Dissecting Client Choice

From The Practice November/December 2023
Identifying standout lawyers

When Lisa Hart Shepherd, an expert in market research and management science, first began researching the legal market in the early 2000s, a colleague told her: “If you’re going to present to the partners, don’t mention the word ‘brand.’ They think it’s a dirty word. They think they’re above that as lawyers.” Over the course of the next few years, Hart Shepherd’s research would be instrumental in changing that belief.

Hart Shepherd found herself in market research at a time when law firms were just beginning to think about their reputations and brand positioning. After the dot-com boom and crash, even legal services were beginning to feel the squeeze. Clients had more choices when it came to choosing a law firm, especially in the U.S., where strong regional differences prevailed. After years of working in consumer goods and then B2B market research, Hart Shepherd began working with professional services firms, and from there, it was a short hop to law firms.

Lawyers quickly recognized Hart Shepherd had an expertise they lacked. “At the time, business planning wasn’t really happening at law firms, so even though marketing was seen as a lesser function at a law firm, I had a skill they desperately needed, and so they respected me,” she says.

A legal team that included a star “hugely increased client satisfaction and share of wallet.”

In her 2016 lead article for The Practice, “Building a Brand to Create Competitive Advantage,” she explored the unique features of law firm brand marketing. Drawing upon 10 years of survey data collected from thousands of interviews, she described what drives law firm differentiation from the point of view of clients. What pushes a client to choose law firm A versus B, especially, as Hart Shepherd notes, in an increasingly competitive and crowded marketplace? As part of this process, she also gained tremendous insight into what clients were looking for not just from firms but more specifically from the lawyers serving them. Put differently, Hart Shepherd amassed an incredibly robust database about the qualities clients viewed as critical in finding their perfect partner. Or, as she called them, “star lawyers.”

Identifying stars

Lisa Hart Shepherd
Lisa Hart Shepherd

It was 2002 when Hart Shepherd founded Acritas (acquired by Thomson Reuters in 2019), where she began to focus her efforts on understanding why clients choose one firm over another. Acritas, composed of more than 50 specialists in research design, statistics, expert interviewing linguistics, data processors, and analysts, was conducting a global telephone survey, collecting more than 2,000 responses from in-house lawyers and senior legal buyers around the world each year. The surveys asked in-house teams “about all the law firms they knew, who their favorites were, which firms they used for what type of legal work, and what it was like to work with those firms,” Hart Shepherd says. Her work was vital to helping legitimize brand strategy for law firms. Acritas’s ranking helped show firm leadership that “this is a lever of success we should measure,” she says.

In these interviews, she also started to notice something that felt pertinent to their analysis—something they were not specifically asking about, but that kept coming up. “We were asking about the firm as a whole, but we kept hearing from our interviewers that clients wanted to talk about individual lawyers as well,” she says. She explains:

This was partly because experiences differed with different parts of a firm but also because clients had their favorite individual lawyers—what we started calling their stars! For some clients it was all about the individual; for others it was the combination. We then decided to start capturing names of individual lawyers who stood out and asking why they were so good.

As she explains, a legal team that included a star “hugely increased client satisfaction and share of wallet,” meaning satisfaction with the firm increased. But who were those stars? What was special about them? And did the law firm think of them as a star as well?

Lead Article An image of a bunch of different brand logos placed next to one another.

What Hart Shepherd found was surprising. Based on a data set that now included thousands of interviews with senior in-house and general counsel from across more than 50 countries, she identified 27 qualities, gleaned from the perspective of clients, which fit into five themes: expertise, business acumen, service, closeness to clients, and innovation/cost-effectiveness. She then clustered these star qualities around what might be thought of as qualities critical to clients, on the one hand, and firms on the other. From the client side, star qualities grouped around three areas: service (being responsive, practice, and understanding client needs), expertise (industry knowledge, commercial/business savvy, specialist expertise, accessibility), and relationships (understanding their goals and business, innovative, building the relationships). From the firm side, star qualities could be grouped in three ways: leaders, rainmakers, and mentors.

I think the real perfect partners recognize they need support and surround themselves with colleagues who bring strengths where they don’t have them.

Lisa Hart Shepherd, Lamp House Strategy

Who were these stars? Ultimately, Hart Shepherd’s research found that stars came in all shapes and sizes—some had deep technical expertise and some were more service-oriented. Very few stars possessed all the qualities. As such, teams were key. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, she found a mismatch between what law firms thought of as star qualities (and who they saw as their own stars) and what clients perceived. For instance, a lawyer who exhibited great service, responsiveness, and loyalty was often seen as a star by clients. However, as they may have had less time to develop a large client roster, driving down their annual billables, they were often not viewed as such by the firm. Hart Shepherd says that the complexity in this is that client stars often generate long-term relationships, which over time generate sustained long-term profits for firms.

