What’s on clients’ minds

After a break, Aric Press is back in Dialogue with What’s on clients’ 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 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.


For 16 years, as editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer and then its parent company, ALM Media, Aric was the leading journalistic observer and commentator on the world of large law firms and their clients. It is a small boast to say that no other journalist, perhaps no other human being, has met with or watched more law firm and legal department leaders than he has. Now that he has left The American Lawyer and its family, he brings with him a unique perspective and market knowledge.

A graduate of Cornell and NYU Law School, Press spent nearly 19 years at Newsweek magazine (of blessed memory) as a writer and editor before joining The American Lawyer. He and his wife, whom he met in law school, raised three children in Brooklyn.

Aric Press, Partner, PP&C Consulting
+1 917-603-1052


Aric  first published Clients have a few things on their minds on Big Law Business on June 4, 2018. With his permission, it is re-purposed here as What’s on clients’ minds.


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Mike O'Horo

RE: Direct client feedback. I’m with Aric on this.

Too many law firms shy away from feedback interviews, believing they already know what their clients think. Others fear what they’ll hear.

Some years ago, we were beta testing a pretty radical new client team/major account development process. We insisted that the firm begin by having an objective outsider interview key counsel and executives before we did anything.

Coincidentally, at the time the firm’s Vice Chair, and the primary relationship partner for that account, had announced his retirement 18 months hence. It was a perfect opportunity to incorporate succession planning into the process. The firm had anointed a litigator, whom we’ll call “Joe,” for this post.

When asked about Joe’s future role, the clients interviewed all said versions of “NFW.” Just think what a disaster it would have been if, ignorant of this negative view, they had spent 18 months trying to install Joe as the successor.

You don’t know unless you ask. Get your ego out of the way and ask. More specifically, hire a professional to ask. You can’t do this with your own people. The clients won’t be as candid, and you’ll only hear what you want to hear.

Laurie Robertson
Laurie Robertson

Very good advice Aric. Stable revenue growth for firms will come from developing their existing client relationships. How can anyone do that without first understanding, first hand, the client’s business strategies and concerns, how they expect service to be delivered and what they think of the firm and its lawyers? Regular, independent client feedback, documented and shared inside the firm and then acted upon, is a prerequisite of any key client program or client strategy. This was true ten and fifteen years ago and is still true today. Not enough firms are conducting regular feedback and the firms that are doing it need to extend it more widely. And Mike’s example of the “gems” you can uncover is not at all uncommon.