Your Firm’s Client Base Is Changing. Are You?

Fortune 500 companies and their boards are placing greater emphasis on diversifying their C-suites. In particular, Law.com recently noted that high-profile companies are seeing a “surge” of diverse and female general counsel and chief legal officers.

The progress on hiring diverse GCs is long overdue. The question is whether law firm leaders have made any changes to how they deliver their services — and who delivers those services — in response. The future of these valuable client relationships may be on the line, and law firms should be taking nothing for granted.  

Dramatic demographic change

Whether companies are hiring more GCs from underrepresented backgrounds out of sincere commitment to equity or because of pressure from their boards or consumers, the result is more persons of color and female lawyers leading corporate legal departments. The study Law.com explored found that 49% of the GC hires in 2021 were women, compared to just 28% of 2018 hires. And 34% of GC hires in 2021 were ethnically diverse, up 10% from the previous year. That’s a dramatic increase, one that may impact the priorities these clients are focused on.

What is the composition of the outside legal team serving these clients? What steps have those teams taken to understand the priorities and needs of these clients?

A tricky context

And where are all these new GC hires coming from? Many of them previously worked for law firms but left after tiring of the indifference or outright hostility found in too many firm cultures. That means they know all too well, from the inside, how far law firms have to go to deliver on the promises they make on the DEI page of their websites. These in-house lawyers are long past ready to see change, and now they are positioned to help drive it.  

They are also taking the reins amid a potentially faltering economy. The uncertain economy is among the reasons that firms are attempting to make client relationships stickier. Clients are more willing than ever to leave a firm behind — sometimes without a warning or a chance to make things right.

What firms can do

If your firm’s customer base recently changed significantly — whether it now includes more BIPOC or women GCs or just younger lawyers in general — examine whether you need to adapt how you work with clients.

For current clients, how are you staffing matters? How are you collecting client feedback and acting on it? For prospects, how are you pitching? How do you talk about your approach to equity and inclusion in those pitches?

As the spooky story on “ghosting” clients shows, if your firm’s lawyers aren’t prepared to serve a changing client base, GCs will undoubtedly find a firm that can better meet their needs.