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Newark, N.J.-Lerner, David, Littenberg, Krumholz & Mentlik has a big book of intellectual property business and a loyal client base. But the firm isn’t leaving the future to chance. As larger, full-service firms expand their intellectual property departments, Lerner David, a 61-lawyer IP boutique based in Westfield, N.J., wants to glean empirical data on how to make sure its name will stay high on the lists of corporate counsel needing such work. The solution: market research. Lerner David has been scouting for a vendor to conduct a survey of users of IP law firms and to question respondents about their opinions of Lerner David and their inclination to hire it for future matters. Corporate America wouldn’t think of launching a new flavor of toothpaste without doing market research, and the idea is slowly growing among law firms faced with ever increasing competition. About 40% of the country’s 300 largest firms do some form of systematic client research, up from 25% five years ago, according to a study by BTI Consulting of Wellesley, Mass. Larger firms have long conducted secondary market research, obtaining reports and articles about clients and client industries as well as competitive intelligence about law firms. The most common sort of primary research at law firms-client satisfaction audits-is starting to take hold at large and midsized outfits. Less common, but also catching on, is “branding” research, which asks users of legal services about their impressions of specific law firms. While some firms aim such research broadly, the most common method asks existing clients about a firm’s image as well as mundane variables, such as whether lawyers return calls promptly. Behind the growing interest in branding research is the mounting inclination of corporate legal departments to cut the number of firms they use, said BTI president Michael Rynowecer. The coalescing of legal work favors large, departmentalized firms. “As things become more and more competitive, as law firms are merging, as smaller and medium-sized firms have to compete with larger firms, those firms are doing more market research. And they have to,” said Deborah Addis, a Boston marketing consultant who advises smaller law firms. A case in point Lerner David is a case in point. The firm only has one office but serves clients across the United States and some in foreign countries. What the partners need to know is what about the firm best serves existing clients and how that translates into a marketing campaign to find new business. “Many of the big-box law firms now offer IP and they do so in an assertive way,” said attorney Bruce Sales, a member of the marketing committee. “We do not want our expertise to be lost amongst the big firms. We want our expertise to be out there when people are deciding who to use.” Sales also hopes to learn how his firm’s casual atmosphere resonates with clients, many of which are Fortune 500 companies. The study might show clients expect their law firms to be a little more button-down, he said. Sales expects Lerner David will get good client reviews, but its goal is to get the unvarnished truth. “I think many of us expect some self-validation, but No. 1, we need to know if our assumptions are accurate, and No. 2, we do not have a seat-of-the-pants view about the way to market ourselves,” he said. So why haven’t more firms latched onto branding research as a strategy tool? A sample of firms contacted had a common reason why they don’t do market research through an outside specialist: They think they can do it better themselves. Marcia Jeffers, the chief marketing officer at Newark’s Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross, said that the firm’s librarians, marketing department and paralegals research client companies and industries by obtaining articles and reports. Lawyers solicit client feedback as part of the normal course of business. And Jeffers and the partners collect information about their competitive environment by reading legal periodicals, and speaking with clients and counterparts at other firms. “I’m always asking questions, to the point where I might be a pest,” said Jeffers. “If you’re reading between the lines, you can tell what the trends are going to be.”

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