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Client Relations

Beyond the transactional: why deep client relationships are key to maintaining panel position

How strong and ‘sticky’ are your client relationships? Are your interactions with clients purely transactional, or do you bring more to the table in terms of adding commercial or strategic value with your advice? How do you set yourself apart at a time of ever-greater commoditisation of work? In a legal market that remains highly competitive and where legal spend is under intense pressure (more so in the UK than elsewhere in the world, according to the State of the UK Legal Market 2023 report), these are important questions that require an honest appraisal.  

The reality is that today, being on a company’s legal panel is no guarantee of ongoing workflow, nor is a law firm’s reputation enough to make them the first choice for matter referrals or ensure they stand out from the crowd. Here, we explore what law firms can do to make sure they’re front of mind and first in line when clients need legal advice. 

Understanding clients’ drive for change 

In a startling statistic, last year, almost half (45%) of UK clients changed which firms they allocated work to. And just 10% of legal buyers said reputation was a key factor in keeping a firm front of mind when apportioning work, down from a quarter a decade ago. 

The upshot is that law firms can no longer take it for granted that their place on a client’s panel is assured: they may have to work harder than ever to stay there and secure a greater share of the work available.  

Ultimately, clients change the law firms they use for two main reasons:  

  1. the level of expertise firms do (or do not) offer  
  2. the relationships they have formed, prompting them to pick one firm over another.  

In many respects, these two factors are closely intertwined. 

Offer commercially minded expertise  

As clients’ needs become more varied and changeable at short notice, they are more willing to look beyond their usual list of outside firms for the requisite expertise and service. At the same time, they are looking for more than a purely transactional approach.  

Therefore, being able to get up to speed quickly in new, key areas and keeping on top of legislative or sector-specific changes is vital to enable your team to show it’s got what it takes to take a specific matter on, and more broadly to be the go-to team of choice for their requirements. However, what matters here is not just being able to show you have the knowledge: it’s being able to demonstrate you can apply it in a commercially savvy way that makes business sense as well as being legally sound. 

Develop knowledgeable relationships  

To do that, you need a deep understanding of your clients’ business and the marketplace in which it operates, so that changes in client requirements won’t come as a surprise. You need to know the commercial drivers, market position, growth prospects, customer base, and supply chain involved, and how these impact, and are affected by, the legal issues the company is facing.  

And that information must be gleaned proactively, both via research but also through developing close working relationships and having ongoing personal contact with clients that goes beyond the matter or transaction at hand and delves deeper into the business needs, outlook, and goals. 

Build trusted partnerships 

Better client relationships are also forged by understanding client dynamics: finding out what matters most to GCs and their teams (which of course differ from client to client, even among those in the same sector), what they are looking for from their external legal advisers and how they like things to be done. And then working in a client-centric way, considering the legal department’s needs in the context of the wider company strategy, being responsive, making communications easier and processes more efficient, and where appropriate, being proactive about anticipating their needs and broadening the services you offer them.  

Often, this will involve using smart technologies to connect you more closely to your clients, make matters run more smoothly, enhance your knowledge, improve your interactions, and overall deliver a better client experience. In this way, firms can truly differentiate themselves from other legal services providers, bringing their brand reputation alive and carving out a role for themselves as trusted partners. 

Keep pace with client expectations 

To keep pace with fast-changing and increasingly demanding client expectations, your expertise must stay sharp and your working practices should always be top of the class. And in order to secure ongoing work and pick up new business, it’s essential to move away from a transactional approach to a relationship-based model, where the value you deliver can be defined and demonstrated in more than one way, on a continuous basis. 

Deploying technology in clever ways can help give you an edge when it comes to deepening client relationships. Whether that’s saving time by using tools designed to help you familiarise yourself quickly on new areas of law or give you a deeper intelligence into complex issues, or by harnessing systems that streamline processes, enhance client connectivity and provide a more personalised service.  

To keep pace: stay ahead of what you and your clients need to know and gain deeper legal and commercial insights faster, to help you be more agile and build long-lasting, valuable client relationships.


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