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Longfellow had it about right. Between the dark and the daylight, when litigators ride and corporate lawyers cower, it’s once again time for the client’s hour. Every 10 years or so, whether they want to or not, law firms rediscover the importance of client relations. As it happens, these Great Awakenings follow the business cycle. So now, clever firm strategists urge their partners to expand market share, by which they mean: Buck up, get off the bloody treadmill, and start wooing potential clients! Similarly, patient managing partners once again beseech their partners to use their old client relations software. If they can’t locate it on their desktops, a member of the IT department is available to help. This time, we think that more than a recession-induced mood swing is at work. Indeed, the larger trends that are driving the legal business, sometimes to distraction, are the same ones that are leading astute law firms to rethink how they’re treating their customers. For now, let’s stick with three problems: First, for all your Plexiglas deal trophies and laminated law review certificates, the clients can’t tell you apart. Admit it or not, even the high-end legal market is largely undifferentiated and suffers from creeping commoditization. Two of my banker buddies — the sort whose favor translates into Nantucket acreage — report with some remorse that they can now get excellent work on their deals (if only they had some) from any of 20 firms. Why pick one over another? If they sense an aneurysm-inducing problem in the offing, they’ll call Wachtell. Otherwise, their work is up for grabs. Second, years of poor bedside manner are catching up. The latest survey of 200 in-house lawyers from BTI Consulting asked them to volunteer the names of any outside lawyers who’d shown them excellent service. Only 35 percent could identify even one. For sport, when I spoke to a crowd of marketing partners at a recent Glasser marketing conference, I asked them how many had received excellent service from a medical doctor. Two-thirds could name one or more. Worrisome: A profession famous for arrogance scores better than yours. Third, and related, clients are not only more sophisticated than ever, they would also rather not be ignored. At that same Glasser conference, a Fortune 50 in-house litigation chief described how pleased he was when he sought and received a meeting with one of his firms. That was so interesting that he then arranged for a similar session with his principal outside firm. That one went well, too. As luck would have it, the next speaker was a lawyer from that very firm, who reported that his firm had more than 100 client teams in place and had tried to think of everything. Everything, evidently, but asking to meet with its leading clients. You can’t make this stuff up. This month we join the client relations conversation. We start by looking for guidance from outside the profession. First is an excerpt from a new book by three Harvard Business School analysts, who argue that great service businesses pay close attention to their customers and treat their employees with care. Those concepts need not be foreign to law firms. The Harvard argument is subtle and deceptively simple. There’s a new series of buzzwords to learn. For instance, you don’t want merely satisfied clients; you want loyal ones. In the excerpt, we offer only the most basic starting points, because that’s what so many firm leaders need: What exactly do you know about your clients? And how do you know it? The answers will tell you something about your business and yourself. Ultimately this conversation can be either cynical or compelling. If the purpose of your client relations effort is only to squeeze out more billable hours, you’re starting down the wrong road. As a general counsel says in our story “Off the Clock,” too many law firms think that a relationship is just another way of saying, “Give me more business.” He’s annoyed, and rightly so. Great law firms aspire to relationships because they aim to perform at the highest professional level, to serve as the much brooded-about but too-seldom encountered “trusted advisers.” In the months ahead, we’ll keep returning to this topic. The question of how you treat your clients is not just a matter for your marketing department. It goes, among other things, to your governing structure, to your assessment systems, and ultimately, to your vision. Get this right, and you won’t have to worry about your profits per partner rankings. Get this wrong, and in the end all that you’ll have to show are your toys mounted on the wall.

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