We’re getting underway this evening with the ILN’s 24th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Tomorrow, as I do at all of our meetings, I will be presenting to our attorneys and I thought what better topic to discuss than that of client satisfaction? 

My presentation is based on the client panel from LMA’s Annual Conference this year, and you get the first look! 

As you may know, every year I attend the Legal Marketing Association’s Annual Meeting. The LMA serves the needs and maintains the professional standards of the men and women involved in marketing, business development, client service, and communications within the legal profession, and the LMA conference serves as a powerful venue to build professional relationships and generate business opportunities, as well as enhance the reputation of the ILN. 

This year, as I do every year, the LMA hosted a client panel during one of their breakout sessions. I’ve attended seven of these panels during my tenure with the ILN, and year after year, the clients are saying the same things, though with an increasingly louder voice. Which begs me to ask the question – "Are lawyers listening?" 

On this year’s panel were Jeff Carr of FMC Technologies, whom those ILN members in attendance at our 2010 Regional Meeting of the Americas will remember from his presentation with the ILN’s Marty Beirne.  We also had Ron Barger of the Archon Group, an affiliate of Goldman Sachs, and Janet Dhillon of JC Penney. During the presentation, I will be sharing the most important quotes from the GC’s and what we should take away from them. 

The traditional law firm model is dying. Get over it, and understand what the new world is going to be. There will be new business models that come into place. We’ll build them if you won’t. We don’t need YOU to survive. We need the [legal] industry to survive." — Jeff Carr

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Okay, so what can we take away from what Jeff says? Well, first of all, clients are unhappy with the way things are – they want them to change. And if lawyers and law firms aren’t going to partner with them to come up with mutually agreeable solutions, the clients will start doing it on their own. Some of them already have. Just because you’ve always done something a certain way isn’t enough of a reason to continue doing it that way.

One of my favorite quotes is "When you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got."

The other message that I’m getting from what Jeff said is that clients WANT you to partner with them.. They want you to be innovative and creative to meet their needs, to be their partners. So how can you do that better? 

I want to be your most important, and least significant, client." — Jeff Carr

Jeff emphasized that this was one of the most important points he would make. He asked us to think about that for a minute – he wants to be your most important client. That means he wants to be the one you’re thinking about and advocating for all the time – and, of course, this is what ALL your clients want – it’s not possible, I know, but how can you make them feel that way? 

And he also wants to be your least significant client. What does that mean? He wants to account for the least amount of your revenue as possible, because you’re such a good advocate for him that you’re keeping him protected from the unknowns. Now, that’s obviously not as lucrative in the short term, but, in the long term, if you’re keeping your client happy, and they believe you have their best interests at heart because you’re a fierce advocate for them, they’re going to not only continue to bring you more and more of their work, but they will also recommend you to their colleagues. 

We are not lawyers. We are businesspeople first." –Jeff Carr

This is another extremely important point. Although general counsels are all trained in the law, their primary job is to be the strategic advisor for their business team. Only then are they the legal advisor. Their job every day is to deliver shareholder value. So they expect that the outside counsel they work with understand and appreciate this. So how can you help your clients look good to their clients? 

The legal industry is perverse. It’s the only industry where buyers act like sellers and sellers act like buyers" — Jeff Carr

It probably won’t surprise you that this statement got some of the loudest applause from those of us in the audience. It also might be one of the most controversial at our conference. But, from my experience in the industry, and talking and listening to clients, it’s also one of the most true statements. 

Your clients are the purchasers of legal services.

That means THEY define the terms under which they will purchase.  

Let’s look at it another way – let’s say you want to get your hair cut. As the purchaser of hair cutting services, you are going to be the one that decides when the appointment is convenient. And if no convenient appointments exist, you’re going to go somewhere else, right? You’re going to want to know up front how much it might cost you, and the hairdresser or barber should be able to tell you based on what you’re getting how much it will be – if you have long hair, and are getting more than just a trim, it will be a certain amount. If you have short hair, and you’re skipping the blow dry, it will be another amount, etc.

And you expect that at the end of your haircut, if you’re happy with it, you’ll give your hairdresser an appropriate tip, and if you’re unhappy, that the hairdresser will work with you to resolve the issue. 

Let’s continue this example a little further – if you’re unhappy when you leave the salon or barber, either with the cut, or the price, or the way you were treated, or the way the salon looked, and none of those things was resolved to your satisfaction, what are you likely to do? You will, first of all, go somewhere else the next time you need a haircut! And you’re going to tell your friends not to go to that same place because you were unhappy. 

Legal services are not much different, except that far more money is at stake. Clients expect that when they come to you for legal services, that you are going to be able to articulate your price, that you will do everything in your power to please them, and make them feel comfortable as your client.

It has to be all about them, and not at all about you.

Think about the last beauty contest you were a part of or the last pitch you wrote for a client – how would you feel if you got the same treatment, paperwork, explanations, timely returned phone calls as if YOU were the one seeking the service? If you would be happy, then you’re doing the right things, and you should keep doing them.

