“Outstanding client service means delivering business solutions; not just legal advice”

Every Tom, Dick and Harry claims to offer “outstanding client service”. Lee Ranson, CEO of Eversheds Sutherland, tells CLIC what this descriptor really means…

Asking a professional firm whether it offers outstanding client service is like asking a Manchester United fan whether Man U is the best team in the land. You’ll only ever get one answer. The reality, however, is very different. Almost all firms talk about “going above and beyond” and “offering a Rolls-Royce level of service” but such claims are as cheap as they are commonplace. Actions that accurately reflect the hot air are much rarer.

Lee Ranson, CEO of global law firm Eversheds Sutherland, runs 68 offices across 34 countries. He has strong ideas on what outstanding client service looks like and how rapidly it is changing. He also provides examples of what it means to replace lip service with action and how you can bring excellent client service to life.

Eversheds Sutherland was created when Eversheds merged with US firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in February 2017 to form one of the 40 largest law practices in the world. Central to the merger strategy was a desire to improve client service. “That was key,” explains Lee. “Would the merger put us in a better position to help our clients? We tested it a lot. We even involved clients in the theory of the merger before we involved our partners. Getting a positive reaction from our clients gave us the confidence that we were going in the right direction.”

Giving your clients the chance to influence your firm-wide strategy certainly proves how highly you regard their opinion. And as firms owe their existence to clients who pay them, this strategy seems eminently sensible. But how do you place brilliant client service at the heart of your culture, not just at the top but central to everything you do?

“Everyone says that client service is the most important thing, and it is,” says Lee. “But how does it become real? If you’re just relying on the CEO to say client service is critical, then you’re doomed to fail. It has to be something that is genuinely felt by the whole organisation.”

To reach that point takes time and requires partners to elevate their listening skills, argues the CEO. Firms must also empower partners to deliver what the client needs – whatever it takes. Lee says: “Since 2000 when Eversheds first came together as a combined entity, our strategy has been ‘let’s give clients what they want’. We modernised and started to challenge the way things had been done before – and we loved going on that journey. We’ve reached a place now where a partner, having listened closely to the client, will come back to the business and say: ‘This is what the client needs.’ And the business will automatically support them. We empower partners to deliver exactly what the client requires.”

The days of lawyers giving out bookish advice and then sending out invoices are history, argues Lee. Today’s business environment demands a level of commerciality and deal-making creativity not previously seen in the legal sector. Indeed, an entrepreneurial approach to client service – not technical know-how or the ability to charm – is what drives genuinely outstanding service, suggests Eversheds Sutherland’s CEO. And he goes on to give examples of unique and visionary deals that have led to wins for both the client and his own firm.

The first example is an ongoing deal where a client has the ability to underpay or overpay Eversheds Sutherland depending on their perception of performance. Lee says: “Every quarter, the client has the power to say: ‘During that period I feel your work has exceeded or sunk below expectation.’ They can pay us a bonus of up to 15% or pull it down by the same amount. So far we’ve received 107% of agreed fees. The deal provides a brilliant ongoing client-service challenge. It inspires the fee earners because they can earn extra by delivering superb service.”

Another example involves a multinational client. The client operates across several jurisdictions and the Eversheds Sutherland team spotted a spike in employment claims in a certain location. They pointed it out to the client, who asked to reduce the per-unit fee. “We suggested a different option,” says Lee. “We told the client we’d examine the contract, uncover the problem, amend it and train local managers how to best deal with claims. We then proposed sharing any savings with the client, splitting them 50:50. The client agreed. We rolled out the training programme and shared the benefits. It’s been a real win-win. These are the sorts of money-where-your-mouth-is deals that result in a completely new type of lawyer-client relationship. To me, this is what outstanding client service really looks like, and law firms can only deliver it by providing indispensable business solutions alongside good legal advice.”

Effective communication is right at the heart of superb client service, argues Lee, who refers back to his time as a policeman – a job he did for 18 months before attending law school – as one of the most important phases in his life because it taught him the power of dialogue. “As a policeman you talk to people day in day out,” he says. “Often you are talking in emotionally charged situations. The solution is usually to talk, listen, work out the issues, defuse things and find answers. Being a policeman was great grounding for becoming a lawyer. The lawyer-client relationship also needs excellent communication. The relationship should not end when you send out the invoice. Lawyers should be phoning clients after invoicing them to discuss what both parties have learned. Are there better ways to work together? It’s a 20-minute phone call that can lead to great things.”

By nurturing ongoing relationships, listening, exchanging ideas, taking comments on board and changing one’s approach when necessary, lawyers put themselves in a position to deliver genuinely outstanding client service. But they can only actually deliver it – in the true sense of that most overused of words, ‘outstanding’ – by backing up the talk with creative, commercially-driven deals that, as Lee says, “result in a completely new type of lawyer-client relationship”. The old ways of doing business for law firms are fading fast. An exciting new commercially-focused lawyer-client relationship is here to stay.