Written By: Duncan Y. Manley, Esq.
Christian & Small LLP
As I was driving to work today, I began thinking about why there is so little client loyalty to law firms these days. This thought was precipitated by a telephone conference I had with a new client yesterday who asked me to handle his legal business in the future. He had become frustrated and annoyed with the law firm he had been using because they were taking him for granted and not providing the service he received early on in their business relationship. I think it is safe to say that while he had an established social relationship with the other firm, it was not strong enough to overcome the poor service he was currently receiving.
When I was a young lawyer it was commonplace for companies to use one firm for all of their legal problems. Firms prided themselves on being “full service law firms,” that is, they were able to handle multiple legal issues for their clients. It was not uncommon for clients to recruit upper management from their law firm. Recently, clients have gravitated towards using multiple boutique firms that specialize in handling distinct legal matters. As companies have undergone substantial growth, so have their legal departments. They have in-house lawyers assigned to different areas of the law and who only deal with outside counsel who specialize in that area. There is less opportunity for outside counsel to know the other lawyers in the legal department, much less the General Counsel. In many cases, in-house associate counsel do not have the right to select outside counsel. In some cases, in-house counsel are discouraged from interacting socially with outside counsel. It is more difficult to establish a relationship with all in-house counsel, making the relationship vulnerable to the comings and goings of corporate counsel. In other words, it is now more difficult, in at least some cases, to create a relationship strong enough to overcome less than near perfect performance for clients.
I work hard to bring in new business for my firm. I stress to new and long-time clients that we are honest in our billings, that we are aware that they have other options, that we will work hard to please them, and that we will religiously follow their guidelines. I promise to communicate with them on a regular basis and treat them as I would want to be treated if I was the client. If you think about it, there is really nothing extraordinary about these commitments. They are entitled, as paying clients, to be served in this manner. If we fail in these commitments, we will lose the business. It is that simple. There will always be someone else who will make those commitments and keep them, at least for awhile.
So the lesson to be learned in this is obvious. Keep your promises. Do not take your clients for granted. I am reminded of a story told from the pulpit of a church in Tennessee. The owner of a home went to the office of a real estate agent to list his house for sale. He was invited into the agent’s office, and just as the man was about to describe his house to the agent, the telephone rang. The agent said, “I have to take this call. Here is some paper and a pen. Please write out a description of your house.” The man began to commit the virtues of his home to paper, suddenly stopped, and got up to leave. The agent stopped his telephone conversation long enough to ask the man why he was leaving. He replied, “As I was describing my house, I realized I always wanted a house like that. The prospect of losing it made me realize that I had just been taking it for granted.” The man left with a greater appreciation for what he had.
Will it take the prospect of losing business to make us realize how fortunate we are to have good clients? Will it take actually losing business to another firm to enlighten us?
My gain of a new client is another firm’s loss. How do I make sure this does not happen to me and my firm?
I was taught as a young lawyer to work hard to please my clients and perform well, and my reputation would spread and clients would come to me because of my successes. Those days are over. Other law firms are marketing your clients. Your relationship with your clients and your performance are the only things keeping that client from going elsewhere.
Partners in a firm cannot handle every case. Not all clients want a partner in every case. Obviously that means you are going to have associates in your firm having direct contact with clients. It means that in many instances, unless you monitor every file, you may not know what your associate is doing to keep the client happy. Even if you monitor every file, you still may not know whether the associate is fulfilling your promises to the client. If you fail to train your associates to do what is necessary to keep your clients happy, if you fail to stress upon them the importance of keeping your clients happy, if you fail to advise them of the consequences of not keeping clients happy, then you are putting at risk all that you have worked hard to attain.
Do your associates know what is expected of them regarding client relations? Have you taught them? Are they firmly committed to the same ideals you have? Have you explained how their relationship with clients affects the well being of the firm? Affects their future with the firm? Are you assuming that associate attorneys know all of this? Do you know enough about your associates’ work to evaluate their relationship with your clients? Do you have a way to monitor this?
You should, because the days of clients finding you and staying with you simply because of your reputation are gone. You have to work every day to serve your clients the way you would want to be served. And everyone on your team must have that same mentality.
Duncan Y. Manley is the Chair Emeritus of the Primerus Defense Institute. He is a partner with Christian & Small LLP in Birmingham, Alabama, where he practices in the areas of business and commercial litigation, insurance, premises liability, product liability, transportation, and mediation and arbitration. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.