I recently attended a legal industry roundtable with members of the client community. In addition to GCs from various companies, several managing partners from Am Law 100 law firms were present. I happened to be the only law firm chief marketing officer at the table.

What I found most striking about the interaction was that a couple of the managing partners at the table were doing the overwhelming majority of the talking. These law firm partners gave the impression they knew exactly which problems the GCs were facing. As a result, they weren’t really hearing the various issues and frustrations raised or experienced by the in-house counsel in attendance.

This experience can be viewed somewhat as a microcosm of the issues of the legal industry at large. A thought that repeatedly comes up in my mind is whether corporate law firms are talking at their clients rather than with their clients. Are law firms actually listening enough to clients?

The answer in many instances seems to be a pretty clear no. Research studies from well-known organizations including Thomson Reuters, Acritas and BTI Consulting Group make the case that, on an industry-wide basis, clients do not believe law firms are providing enough value for the dollar. I believe this perception stems in part from the presumption by many law firms that they know and understand the needs of their clients. Most of the GCs I’ve spoken with tend to feel that the law firm-client relationship is at a relatively low point. They often remark that “most law firms just don’t get it.” Many comment on the vast divide between their view of the relationship with outside law firms and how law firms have traditionally approached (or perhaps neglected) the relationship.

In my role overseeing business development at K&L Gates, I’ve had the benefit of meeting and speaking with dozens of clients and potential clients over the past 12 months. It has been fascinating to hear directly from them regarding their personal views on what can be done to improve the law firm-client relationship. Rather remarkably, none of the clients have voiced any concern about having such conversations with someone from the firm who has an MBA rather than a JD. I suppose this should not really come as a huge surprise, as many companies have designated business roles that are devoted to maintaining or growing customer/client relationships. Although this sort of arrangement is relatively common in other professional services organizations such as accounting and consulting, it is just now beginning to gain traction within the legal industry.

Whereas many law firm lawyers ask questions focused primarily on narrow legal issues, I tend to steer the client conversation to questions that are related to the broader business goals and objectives of the company, which leads us down a separate path from what might be typically covered. After these client discussions, I take the information I have learned and share it with either the lead client relationship partner or with the relevant subject matter experts, who are then able to follow up with the client in an appropriate manner.

I have found that, in the most successful relationships, there is a healthy balance between listening to the other side and taking action based on what one has heard. So, this begs the question: How can law firms listen better and be more responsive to clients?

A small percentage of firms and individual lawyers seem to be going above and beyond to learn about the problems faced by clients and address them. The GCs with whom I’ve spoken say the truly outstanding lawyers make a genuine effort to listen and hear what their clients tell them, and they proactively suggest ways to help with their business needs or issues. While that may sound simple and trite, accomplishing this goal is actually a lot more difficult than it seems, especially since it means that outside lawyers must think in a more holistic way about the needs of the client beyond a narrow practice area.

Exceptional law firm lawyers don’t wait for problems to come to them; rather, they identify and spot them in advance, and they reach out to clients to alert them to issues they may face in the future, often based on deep industry knowledge. Although there are clearly some in the legal industry who are taking this active and thoughtful approach to developing client relationships, I believe these examples need to become the rule, rather than the exception, for widespread change to occur.

I like what I’ve seen from data-driven initiatives such as the GC Thought Leaders Experiment led by AdvanceLaw, as the resulting research has been beneficial for law firms as well as corporate legal departments. And groups such as CLOC are gaining more influence each year by providing an open forum and voice for those working in corporate legal operations. All in all, I think there has been a great deal of healthy and productive dialogue between members of the client community and a select number of law firms in the past year, and I hope that dialogue continues to gain momentum into the future.

Law firms and, by extension, individual lawyers must be able to develop techniques to ask the right questions and seek out feedback from clients in a productive and effective manner. It is only by asking appropriate questions and being open to hearing the answers—good, bad or indifferent—that an organization or an individual can improve.

Acting on What You Hear

One example of how we at K&L Gates listened and responded to clients is with the creation of our online resource for in-house counsel, K&L Gates HUB. Content on HUB is sorted along industry rather than practice group lines, allowing clients to access relevant information within their particular sector. In addition to hundreds of webinars, alerts and white papers on a variety of subjects, HUB also has a free on-demand CLE center which enables clients to receive continuing legal education credit from the convenience of their office or home.

All of these HUB features and more were specifically created in response to needs that were originally voiced by clients, either through research we conducted or as a result of direct conversations the marketing and business development team had with in-house counsel.

The current perception by many clients about the poor state of their relationships with outside law firms presents a significant growth opportunity. Law firms can differentiate their services by listening more to clients and actively responding to their needs. Those firms that are able to respond and adapt to the changing marketplace for legal services will be the firms that will not only survive but also will have the potential to thrive. In contrast, those firms that presume they have all the answers will likely be left talking to themselves.

Jeff Berardi is the chief marketing officer for international law firm K&L Gates, a role he has held since 2006. As CMO, Jeff leads global marketing and business development efforts for the firm’s offices located across five continents. He can be reached at jeffrey.berardi@klgates.com.