A bit of the same old story

In this issue, we present our annual Canadian Lawyer corporate counsel survey. The results generally mirror other polls of in-house counsel that have been done by various organizations in North America and abroad. The bottom line is you’ve got to get to the goal line in a cost-effective and strategic way. Some of our findings:

• Legal spends are going up but much of that extra work is being done in-house;
• Outside law firms need to be more concerned with costs;
• Outside service providers should better understand and be able to react to issues involving their clients’ business.

Not a lot of surprises in the results of our survey (see page 34), but what continues to surprise is that the responses aren’t changing very much year over year.

For me, one of the biggest shocks on the lack-of-change front are the numbers around law firms that do (or rather don’t do) client surveys — checking in to see how you’re doing in the client’s eyes. Our survey shows 72 per cent of in-house counsel respondents say law firms have not contacted them in any way over the past year to take the pulse of the relationship.

As one general counsel on a recent panel I attended noted: “Outside providers leave lots of low-hanging fruit.” She essentially said it was important for lawyers to really get interested in their clients and get to know their business. A big part of that is communication and an integral aspect of communication is understanding what you are and aren’t doing right — from the client’s perspective.

I have written before about the benefits of doing client satisfaction surveys, either formal or informal. In this ultra-competitive environment law firms are now in — only 19.5 per cent of those surveyed said their lead law firm clearly provides better services than its closest competitors — it is foolhardy to not talk to your clients to find out how you’re doing.

Those types of discussions will likely lead to other opportunities as well. It’s all part of getting to know the clients better, understanding their business better, and as a result serving them better. And on this point, a little sweat equity goes a long way. Don’t charge for every hour spent researching, for example. A couple of hours off the clock will often prove to be great relationship builders that will pay off with bigger projects down the road. Clients appreciate creative and strategic thinkers who understand the nuances of their business. Think of it as a partnership with the client whereby a legal adviser is an integral part of the success of a company and that company then relies more on its legal adviser. Win-win all the way!

Other panellists at the event mentioned above talked about how firms distinguish themselves to clients. Knowing the client was first and foremost but drilling down, GCs also want honesty. In this case, that translates into knowing the client well enough to know where your firm, or even each lawyer, can best serve the client but also not to be afraid of admitting if there are weaknesses. One of the panellists went so far as to say that sometimes, law firms should be willing to pair up with other firms to really serve the client as best they can. A novel idea, but there it is.

No rocket science, just sensible and relatively simple actions that can make all the difference in building strong and lasting lawyer-client relationships. I look forward to seeing changes in our results in future polls. 

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