chair of The Virginias Local Steering Committee

Delivering excellent client service is a mainstay for any business. Doing so during a pandemic is absolutely crucial for law firms seeking to cement their roles as trusted advisors and legal counsel.

On June 9, the Capital Local Group of the LMA Mid-Atlantic Region hosted a program designed to tap into the minds of general counsel, uncovering best practices for communications and client service despite challenges related to COVID-19.  

Zeughauser Group partner Mary K. Young interviewed fellow partner and former GE general counsel, Alex Dimitrief, for his unique insights on what in-house counsel and c-suite leaders are facing in the current environment, and how firms can position themselves for success.

Client Service

Dimitrief advised that “lasting and permanent impressions are about to be made. If you’re there for a client during a time of a crisis, they will remember it. Alternatively, if you’re not, they’re going to remember that too.”

Lawyers may be afraid to bother clients during a time of uncertainty, but if they approach conversations with genuine interest, clients are generally grateful for the opportunity to connect. In fact, in-house counsel may be “more receptive to getting together over Zoom because they don’t have to go through any hurdles to get together.”

Brevity is key. General counsel are “trying to keep the train running and the company safe,” per Dimitrief. Be concise and to the point, even setting the meeting for 30 minutes, and trying to get it done in 20.

“Genuinely ask how they’re doing. Something as simple as, ‘I’m just checking in on you,’ will go a long way.”

While they are surely receiving a fair amount of COVID-19 marketing material from your firm and others, pose questions like, “Are there any areas that you are uncomfortable with or have questions about that I can try to help you with?” This approach acknowledges that many legal issues have already been addressed via alerts and other communications but invites the client to discuss something that is causing them concern.

Billing and Fees

“The most important marketing communication you’re sending out during this time is your bills,” Dimitrief said. He cautioned that lawyers should be reviewing bills carefully and not delegating them to accounting to send to clients.

“All clients are experiencing some level of stress. Even clients in industries that are doing well, they are still feeling it. They need your help more than ever, but can afford you less. Being strategic about how to be there for your clients and not to say ‘no’ when they need you more than ever, is magic.”

Dimitrief emphasized that firms need to be having fee conversations internally now so attorneys aren’t caught flat-footed when strategic clients reach out to discuss. Citing an example from his time at GE, Dimitrief noted, “During the economic crisis of 2008, a law firm reached out to say, ‘I see that you’re struggling, so we’re going to offer 25 percent off effective immediately.’”

While firms may not be able to do that for every client, doing so strategically for key clients will build goodwill for years to come. “It all evened out eventually and I’ve never forgotten that conversation,” he added. 

New Business

“Companies are not hiring new law firms right now. This is not the time to expect to get brand new business.”

However, clients are interested in doing new work with their existing partner firms. This way, “rather than going to a new firm, they’re going to a trusted advisor.” So, law firms would be well-advised to share with clients any firm capabilities that are relevant to the current environment.

Dimitrief closed with his top two recommendations. He reiterated that it is imperative for firms to start having the billing/collections conversation internally now, before clients ask for it.

And, as our firms grapple with how to respond to the death of George Floyd in a meaningful way, Dimitrief advised, “Don’t retreat from diversity and inclusion during times of crisis. Double down now.”

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