October 6, 2011 12:29 am

Customer focus

Law firms’ efforts to gain a competitive advantage in the services they offer to clients have often centred on use of technology. By contrast, risk management has tended to take a back seat, perhaps being offered in response to one-off pieces of legislation, such as regulations on money laundering.

Now, however, in the wake of the 2008 credit crisis that hit businesses all over the world, risk management is taking centre stage, and law firms are responding regarding the services they provide.

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IN Innovative Lawyers 2011

One such firm is Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, whose crisis-management initiative demonstrates how corporations are increasingly looking to their legal advisers for help in responding to the unexpected as well as the ordinary.

Linklaters’ DVD package – based on interviews with Keith Packer, a former British Airways executive jailed in the US for breach of competition rules – is an innovative way of bringing risk to the attention of board-level executives, who are often too busy to consider hypothetical situations.

Using an example of someone who has paid a heavy price for failure to comply with the rules gives Linklaters’ product gravitas. The package includes a range of tailored examples to cover more junior scenarios and engage staff at all levels.

Another risk-management service, this time tailored to a specific business sector, is Portolano Colella Cavallo’s “traffic-light” benchmark, which enables advertisers to gain a quick assessment of risks posed by their campaigns.

In Italy, where the firm is based, the speed of the service – it takes 24 hours to turn around – and the avoidance of meetings make it genuinely innovative and a provider of tangible savings.

Law firms are directing some of their best client-service efforts towards sectors with the potential to deliver well into the future. With work tougher to come by, firms seem to be investing imaginatively in services that will capture seed investments or small enterprises at the outset, in the hope of ensuring long-term working relationships.

The China Network from Denmark’s Kromann Reumert gathers know-how from across the commercial world to provide advice and guidance on setting up a business in China.

The project, which attracted the backing of the Danish embassy in Beijing, reflects the business world’s increasing shift towards Asia. It is designed to capture the market for new openings among Danish and European companies in China, potentially an extremely lucrative source of future business.

Meanwhile, Cuatrecasas, Gonçalves Pereira, the Spanish firm, picked up on the surge in interest in that country’s distressed-debt market. It launched a series of marketing and training programmes designed to explain the local situation and promote the firm as the point of contact for overseas financial groups.

Íñigo de Luisa, a partner at Cuatrecasas, says that in addition to giving the firm access to clients in the UK, the marketing and training programmes have made it the reference adviser for subsequent deals involving distressed debt in Spain.

Another popular business sector is renewable and green energy. Simmons & Simmons believes companies starting up in the sector can benefit from an off-the-shelf tool that gives them legal guidance across the perilous first few years of corporate life. The tool, “Cleantech Curve”, recognises that many such companies have similar problems at their outset. More importantly, it taps into the growing need for – and state encouragement and subsidies offered to – innovative technology and environmental companies.

Steven McNab, a Simmons partner, says: “The initiative has required a subtle strategic shift … We had to start thinking about providing a ‘product’ to a ‘customer’ rather than ‘services to clients’.”

Combining technological solutions with pragmatic predicitions about where advice may be needed was behind another Simmons idea. The firm teamed up with Morningstar, the data provider, to offer an online service focused on asset managers’ need to respond to new regulations requiring them to provide key investor information documents.

The service is designed to combine functionality and ease, and also to demonstrate how the law firms are tracking mainstream business in the shift from content to design, sharpening their ability to attract clients with systems that add value through their form as well as substance.

This shift is well demonstrated by Allen & Overy’s “GlobalView”, which offers clients a simplified, online way of navigating complex changes in the regulatory world after the credit crisis. The firm describes the programme in terms of a “visual solution”, not an expression a City of London firm would have been happy with – let alone understood – a few years back.

Law firms may be constrained by conservative corporate structures, but they can still evolve these in innovative ways – as two firms showed with wily repackaging of old ideas.

Linklaters used a secondee – usually sent to provide general or specific services – to overhaul the risk-assessment systems for the capital transactions of a large retail bank. And Eversheds took a knowledge-management system – which always includes an implicit offer to assist the in-house lawyer in facing up to fellow executives – and gave it a more explicit twist.

Kevin Doolan, partner at Eversheds, says the idea originated from wanting to enable in-house lawyers to deliver the same kind of statistically rich board submissions as their executive colleagues. The system explicitly picks up on this theme, offering corporate counsel a practical toolbox for arguing the legal corner in the boardroom.

It is an idea that, given threatened cutbacks to corporate spending, neatly taps into client sentiments.

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