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Law firms are paying a heck of a lot of money to get the answer to a perennial question: how to improve their relationships with clients. Morrison & Foerster, Pillsbury Winthrop, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich and others have recently been plopping down hefty sums to have outside consultants do extensive in-person interviews of key clients. While most corporate counsel say they care about cost and quality, the studies may serve another purpose: letting clients know that the firm is interested in maintaining a good relationship. “If I and fellow GCs can get the message through to outside counsel they have to be more in tune with what counts most with in-house lawyers,” then the surveys will be a success, said Michael Roster, general counsel of Golden West Financial Corp., who has been repeatedly canvassed. Controlling costs Increasingly, that concern comes down to one thing-controlling costs. Firms have always cared about their relationship with clients, but in the last few years, it’s become more important as general counsel have cut back the number of outside firms they use. This practice, dubbed convergence, is intended to give companies leverage with outside counsel-in negotiating rates, staffing and time devoted to them-in exchange for giving them more work. According to Boston’s BTI Consulting Group Inc., corporate law departments are using 25% to 30% fewer law firms than they did three years ago. At the same time, corporate legal staffs have shrunk by 40%, even as companies shift more work to outside firms. As a result, more emphasis than ever is being placed on maintaining relationships. “These are trends that would make law firms stand up and say, ‘I better find a way to make my clients happier,’ ” said BTI President Michael Rynowecer. Client surveys are nothing new, of course. But recently firms have turned to outside consultants to get more candid feedback. Six months ago, San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster hired the Zeughauser Group to interview about 100 decision-makers among the firm’s clients. While firms say the results are confidential, what they are learning is apparently making an impact. “We’re spending a significant amount of time at our worldwide partners meeting [in Washington recently] discussing the results of the survey,” said Morrison & Foerster Chairman Keith Wetmore. “We think they will be shaping how we describe ourselves.” While Wetmore declined to say how much the survey cost, he acknowledged that it was expensive.

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