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Adaptation Featured

4:25pm EDT February 1, 2004
Running a 350-employee law firm with seven offices is not easy, especially when meeting clients' needs and expectations can seem like a challenge equal to that of shooting at a moving target.

But that's just one of the challenges Baker & Daniels' Managing Partners Brian Burke and Thomas Froehle face every day.

"I think our clients' needs have changed and evolved because the pace of doing business has increased," says Froehle.

He says clients expect their attorneys to understand both their business and their industries, and to respond quickly to changing business environments. To keep up with their clients' businesses and industries, Burke and Froehle created the position of client manager. Those in that position are responsible for the client-firm relationship and for keeping the attorney team informed of important changes relating to the client's company and industry.

Burke and Froehle also keep employees informed of issues and changes that affect the firm.

"Communication is something we're working on all the time," Froehle says.

"Leading and assisting people is our highest calling," says Burke.

Burke says the keeping employees in the loop results in more than effective employees. Happy employees become ambassadors for the firm and make it easier for it to recruit new attorneys, says Burke.

"A sales pitch can attract talent, but if you don't live up to it, they won't stay with you for long," he says.

Burke and Froehle agree that the biggest personal challenge each faces is juggling the demands on their time.

"Lots of things come up that take lots of time," says Burke. "It's up to us to redirect our attention to things that add value to the organization."

Smart Business spoke with Burke and Froehle about the changing needs of the firm's clients and how regulatory changes have affected operations.

 

What do you think makes the firm successful, gives it a competitive edge?

 

Burke: There are two things that set us apart -- talent and service expertise. And our associates are exceptionally committed to service.

One of the ways we assess client needs is through client assessments. We've done them for a number of years. We spend about an hour with a half-dozen clients each month going over our service to them. We ask for a candid assessment of how we're doing, and we make changes and improvements based on these assessments.

 

Froehle: We stress to our clients that we are problem-solvers and partners. Our clients want us to help them figure out what to do, not just advise them and walk away.

 

How have your clients' needs changed in the last five years, and how has the firm changed to meet them?

 

Froehle: Our clients' businesses have become more complex and specific. In turn, we must be more specific and more responsive. We need to know the business and industry of our clients better so we can render services in a quicker time frame or pace needed by the client.

Our lawyers can't be expected to be experts in every business, but we do have team practice groups that focus on particular areas of the law and industries.

 

Burke: It all comes down to speed. We are moving much faster, and as service providers, we need to be nimble and invest the time to stay knowledgeable so that we can respond before we get that call.

We established a structure that accommodates client needs. We now have client managers that are responsible for the oversight of the client-firm relationship. They invest the time and energy to know what the client business is about and have a reasonable grounding of the industry.

We also expect our associates to have an understanding of the client's business; that's all part of the nonbillable hours we spend relating to customers.

 

Have accounting regulatory changes affected how you advise clients or operate the firm?

 

Burke: Yes. I think regulatory changes affect what we do substantively and as a matter of process. There is a great uncertainty among our clients, and we advise them to be proactive, to be sure they are taking appropriate measures to comply and understand all the changes.

Transparency seems to be the word of the day. We advise clients to be transparent to their clients and within the organization. And we operate with greater transparency in our own operation.

We try to make sure that our associates have a better understanding of how we function and the nuts and bolts of how the law firm works. We are trying to communicate more effectively and pass along a broader range of information in a timely manner.

The point there is having the information is likely to build trust, and that's a very important part of the fabric that holds the organization together.

 

What are your biggest operational challenges, and how do you meet them?

 

Froehle: We are a people business. We don't have to worry about some things that other companies or industries might, but what is challenging with all of our associates and more and more locations is communication.

That is something we're working on all the time.

We make ourselves accessible to all of the partners so that they feel plugged in and understand the direction we are going. As we get bigger, that will become more challenging.

We get together and visit management and try to be proactive with the partners. We are careful not to rely too much on e-mail; it can be impersonal. Brian and I collaboratively stay in touch with the other professionals and staff members.

This also becomes important when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. We have been affected by the brain drain here, and we try to make sure we are finding and attracting young talent and those with established careers.

We've been fortunate in identifying and attracting people that are predisposed to stay in the area. Now we are strategically identifying those that don't traditionally think of us to put Baker & Daniels on their radar screens.

We also ask our lawyers to find prospects rather than wait for a resume to fall in our lap.

 

Burke: The fact that we're communicating with people here helps with recruitment. Our lawyers become our most important ambassadors and recruiters of others.

 

What is your firm's stance on marketing and business development?

 

Burke: We want to be more thoughtful about our business development. We're not sure that spending time on marketing is productive or an optimal use of our time. We are rethinking all of that.

Rather than advertising or casting a wide net, we have changed our staffing model. We no longer have a marketing director. Instead, business development is headed by a lawyer in the firm and supported by public relations professionals. It's a nontraditional approach.

We are trying to do more selling, and we are positioning our staff to that end. We have initiated a sales training program that is part of our reorientation process. It includes improving communication skills and identifying where the opportunities may lie.

 

Froehle: Our firm's view is that business development is handled best at the practice level. Our lawyers can target potential clients. And those in charge of marketing will market individual groups and develop business for each instead of at the firm level.

 

What areas are you working on to improve for your clients?

 

Froehle: I think as the pace of business continues to increase, we need to be mindful and always be thinking of ways we can be the most responsive and client-focused. That means continuous improvement and staying ahead of changes.

As we get bigger, the communication piece will help us better integrate our multiple offices. We will develop cross-team processes that will mean better client services, offering the best group of lawyers for our clients.

 

Burke: The first thing is to become better aligned with our clients, continuously improve our knowledge and relate as a team.

 

What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the firm?

 

Froehle: Time management and prioritizing -- thoughtfully identifying what is the most effective use of my time. We may walk in the door in the morning with a sense of what we're going to do during the day and go home having never done what we set out to accomplish.

We have to do the most important activities and focus on where we can have the most important impact.

 

Burke: We have to stay focused on our leadership and management activities, the ones that will bring the biggest results to the organization. How to reach: Baker & Daniels, 317-237-0300or www.bakerdaniels.com