A team of individuals

One of the great old debates in law firms is the importance of the individual against the team or on a wider scale, the firm as a whole.

It is a crucial issue for law firm management, recruitment and marketing. It goes to the root of the provision of legal services and, hence, to the raison d'être of the firm and it forges a strong link between recruitment and marketing. However, it is something few firms either appreciate or make provisions for.

Recruitment is undertaken by the HR department, but how many firms consider the impact of a particular appointment on the firm's brand image? Or even, at a more basic level, on client and market perception of the team as a whole?

One bedevilling problem, which virtually all firms face at some point, is that of taking on a decent lateral hire, trumpeting the hire to the press and then losing that individual to another firm, which will invariably start the whole cycle again. On taking on said individual, firms generally say that they have brought loads of work with them and will be a great addition to the practice; then, when they leave, the line is that it will not be a great loss to the practice because the practice is more than one person. This tends to play very poorly with journalists, and if it plays poorly among journalists, imagine what clients think.

One of the key failings of some law firms is to appreciate that what they are providing is – shock, horror – mere product. The reality is that often a client's partner contact is effectively no more than a glorified sales rep for their firm. The fact that they have the expertise to provide the service in question is irrelevant – as often as not, someone else will be doing the work.

Law firms and lawyers hide behind a curtain of fluff here, blathering on about personal relationships, quality (read black letter law) and the sheer specialness of legal services. But this merely serves to underline that this is an industry based primarily on trust. Most clients do not understand the product well enough to judge its efficacy or even buy properly in the first place. Instead, they agree to pay huge sums of money, trusting their partner contact's ability to ensure that the firm delivers.

So measuring clients' real attitudes to the issue of individual versus the team is difficult. Ask a direct question and most clients will instinctively go for the individual – for the person they know – rather than the team, many of whom they may have met only once, across a table. It is easier to know and trust one person than to form complex judgements about many.

Asked how important individual lawyers are, clients will invariably come out with comments such as, "it's the key factor", and "absolutely crucial".

They say: "Absolutely – I instruct the lawyer, not the firm. We use a major law firm but really I only really use two lawyers in that entire firm."

Others add: "What is important? The individual within the firm. I want to build a rapport. A personal relationship has to exist. You can't be with a lawyer that you don't trust."

And the comments continue. "You get to know firms through recommendations and through knowing the market. I have been in this business for 20 years and this is a personal business. You are dealing with individuals. You instruct individuals and not firms. I think that you get to know the strengths and types of business that particular lawyers can help with."

But this allegiance can turn into a threat for the firm. "The problem with the firm we use is that it's so large. Personal contact – that's what matters. If my lawyer left I'd go with him."

This reaction would tend to suggest that individuals need to be marketed more than firms. In fact, it is more often used as an excuse for not marketing at all – all you need to do is network effectively, the line goes. And to a certain extent, this is backed up by many clients, who do not like "being marketed to". What they actually mean, of course, is that whatever marketing tool being employed in their direction is ineffective, probably because it is too crude.

But does it represent a true picture? Take this somewhat contradictory comment from an in-house lawyer: "I think that the difference between City and regional firms is that the regional firms do not have the depth of lawyers that the London firms have. But the thing is that it is the individuals that you would go for and it doesn't really matter where they come from."

However, all you have to do is ask: "What happens when your partner contact is unavailable?" and a different picture emerges – one in which a key personal relationship is important, but no more important than the quality of the team. If the speed of the convoy is governed by the slowest ship, the quality of law firm service is defined by its weaknesses, not its strengths. At the kind of prices law firms charge, clients believe they have a right not to expect weaknesses of any kind.

And then the comments come thick and fast. One client says: "Individuals at law firms are important but support is also important and our firm has enough support. There is someone to take over and fill in when a partner is away – someone who you know and who knows you."

Another says: "I would single our partner contact out for particular commendation – she is probably the best detailed insurance lawyer in the City, although she is not always adequately supported by her team."

From a marketing perspective, this is difficult to deal with. Faced with slightly contradictory messages from the client market and the understandable reluctance of some lawyers to jeopardise their individual relationships (not to mention the "stealing the client" fear of some), what is a firm to do?

Perhaps the true solution lies in differential marketing – something which the larger firms have been experimenting with for some time. This approach is given some credence by client attitudes, which vary between legal practice areas.

An employment client, for instance, would tend to place a higher value on the individual than a corporate client on a major deal would (although the individual never becomes less than important to the corporate client). For the employment client, the team is usually only an issue when the key partner is away.

Many clients feel that resources are "perfectly adequate for our purposes – they provide good back-up when [the key partner] is away".

This may all sound obvious, but it is clear that it is not happening as it should. As one experienced in-house lawyer points out: "Star individuals need to build teams to give clients more of a rosy glow. This problem has plagued the business."

Teambuilding has always been seen as a purely HR issue, but the fact that the balance between the individual and the team will affect a client's perception of the firm and the service they receive (and may affect the trust relationship the client has with their lawyers and hence the firm's image) makes it a marketing issue too.

From a marketing perspective, then, the client needs to be assured that there are not only star individuals but there is a good team behind the stars. As one in-house lawyer puts it: "The magic combination is a good individual, a good team and a good firm."

And, as they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride…

Original research taken from Client Perspectives: An Insider's Guide Special Report, published by New City Media.