Your Clients Have a Few Things on Their Minds

My partners and I have spent the last three years talking to hundreds of law firm clients. And we have good news and bad news to report. Most clients like and appreciate the work they get from their outside firms, but only a minority told us that they were “very satisfied” by their outside lawyers. We heard heartwarming praise—“They were in the foxhole with me”—and the familiar “too” complaints: too expensive, too inefficient, too slow to change.

The message for law firms is that there appears to be significant room for improvement for the majority of their clients. There is much that can be done by firms to address the concerns that their clients are raising. Overall, we think it fair to conclude that every firm consider two steps: First, begin or expand robust client feedback programs so that you understand what is on the minds of your clients; and second, redouble your efforts to align your behaviors and operations with your clients’ expectations.

Photo by Fox/Liaison

We make this argument now, fully mindful that much of the discussion at the moment seems focused elsewhere. There is, of course, the constant siren call of the future and the promise of a transformational technology that is just around the corner—if only we can find that corner. This is, as well, the season for Big Law navel-gazing. With the release of the Am Law 100 and 200 numbers, firms run the risk of looking only at themselves and their strategies, while now and then, wallowing in the sin of envy. After spending a great deal of time with your clients, we think that’s a mistake. In our view, to borrow the old X-Files tagline, the truth is out there. Out there, that is, with your clients.

For law firms, the truths (and it’s always plural) that matter relate not to general market conditions but to their particular situations. Yes, it’s important to know that legal operations chiefs are making changes in the legal market, that price pressures continue, and that demand may have suddenly risen from the grave. What’s vital to know: What are my clients doing, saying, and planning for us?

What sorts of truths are out there?  A few real-life, paraphrased examples:

  • We don’t like our new relationship partner. If you don’t fix this problem, we’re going elsewhere.
  • You get most of our deal work. But lately we’ve been impressed by this other firm we’ve started using. They seem to want it more. Next year, we plan to give them more.
  • We love our relationship partner. But we don’t know anyone else at your firm. If he got hit by a bus, we’d have to look around for new counsel.
  • Your firm’s service is inconsistent. When you’re at your best, it’s great. Then there are your partners who don’t know us and don’t seem terribly interested in our problems.
  • Please stop trying to sell me partners you don’t know for services that really aren’t the best in the market. You’re just hurting yourselves.
  • I have a problem in (fill in the blank) Tokyo, Sao Paulo, or Prague. Do you know someone who can help me?

There’s more where those came from, but you get the drift. None of these problems are unsolvable. But left to fester, they can leave scars or prove fatal—or, almost as bad, become the proverbial missed opportunity. In each case, a client volunteered the comment in response to a question. No question, no answer. In a market this tight, who would leave these issues to chance?

Someday soon, clients may seize the initiative in this area. In a fascinating essay on his Legal Evolution blog, Bill Henderson of Indiana University law school describes a new product that will allow in-house departments to rate and rank their law firms on various performance scales. In corporate climates where metrics dominate most discussions, this could be a natural fit, particularly for general counsel eager to show their management skills. This is a fine idea, but like so much else happening in the legal market, just don’t expect it to be embraced quickly or completely.

Efforts at client feedback, whether driven by firms or clients, serve as another reminder that at the highest levels, the practice and business of law remains a relationship affair.  Once again, I have found some helpful thoughts in a recent column by David Brooks in The New York Times. He was discussing the blight of loneliness and social isolation that afflicts modern America. To help make his point, Brooks quoted from a book called This Land of Strangers by Robert Hall: “The truth is, relationships are the most valuable and value-creating resource of any society. They are our lifelines to survive, grow, and thrive.”

And there, in 23 words, without reference to a leverage ratio or a profit-per-lawyer estimate, Hall had provided law firms with their path forward. Of course, clients care about your expertise, experience, and general excellence. But if they don’t know you, or don’t have reason to trust you, or don’t believe that you care about meeting their needs, they aren’t going to call. So, manage away, redouble your focus (or find one, as the case may be), and innovate as much as possible. And, while you’re doing all those things, please remember Job One: tending to your relationships.

Aric Press is the former editor in chief of The American Lawyer and a founding partner at PP&C Consulting, a law firm advisory group.