A Different Kind of Relationship Partner: How the Client Officer Role Emerged

October 10, 2019

"These jobs, they're not about you ever,” Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s chief client officer, Catherine Zinn, said. “They're about helping other people be successful.”

By Xiumei Dong Originally published on The Recorder

It is no secret that the legal services business is largely driven by client relationships.

As clients expand their in-house departments and add to the list of demands they require from outside counsel, there has been significant growth in the number of legal professionals dedicated to client services at law firms.

In recent months, Goodwin Procter announced that it has created a new C-suite level position to advance the firm’s client development strategy. The Am Law 50 firm, which is based in Boston and has been growing in California, hired Lee Garfinkle from Allen & Overy as it created the role of chief client development and relationship officer.

Perkins Coie also recently added Mark Roellig, a former chief technology and administrative officer at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., as the firm’s senior client adviser.

Silicon Valley’s Fenwick & West recently filled a client development and relationship manager position in its FLEX by Fenwick service, which was created to offer in-house legal support to the firm’s fast-growing tech clients.

Steve Hedberg, chief operating officer at Perkins Coie, said roles like these have become more commonplace because of the growing demand from clients for effective and cost-efficient services.

“Increasingly, our clients look to us for support and solutions on non-legal matters in addition to traditional legal matters,” Hedberg said. Before becoming the firm’s chief operating officer about six years ago, he practiced at Perkins Coie as an attorney for over 20 years.

“Our firm’s seasoned business professionals can bring innovative technology solutions to support our legal services,” Hedberg said. “We’ve seen our relationships with our clients strengthen through this approach because we are bringing additional value to the table.”

At Seattle-based Perkins Coie, Roellig will advise general counsel on law department management issues. Roellig will further support Perkins Coie’s Client Advantage program, through which clients can use Perkins Coie’s professional staff as a resource to make their corporate legal departments more efficient.

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“Our clients are experts at their businesses,” Hedberg said. “They look to us to augment their core competencies in areas where we can help streamline services and improve value—particularly in the practical application of innovative legal services, where we clearly have common goals.”

According to Hedberg, clients have used Perkins Coie’s Client Advantage program to develop automated contract platforms, create systems for tracking intellectual property rights, and train their own professionals on developing and leading teams, among other things.

Clients ‘Get To Decide’ 

As general counsel have seen their roles become broader and more demanding, they have also been asking their outside lawyers to step up their game and offer tailored services.

Catherine Zinn was named as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s first chief client officer when she joined the firm from DLA Piper in 2015. Zinn said GCs now have more power and influence than ever before. That, coupled with the amount of high-powered legal decision-making that is happening within corporations, has shifted the dynamic on how legal work is distributed, she said.

“The GCs get to decide,” Zinn said, explaining that it used to be the law firms who chose which legal work was top priority. “I don’t think it will ever go back.”

Zinn also noted that in making those decisions, in-house leaders may not even assign tasks exclusively to attorneys—”it might be a robot or not a person who’s not even a lawyer.”

Zinn leads a team of 80 business professionals at Orrick. According to Zinn, eight of them, including herself, focus on building client relationships. Her group often touches many areas at the firm, from professional development to innovation to client engagement, she said.

“The common strand you will find with anyone in this role is that whatever they do, they always put the client first, period,” Zinn said. “So every decision that you make, every priority that you focus on, is first and foremost driven by the client, by client satisfaction.”

Wearing Multiple Hats 

A client-facing professional at a law firm often takes on a variety of related roles, said Angela Petros, Morrison & Foerster’s chief marketing officer, who also handles research and client engagement for the firm.

“When I started here five years ago, [the role was more focused on] supporting the administrative side of clients,” Petros said. “And what we’ve been doing over the last five years is really investing in the program significantly to take it to the next level.”

Petros said Morrison & Foerster’s client service team has grown from four people to eight in five years, and most of the new additions are professionals at the senior management level.

The team has grown simply “because we want to have excellent client service across all the touchpoints that clients have with us,” she said. According to Petros, the core responsibility of the team is to understand each client’s demands so the firm can be more proactive about meeting those needs.

“Honestly, there’s a huge variance in terms of clients,” Petros said. “And our goal is to make sure we’re delivering something bespoke that meets the [client's] needs in every situation.”

At Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, Ali Shahidi is the chief innovation officer, but he also serves as the firm’s client solutions officer. Shahidi said he divides his time into three buckets—a third of his time is spent engaging the firm’s clients, a third is focused on tech and innovation, and a third involves interacting with other law firms.

“I act as the facilitator between our attorneys and our clients, especially when there are scenarios that have specific technology or [in which a] specific process can help how we deliver legal services,” Shahidi said. “The main metric that we’re going to be measured by would be to deliver additional value to our clients.”

Just as a chief client officer wears many hats, the role requires abilities also possessed by various other professionals in the law firm c-suite.  

Shahidi said the role requires all the essential skills any business professional needs, but more importantly, a person managing client relationships needs “to be a good listener and good communicator, and be able to have an eye for timing.”

Time management is critical to the client service professional, Shahidi said, and others agreed. He said it is important to make sure the time they put in has a “practical use case” because there is a “captive audience” on the client-side tracking their performance.

Along those lines, clients expect their outside law firms to make use of legal operations professionals, Zinn said. Clients are increasingly demanding there to be businesspeople in the room during their negotiations with the firm—”not just the lead partner, handling the legal work,” Zinn said.

Zinn said her staff members come from a mix of backgrounds, including the legal, banking, recruiting, accounting and consulting fields. Despite the differences in background, Zinn said, “you need to really love lawyers and be interested in the law.”

She added that the job also requires a level of “maturity and grit”.

“Because these jobs, they’re not about you ever,” Zinn said. “They’re about helping other people be successful.”

But being an attorney is not a requirement, she made clear. Zinn said she hasn’t felt like she was at a disadvantage because she is not a lawyer. And she noted that highly skilled business professionals are well compensated at some law firms, with some C-level executives making more than some partners.

The most important task “is to figure out how to be valuable to the people around you right away,” she said. ”As long as you never come to a meeting with a blank sheet of paper, you’ll be fine.”

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