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Being a better client — learning about true collaboration

Innovation Director, Stuart Whittle, looks at how collaborating with suppliers can assist with innovation.

In my recent article on collaboration, I posed the question in the context of collaboration - “doesn’t everybody do this?”, and in particular, I touched on how we collaborate internally to provide business solutions for clients. I want to continue to discuss collaboration, but this time look at external partnerships.

When I practised law I had a particular experience with one client over a number of years that helped inform my views on external collaboration. Over time as I have repeated this story, it has become part of my personal mythology that it was the final kick I needed to change my career path, something I had been contemplating since I started on my law degree 15 years earlier — I don’t like to rush into anything!

When I practised law, I was a litigator. The particular client that I had in mind seemed to have as its cultural mien, its raison d’etre, making sure that they gave the solicitors who were acting for them as hard a time as possible. The client was actively, and consistently, hostile in their approach. Dealing with the client was more confrontational than actually dealing with the other side of the litigation; that all had an impact on me. Frankly, that client was simply not getting the best out of me. Where I had to make a choice, they weren’t the client that I prioritised. I simply did not really want to work for that client.

I mention this since when the opportunity arose for me to change my career path, I walked into a situation where we - Weightmans - were that client. We had a supplier that was providing the software we were using to run the firm, and the relationship that we had with them reminded me of the relationship I had had with my client - a relationship with a supplier that was actively hostile. We were that organisation’s problem customer. You didn’t need a degree in psychology to read the body language in the room at one of the first meetings with the supplier that I attended; it was immediately obvious to me that we weren’t getting the best out of the people working for that organisation, in part as a direct result of our approach, so I set about trying to change that. In the same way that we started to get better at collaborating internally in order to build teams who had the skills that we needed, some of the skills we needed lay outside of our organisation and so, trite though it may be, we worked hard to properly partner with our key suppliers. For me, partnership with our key suppliers is a two way process. In order to get the best work from those whose skills and services we need, we have to invest our time with them too. Yes, there are clearly commercial realities of which you need to be aware, but investing in your suppliers makes it far easier to have those adult conversations sooner rather than later to head off issues before they escalate.

As we have matured as an organisation we have started to take this approach of partnering with external suppliers to build an external ecosystem of organisations and academic institutions that can help us build business solutions, only part of which will be traditional legal advice. We have examples ranging from working with small start-ups such as Frontier Labs with whom we have obtained grant-funding for projects, to building partnerships as part of our CyXcel product, to working with Kira, Neota and The University of Liverpool to solve real world, business problems.

Next time, whilst all this collaboration and partnership sounds great.. what is the problem that we are trying to solve?

Stuart Whittle is Director of Innovation and Business Services at national law firm Weightmans