Articles on Clients

Lawyer Resistance to Seeking Feedback from Their Clients

by James S. Wilber, Esq., Altman Weil, Inc.

 

As companies continue to pay careful attention to controlling costs, law departments remain under scrutiny. Accordingly, in-house lawyers regularly look for ways to demonstrate value to their clients. One of the easiest and most cost effective ways of doing this is to seek regular feedback from clients.

 

Some companies require support functions, such as law, to conduct annual satisfaction surveys, often in connection with performance evaluations of law department lawyers and staff. In many companies, however, law departments rarely, if ever, seek formal feedback from their clients about whether they are meeting client needs.

 

Lawyer personality data reveal that lawyers generally are averse to seeking feedback. This is not due to a lack of concern for clients, but rather to unique characteristics of the lawyer personality. Personality profile testing shows that most lawyers have particularly low resilience – the quality that determines how well one responds to criticism and rejection. Therefore, it is not surprising that asking for feedback is particularly difficult for lawyers.

 

If your department’s lawyers can overcome this barrier, they will find that merely asking clients for their opinions typically creates an enhanced image of the law department and an improved relationship between the department and its clients. This phenomenon seems to endure for several months to a year following the survey. Conducting satisfaction surveys seems to create a halo effect for the surveyor.

 

A 2002 study conducted by Paul M. Dholakia of Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, and Vicki G. Morwitz of New York University’s Stern School of Business, supports the halo effect theory and concludes that merely conducting satisfaction surveys enhances client loyalty and profitability. [1]

 

Continually assessing and improving the level of service your law department provides will allow it to demonstrate its value to the company and meet the increasingly high demands of clients.

[1] The study, reported in the Journal of Consumer Research in September 2002, was highlighted in the May 2002 Harvard Business Review.

 

Show foreign and domestic participants by level (Feb 23, 2015)

Having completed a client satisfaction survey, you can sort your participants all kinds of ways. Let’s give an example by sorting the participants by level and then also identifying them by their office location. Assume that all we do is code them by US office or international office.

US based and Foreign basedThe plot above shows the total number of participants by the light grey bar for each level. Within the bar there are two colored squares. The ones with a “T” on top indicate the number of participants who are US-based when you look straight down to the horizontal axis; those with an “F” indicate the number of foreign-based participants at that level.

The Importance of Confidentiality in Law Department Client Surveys

by James S. Wilber, Esq., Altman Weil, Inc.

 

Most law departments periodically use written or online surveys to gauge the satisfaction of clients with the services they (and outside counsel) provide. A question that often arises is whether (and if so, how) to protect the confidentiality of the responses that come from the executives and other key users of legal services served by the law department?

 

The responses of clients to survey questions, and most especially the narrative comments that they provide, are of immense value to the general counsel and the law department in determining how to improve services and ensure the complete satisfaction of their clients. Although the tabulated results of the survey and the narrative comments are very helpful for these purposes even when the client responses are confidential and the law department cannot tell from whence they came, many general counsel prefer being able to follow up directly with individual clients to discuss their ideas and concerns. That of course isn’t possible if the names of the respondents are confidential. The competing factor is getting clients to be candid, something that is much more likely if the survey is confidential.

The best way to handle the issue of confidentiality versus candor is to promise confidentiality at the beginning of the survey but then ask the respondent to waive confidentiality at the end. Our experience is that participants usually are less concerned with keeping their responses confidential once they’ve actually provided them.

Therefore, at the beginning of the survey, make it clear that the identity and the responses of participants are confidential and will be unknown to the law department and all who work there.

To make the confidentiality promise real, the survey needs to be administered and tabulated by a third party – either an outside consultant or another group within the company that will conduct the survey for the law department.

At the very end of the survey, i.e., after the respondent has answered the questions and knows what was asked and how he or she responded, ask the client for a waiver of the confidentiality promised at the beginning. Clients are much more willing to waive confidentiality after they have completed the survey than before they know what questions will be asked and what their responses will be.

