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June 28, 2011 8:39 PM

Survey: Half of Law Firms Don't Seek Client Feedback

Posted by Dana Olsen

Law firms aren't listening to their clients, according to a survey released today by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell.

More than 70 percent of law firms responded that client feedback affects the way their lawyers conduct business, according to the report, yet fewer than half--48 percent--formally solicit client critiques and just one-third communicate the feedback to lawyers.

The lack of effort is a missed opportunity for firms to improve and protect business, said Derek Benton, director of International Operations at LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell, in a statement announcing the survey results.

"Firms that proactively use insights given by clients are more likely to improve and protect a relationship in the longer-term," he said. "Corporate counsel report that one of their biggest frustrations is giving feedback that is neither properly fed back to relevant parties in the firm, nor acted upon."

The most surprising finding, said Benton, was the misconnect between the proactive firms and the indifferent. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they failed to solicit client feedback because they lacked the staff and resources to do so, but 64 percent of those proactive firms said feedback programs consumed less than 5 percent of their marketing budgets.

The findings are based on responses gathered from 415 senior personnel--including managing partners, lawyers, marketing directors, and other director positions--at law firms worldwide.

According to respondents, firms that solicited feedback used the following methods:

48 percent written/electronic surveys

47 percent face-to-face interviews

25 percent telephone interviews by client relationship partners as part of their management of key clients.

Other key findings:

•51 percent of firms said feedback is broadly and openly shared

•1/3 of firms communicate feedback to the lawyers and others who deal with the client(s)

A handful of firms have put a premium on client assessments. Ballard Spahr and Reed Smith recently hired client interviewers to manage a formal feedback process, according to a recent report from The Legal Intelligencer, a sibling publication. Drinker Biddle & Reath uses outside consultants to conduct client interviews.

Fifty-six percent of respondents reported that they have plans to conduct client feedback in the future, but the survey reports law firms may have a more stubborn problem than can be fixed with an electronic feedback form--56 percent of firms reported that their lawyers were either "ambivalent" or "not enthusiastic" about any attempts to actively communicate with clients.

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The number of law firms that operate effective client feedback programs may actually be even less than these statistics show. The question I ask is, “Raise your hand if you’re with an AmLaw 100 or 200 firm and if you have a Client Feedback Program with ALL of the following characteristics: (a) Recurs annually and for at least the last few years; (b) Sponsored by the firm’s chair and is “top down” so partners don’t have to volunteer; (c) Focuses on the largest 30 or so clients; (d) Involves in-person interviews with key contacts at each client, either by an “independent” member of the firm or a third party; (e) For each client, each time the client is interviewed, most or all of the key decision makers are included which, for a major client of an AmLaw firm, would number 5 or 6 or more and include business executives as well as law department members; (f) The output from the interviews at each client are sufficiently documented and there exists a management monitored process wherein the firm’s Business Development Professionals assist the respective Responsible Partners and Client Teams to prepare and execute implementation plans.”

Thanks for the stats on the law firm side, but how about asking The Clients about the importance of their feedback?!

As Margaret Seif, GC of Analog Devices told me in an interview: "I'm amazed at the number of firms that don't ask how they are doing. Seif calls those firms "complacent (and are) too busy or don't want to hear the answers."

Seif told me that her company, like a growing number of others was planning to undertake its own performance review of its firms.

In an interview with J&J's IP counsel, the law firm commissioning the interview got a head start on what they needed to know because the corporation was in the process of reviewing their firms and consolidating their use of outside firms.

Few things are as easy as asking for feedback -- the challenge is responding to it positively. If "56% of lawyers are already 'ambivalent' or 'not enthusiastic'" about actively contacting clients, it's unlikely they'd openly welcome criticism anyway.

Attorneys who depend upon others to ensure the return business of clients while ignoring the latent potential for client dissatisfaction to fester into a wound which jeopardizes the business relationship undermine their professional standards, reputation, and should, at this point in history, be in the minority. The competition will clean up this mess, and those left wondering what happened to their book of business will suffer the consequences.

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