All of this begs the question of whether a law firm’s conception of the “perfect partner,” in the parlance of Moray McLaren’s “Defining the Perfect Partner,” aligns with that of the clients they ostensibly serve.

Making choices today

After Acritas’s acquisition, Hart Shepherd worked for the parent company, Thomson Reuters, for a few years. Eventually, she decided to strike out on her own, founding Lamp House Strategy “to create data and insights that will empower legal leaders to make a greater impact on people, the planet, and their profits.” Thinking about the legal industry’s relationship to sustainability, for instance, was key. In November, Lamp House Strategy will release a major report on responsible business practices of law firms (commonly thought of ESG).

But in addition to focusing on responsible business, Hart Shepherd continues to ask: Why does someone choose law firm A or B, particularly in the context of global uncertainty and conflicts? To answer these questions, Lamp House is partnering with Chambers and Partners. “The data they’ve gathered is on another scale in terms of the depth and breadth—I’ve never seen anything like it in a B2B context,” says Hart Shepherd. She explains:

Chambers has over 200 researchers working all year round interviewing clients of law firms and other market participants. They break markets into different locations and practice areas and different levels of work. They then ask clients of these parts of the market to talk about who they think is most capable and why. These are deep conversations, and we have started to help Chambers further structure that data so it can be analyzed at a collated level. More than 50,000 interviews are conducted each year, and this is supplemented by more than 150,000 web survey responses.

While the work is slightly different than the star work, at the core Hart Shepherd is still interested in the question: What is a great lawyer? Chambers breaks it down much more specifically. “What is special about elite M&A lawyers in New York? Or employment lawyers in Chicago?” she asks. Chambers bases its answers on client perspectives, which generate rich insights. For example, Hart Shepherd says:

Clients don’t take for granted expertise, contrary to popular opinion. Expertise is often intertwined with other critical skills. Whether that’s deep unrivaled experience, being able to negotiate like no other, applying the right risk lens for the client, or being able to field a broad and deep team in a matter of hours. It’s reassuring to hear that these human skills are ever more important when we hear over and over that much of our legal work will be taken over by AI.

Moreover, Hart Shepherd has heard repeatedly that “these high-performing partners have an incredible sense of team. They know it is a team sport and nurture their team members to perform to their best—supervising, training, finding them opportunities, constantly communicating, and having empathy when times are tough.”

In her own words: Lisa Hart Shepherd on Lamp House Strategy

I set up Lamp House Strategy to create data and insights that will empower legal leaders to make a greater impact on people, the planet, and profit. Leading companies have put their broader stakeholders on a more even footing with shareholders. They are putting in place major initiatives that create more value for their people, minimize damage to the planet, and create more value for society—while also focusing on profit. It’s about having a sustainable business model for the long term. I think law firms need to do the same, and they are in a fantastic position to make a huge impact.

We’ve done research with GCs that revealed a majority think law firms are a long way behind. They feel firms need to do more—and be more authentic and transparent about it. They told us their partners could rarely talk about initiatives the firms had in place. This is a missed opportunity to present firms in a positive light, to show the industry is about more than PPP.

We have assessed the websites of 125 law firms on 238 responsible business criteria. We’ve found some very different results across regions. U.S. firms are standout for pro bono. U.K. firms, however, are doing a lot more activity in general, particularly around climate change and transparency. In general, there is not enough reporting, and I would encourage all firm leaders to think about reviewing their activity and starting to talk to clients about this.

We’re releasing our report, which gives our review of the current activity levels and highlights firms who are leading in this. But in January 2024, we’re making all of our firm analysis available to GCs for free—we want them to have the data, to start applying pressure to firms to do more, to be more transparent, and generally getting a positive and healthy dialogue going.

The perfect partner?

After decades in the field, Hart Shepherd is heartened that the human skills still matter—but she also balks at all that is expected. “I think that clients expect more than ever before, but they also get more than ever before,” she says. What clients used to identify as a star quality—business savviness, for instance—is now expected. She says:

The perfect partner has to be so many things—the expert lawyer, super responsive, the business adviser, the trusted friend, the project manager, the legal technologist, the sector specialist, the manager, the mentor—it’s a lot for any one individual to be, and I think the real perfect partners recognize they need support and surround themselves with colleagues who bring strengths where they don’t have them.

In other words, it’s almost impossible. But if there’s one thing that comes out of Hart Shepherd’s research, it’s that teamwork matters. How does a star succeed? They have support. “There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that helps a lawyer look good in the service delivering.” For a firm, knowing that the team matters—and not just the lawyer—could be important. Perhaps it’s not just about finding the star. Perhaps it’s about finding all the different types of stars, and how they fit together.


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