But if you would feel that your time was being wasted, that the provider missed the point, that they weren’t very careful in finding out what you really want and need, then you need to look again at the systems you have in place. 

Firms should be able to figure out with every matter on average how much it’s going to cost you. I know what it costs to litigate certain types of matters. If there are firms who know these costs, I haven’t found them. Unless you know your costs, you can’t be a good partner for my company." — Janet Dhillon

These are strong words and the other panelists were in full agreement with Janet. Let’s look again at our hairdressing example. If you walked into a hairdresser, and you said "I need a haircut, what will it cost me?"

And they looked at you, thought a minute and said, "well, we don’t know because we’ve never cut YOUR hair before. So we won’t be able to figure it out until the end, when we know how long it will take us, whether or not you might have something wrong with your hair that will involve more work, and whether or not we’ll need to bring a specialist in to help." 

If that happened, you’d say "forget it!" and walk out.

Now, I know and appreciate that the law is far more complex than hair cutting. But, if your clients can implement systems that allow them to track the costs of certain types of matters, so that they can predict what the costs might be, how come law firms can’t do the same thing?

They can. 

With the recent roller coaster ride that we’ve been on with the economy, this issue is of primary importance to clients. They expect that you can figure out your costs – perhaps not down to the last penny, but close enough to give them some measure of comfort. Will surprises crop up? Of course, but if you keep them informed, rather than just sticking it on a bill, the relationship will remain intact. 

Janet later told us that the main thing that makes her unhappy with outside counsel is when she gets some kind of cost surprise – so along with knowing your costs and being able to articulate them, you should be able to maintain regular communication about billing issues to avoid any surprises. 

I will not talk to you about AFAs. We’ve banned the word ‘alternative.’ There’s nothing ‘alternative’ about alternative fees. Law firms MUST know their cost structure. It’s too high, based on pass-through and on inefficiency. I won’t tolerate that." — Jeff Carr

I said it after Janet’s comments, and I’ll say it again: Know Your Costs.

In this market, clients will not put up with cost uncertainties, and that’s due in part to the fact that many of them are currently tracking legal costs, and believe that if they can do it, so can you. The other message here again is that clients want you to be their partner. They want you to understand how their financial systems work, and work with them to make them comfortable with the ways fees are structured – however that might be. That’s not being "alternative," that’s being a good business partner to your clients. 

If your firm’s culture doesn’t match my culture, you’re dead." — Ron Barger

The cultural match between clients and outside counsel is one of the most crucial. Jeff agreed with Ron on this, and said that he hires firms for credentials, experience and culture. The first two can be fixed, but you can’t fix culture if there’s a mismatch. Despite this being such an important piece, outside counsel often don’t ask potential clients about their culture.

And understanding what your clients like is just as important as understanding what they DON’T like, and on this, the panelists were agreed – they don’t like surprises. 

Getting an unexpected bill, or learning about something that they should have known already from you tells your clients that there’s a communication breakdown. The other issue is that of representing a competitor, though on this, the panelists were divided. 

Ron felt that even if there is no legal conflict, if your firm is representing a competitor, it can feel like an allegiance conflict. Janet, however, felt that it might be an advantage, because it means that the firm has a better understanding of the industry that they’re operating in.  That perfectly illustrates Ron’s point again that culture is critical – know your clients and what is important to THEM.

The preceding quotes make it pretty clear – the client is in charge, and they know it. And that’s how it should be. To close, I’ll share with you Felice Wagner’s poem. This perfectly illustrates the question I’d like you to ask yourself today – are you really listening to your clients? 

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
I wish you would do things more often my way.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
I don’t like that new partner that calls everyday.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
I’d like you to bill me in an alternative way.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
We have four new matters that came in just today.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
Being responsive to me means you call back the same day.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
There are three other law firms we’re considering today.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
I expect your budget to reflect what I’ll pay.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
When you go over budget, I see my career slip away.

If only you’d ask, I’d be happy to say
I wish you would do things more often my way.

 

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Photo of Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. In this capacity, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles…

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. In this capacity, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles recruitment, member retention, and a high level of service to members. She is engaged in the legal industry to stay on top of trends, both in law firms and law firm networks.

In her role as Executive Director, she develops and facilitates relationships among ILN member firm lawyers at 90+ law firms in 67 countries, and seeks opportunities for member firms to build business and relationships, while ensuring member participation in Network events and initiatives. These initiatives include facilitating referrals, the management and execution of the marketing and business development strategy for the Network, which encompasses all communications, push-down efforts, and marketing partnerships, providing support and guidance to the chairs and group leaders for the ILN’s thirteen practice and industry specialty groups, the ILN’s women’s initiative, the ILN’s mentorship program, the management and execution of all ILN conferences, and more.

JD Supra Readers Choice Top Author 2019

During her previous tenure as Director of Global Relationship Management, the ILN has been shortlisted as a Global Law Firm Network of the Year by The Lawyer for 2016 and 2017, and included as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network since 2011. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry, and was recently included in Clio’s list for “34 People in Legal You Should Follow on Twitter.” She was also chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was recently chosen for as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development. She has been the author of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking since February of 2009.