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Even as he recounts the story, Mark Pritchard doesn’t hide his surprise. “About six months ago I get a call from a senior partner with whom I’ve been working for about five years,” says Pritchard, assistant director of contract services at EMCOR Group Inc., a Fortune 500 construction company. “He told me someone at his firm has the job of getting feedback from their clients and she’d like to meet with me. I did a double take. I’m not familiar with lawyers being interested in what others have to say about them.” S. Miles Dumville, the Reed Smith partner who has helped steer Pritchard and EMCOR through a complex litigation in Virginia — three trials so far — adds: “This was a client we had not worked with before. I wanted to find out how our performance was perceived and whether we could improve. Also, I wanted to see if there was an opportunity to expand our relationship. So I called Julia.” Julia Cline is Reed Smith’s director of general counsel relations. Cline asked Pritchard to complete a four-page, Likert scale client-satisfaction survey and then visited him at EMCOR’s Connecticut offices. As Pritchard recalls, they talked for three hours. First he reviewed a few minor complaints about law firms: “Small things: No surprises! Let us know what you’re going to do, so that six weeks later, it doesn’t come as a complete shock when I see the bill. If you picked up the phone, I could tell you that I already have a brief on that subject from another law firm.” Then the conversation turned to EMCOR’s work and the kind of legal help it needs. “Ultimately,” Pritchard says, “the conversation led to a proposal to begin discussion on broadening our relationship. That’s a decision for our general counsel to make. But as I said, it’s really valuable to speak with someone about a relationship and valuable to talk with people who have impressed us about how we might work together in other disciplines beyond mine.” This isn’t the usual law firm client-management story. Managing partners and marketing directors complain that partners get mired in their assignments, won’t ask for updates on their performance, thwart efforts by others to inquire, and don’t know how to ask for more work. In the recent past big firms have experimented with other means of reaching their clients. Conference rooms are full of consultants ready to poll clients; sales teams have been added to marketing departments; some managing partners include client-review sessions in their job descriptions. Reed Smith had a different idea. Last year the firm hired Cline to reach out to its clients. Cline was a health care industry general counsel and, as a client, had used Reed Smith for almost 20 years. The firm hoped that as a former general counsel, she would get better feedback from others working in-house. “What I understand and what the clients understand is that we have a business to run,” she says. “Lawyers tend to think the whole world revolves around how things pertain to a legal matter. That’s not it at all. The focus of the business is to grow, to take care of customers and employees. Sometimes lawyers forget that.” Cline works on two parallel tracks. Since May she has surveyed 40 clients each month, asking questions about service, work quality, and similar issues. She has targeted the firm’s largest clients for intensive interview sessions, and thus far has met with about four dozen. Typically, she says, most clients start the meeting with positive remarks, but as the session comes near a close, they will declare their problems. Often they are easy to fix. Sometimes not. Already, according to Gregory Jordan, Reed Smith’s managing partner, the firm has replaced two relationship partners after Cline finished her interviews. In one case, he says, the client’s needs had changed and the general counsel was talking to the wrong people in the firm. In the other, a partner nearing retirement wasn’t relating well to a newly installed general counsel. “There was a mismatch which a good relationship partner would have foreseen,” he says. “Julia was able to identify the issues, and we got right on them.” Jordan says that but for Cline, he would have been blindsided by these problems. Among her findings: • One client was disturbed because the firm had not included the lead in-house lawyer in its communications. Another client was upset because the firm had included the lead in-house lawyer in its communications. • A client caught in a nasty litigation thought his lawyer was too “academic.” He wanted a ferocious ankle-biter on his side too. • A client wanted an explanation for research costs. Another wanted a project staffed locally. A third thought he got better service from one office than another. In each case, Cline says she reported the issues to Reed Smith’s relationship partner. “I give it to them unvarnished,” she says. “Then I write a report that also goes to the senior management. At the end I suggest certain action items they may want to consider.” That meant changing the firm’s communication patterns with the clients, changing the lead counsel in the litigation, explaining the costs, hiring more local attorneys, and stepping up the service in one office. While Reed Smith may be alone among the biggest firms, a Chicago-based firm boutique also has a former general counsel on staff, part of whose job is taking the temperature of clients. For the past three years, Audrey Rubin, the chief operating officer of Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd, has sought out four to six clients a year for in-depth interviews. Rubin, who is no relation to the name partner, came to the firm from a general counsel position with a United Airlines affiliate. Her approach is similar to Cline’s. She says she spends between 60 minutes and a half-day with the client’s staff who work with Butler Rubin — from the general counsel to the paralegal. Armed with a survey that asks them to grade the firm on responsiveness, work quality, and perceived value, she tries to draw them out on the firm’s performance. Both firms make a fetish of client relations. At one level these efforts teach both firms some things that can help them maintain their business relationships. But at another, they set themselves apart simply by taking the time to ask clients for feedback. In a crowded and often gray marketplace, there are worse reputations to have.
Aric Press is the editor in chief of The American Lawyer , the ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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