The “Client Relationship Partner” – Is it necessary or is it about control? December 2018

By MUNYA GWANZURA, Published in Management

With the dawn of the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa (PABASA) upon us, I could not help but ponder on the concept of a "client relationship partner" which I was exposed to during my time in practice, and which some law firms have instilled as part of their practice and culture. It never made sense to me as a young associate or even as a partner because I saw it as a barrier specifically and strategically designed to ensure that certain groups of people maintained a hold on big commercial clients and the lucrative commercial work.

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Aside from investing in a Talent Retention Executive, one of the fundamentals of growing and developing young talent in law firms is to instil in them a culture of business development. Apart from technical legal skills, knowledge, and experience, to be really successful as a lawyer, one should also possess the necessary business acumen and business development skills which will enable one to impress and sign up clients and receive mandates in high-profile, high-value work.

Every lawyer in a law firm should be encouraged, and given an equal platform to do business development and sign up clients and this should be rewarded when lawyers are successful.

You could be the best attorney technically but without this skill, you will struggle in the modern day law firm which requires you to "shoot the lights out" – if you are to earn the big bucks and the respect and admiration of your colleagues, and where budgets must be met.

The idea of a client relationship partner is not only attributable to law firms. Often it is driven by clients, usually big corporates that want to streamline communication with their attorneys, which makes reporting easier. It is developed and justified around the perceived need for better management of the relationship between the law firm and the client, and the need to have a central point of contact. While the rationale has some merit from a client perspective, I would venture to argue that having client relationship partners is not necessarily, or entirely, beneficial to law firms or clients in the long run.

In a typical medium or large size law firm, all lawyers, as professionals, practising in different areas of the law should be able to manage the relationship with clients effectively, and in the best interests of the firm. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they have an obligation or fiduciary duty to do so and, if they do not possess the skills and competency to do so, then the law firm should not have hired them in the first place. To state it differently, to put in place client relationship partners based on the need for effective management of the relationship is, with respect, to indirectly communicate to the lawyers in the firm that they are not entirely trusted with the clients of the firm, which cannot be a positive move towards building sound internal working relationships and successful law firms.

The typical model employed is that all instructions or mandates from clients will be channelled through the client relationship partner and it is that partner who then has the discretion as to which lawyer he or she will involve in doing the work required. This on its own is problematic, because the distribution of work is bound to be unfair, or at the very least, its fairness will be questionable. For example, what criteria are considered when deciding who to involve in a matter? Technical skill, experience, and ability would certainly be considered, but in a good law firm there is usually very little that separates the lawyers when it comes those aspects. So what are the criteria really? One runs a real risk of being accused of favouritism, sexism, and even racism, and these are undesirable as they are all detrimental to the smooth functioning of any organisation, be it a law firm or otherwise.

Clients should always be clients of the firm and not clients of a specific lawyer within the firm. Persisting with the idea of a client relationship partner incentivises those who hold that title and cabals of lawyers in a firm to ring-fence clients for themselves and effectively becomes a barrier to entry into the mainstream high value work for many others who are equally capable and, at times, even more competent. Firms also run the risk of losing clients when a client relationship partner leaves, whereas if access to clients is open to all lawyers in the firm, the likelihood of losing clients because a client relationship partner has left the firm is practically non-existent. Further and perhaps more seriously, a firm runs the risk of demoralising its lawyers which ultimately leads to a revolving door through which talent enters and exits – a dangerous path to go down in a world where human capital and talent retention is becoming a critical ingredient to the success of businesses.

Our democracy requires and calls for greater inclusivity of previously disadvantaged groups of people and for barriers to entry into various sectors of the economy to fall. If we are to achieve this and start laying a firm foundation for equal opportunity in the legal profession, practices such as client relationship partners in law firms need to become a thing of the past. Clients must play a big role in this regard by insisting that this practice be stopped so that their in-house legal advisers are at liberty to interact with and instruct any lawyers in a firm. In turn, leaders of law firms should do the right thing and encourage all lawyers in their firms to develop and nurture relationships with clients in a structured and uniform way which does not create confusion for clients but which enables all lawyers, not just a select few, to have access to high-profile, high-value legal work.

Gwanzura writes in his personal capacity.