Up close and professional

Is closeness to clients the final goal for professional firms? Or is there something beyond? VWV, the UK full service law firm, has interesting insights. Antonia James, Director of Client Relations, and Karen Millett, Senior Marketing Manager, talk to Neasa MacErlean.

VWV has been running an annual seminar for its Pharmaceutical Industry Network Group for eight years. So successful has it become that it now exceeds capacity. Last year Karen Millett advised the lead partner that they charge something for attendance (even though they don’t run events to make profits), “as there are costs involved and it would be nice to break even”. He agreed and, when asked, the clients said yes as well. The next conference will take place just after Brexit. “We are going to sell out,” says Millett. “We’ll have a waiting list again.”

This little story demonstrates some of the essential characteristics of the 77-partner, four-office firm. Perhaps the most defining detail is that they asked the clients. Like many other organisations, VWV talks of its closeness to clients – but it is clear from listening to the firm’s marketers that they have found a surprising number of ways in which they achieve this. What is also significant about this tale is that the clientele agreed. That can only mean that they believe that this free gift is worth paying for. (How often does that happen?) Also interesting is that VWV’s fee-earners and 20-strong Marketing/Business Development team are working in harmony to create new services and product lines.

So it is no surprise to hear that the firm’s new London office (near the Bank of England on King William Street) is seen as “a hub with collaborative space to work with clients and space for events”. So says Antonia James who is overseeing the November 2018 move. James, who was promoted to the VWV board in 2016, is also at the forefront of product development. Based on their “constant listening to clients”, the M/BD team has helped create specialist portals for clients in four different groupings. They started in education, developed portals in three niches (independent schools, academies and higher education), have opened one in the charities sector and will launch more. “Clients want more predictability and are always looking to us to deliver value,” says James. “We are looking at the bottle necks they encounter and how to make their lives easier.”

Some parts of the portal offerings are free but some are behind a pay wall where various, more complex, services are delivered. Designing this approach took a leap of faith among the firm’s 430 personnel but fee-earners can now see that it works. “The portals have demonstrated to the lawyers how we can engage with clients, and add value via a different channel by giving things away,” says James.

Data analysis is another route to understanding clients. Nothing unexpected there. But the depth to which it is performed is unusual. For instance, in working with the Watford office, Millett is carrying out a ‘top 100 client review’, and has stripped out 30 per cent (including “one-offs and deceased estates”) and is finding ways to develop relationships and other opportunities in the remaining 70 per cent. “By drilling down very deeply we can see where the repeat instructions are coming from,” she says. “And the clients are saying similar things.” This is a magic moment. When clients with different perspectives enunciate “similar things” it can mean that there is the opportunity for a new product – more of this later.

Getting close to clients, however, only produces sustainable results if the leaders of a firm are close to the staff, and if the M/BD team are on the same wavelength as the partners. James’s promotion to the board is one sign of this, as is the way that she (19 years in the practice) and Millett (11 years) emphasise how they “work really closely together” and collaborate in several areas rather than dividing them up. James also highlights the M/BD team’s ability to support the firm through a 65 per cent growth arc in five years (from £22m annual revenue to £37 million in 2017/8). These could be just nice words but real proof seems to come from the success of the acquisitions they make – running at about one a year. The Birmingham office, for example, started off as a six-lawyer charity team in 2013. Six years on it has 30 people working in employment, real estate and numerous other areas. “It’s becoming full service,” says Millett. “There’s a hunger for sales there. They want the activity. We’ve been working with them to line up events and opportunities.” Making such a success of each acquisition suggests that M/BD team is in tune with the human side of the firm.

Putting on more than one event each working day – on 330 occasions last year – VWV is exploring many avenues across its industry sectors and specialisms. It has a wide range of successful and new initiatives starting up and expanding – including, on the M/BD side, staff training to help lawyers convert opportunities to commissions and deeper key client plans.

But James is particularly interesting when she talks about her product development work in education – partly achieved by being a director of a subsidiary of VWV (‘My OnStream’) which is a collaboration with a specialist software company. A major factor in VWV’s 13 per cent revenue growth in 2017/18 was its strength in compliance services, including My OnStream. VWV has created fixed-cost, retainer products where, for instance, they keep an institution’s employment contracts up to date. The firm has expanded this into compliance for schools – by ensuring that they fulfil their policies on, for example, keeping children safe. “We train and test against the school’s policy and evidence it for inspections,” says James, explaining how these products function.

“What we are doing here could be replicated in other sectors,” she says. “We have learnt so much from the process – how we could deliver services in different sectors by solving problems.” Is this the Holy Grail then – once a firm really becomes close to its clients and staff, it can make yet more gains by aligning itself to suppliers?