Make it clear that there is nothing wrong with the client refusing to waive confidentiality if that is the choice.

The final question should ask respondents whether they wish to have the responses remain confidential or whether they are willing to waive confidentiality and allow their individual questionnaires to be turned over to the general counsel.

Language we usually use to frame the final question is as follows: “Unless you waive confidentiality, Altman Weil requests your name for the sole purpose of tracking participation. The Law Department will see only tabulated results. Narrative remarks will be commingled without attribution. Your individual responses will remain confidential.”

Finally, at the very beginning of the survey it is important to define what is meant by the promise of confidentiality. Here is what we tell the clients of the law departments we help with client surveys: “To obtain candid responses to the survey, the source of any answer or comments will not be disclosed to the law department. Altman Weil will tabulate the questionnaires and report the tabulated responses as part of this study, but remarks will not be attributed to any individual. The only way in which the identity of a respondent might be discovered is if he or she words a comment in such a way that the source is obvious. Again, the source of your individual responses will be kept in strictest confidence.”

Create a graphic that shows how many participants there were by each level

When you survey your clients to assess how satisfied they are with your law department, you want confidence that you have tapped a representative group by their levels. One way to visualize the responses you get from your survey by a distribution of levels is shown below. For this example, six ranks of clients are stacked from the lowest at the bottom, “Directors,” to the highest-level at the top, the “EVPs or above”.

Twenty-eight of the respondents were at the highest level of the company, followed by 74 Mgt Principals.

Yes, we could present the same information in a table (with the titles abbreviated):

Dir. Exec. Dir.   Manager   Sr. Mgr Mgt Princ.   EVP+

9      9           1         3       74         28

but a table lacks the visual dimension of length to convey relative numbers. A graph can provide that cue.

Our preference is a colorful graphic along the lines of the one shown below. The “arms” extending out from each level are the same length here, but you could, for example, show domestic and international on either side of the divide in the middle.pyramid of participants

Law Department Client Satisfaction

by James S. Wilber, Altman Weil, Inc.

Law departments that appreciate the value of client satisfaction understand the importance of obtaining systematic feedback from their clients. The methodological choice typically is between a written or online survey, on the one hand, or in-person meetings and interviews of clients on the other. The former method is easier, quicker, less expensive (in terms of opportunity cost) and provides a broader base of feedback. The latter method allows for a dynamic, iterative discussion where one answer or statement can lead to other important areas of inquiry, and of course, it can help improve relationships since it is done face-to-face. Our experience points to a hybrid approach being best – a survey of a large cross-section of key users of legal services, followed by in-person interviews of executives and top managers.

One advantage of doing an online survey is the ease with which metrics that will help you analyze the results can be generated. There are of course many, many metrics, slices of the data, etc., that can be produced. Set out below is one such example (specifically, a plot done from a metric), which shows a hypothetical company and its divisions and operating units.

Client Satisfaction Survey Plot

Survey respondents like self-service drafting of agreements but most law departments lack the tools

“[W]hile 50 percent feel that self-service drafting [of contracts and agreements] is important, 76 percent reported that their law departments do not have any kind of self-service drafting tools or protocols in place.”  That summary of a glaring gap between efficiency and reality, the gap between clients being able to take care of some kinds of contracts without burdens on the law department, comes from an article in Met. Corp. Counsel, July/Aug. 2012 at 37.  The article is by Tim Allen, the President of Business Integrity, a leading provider of software optimized for contract management.  Tim.allen@business-integrity.com

 

In late 2011 Business Integrity conducted a survey and obtained responses from more than 400 in-house lawyers.   Taken at face value, this finding suggests that many in-house lawyers wish they could offer their clients aids to help them prepare at least first drafts of common agreements.  The dearth of such productivity tools makes more work for the legal team because it must spend time to draft and review agreements that are routine, do not require negotiation, or need any custom terms and writing.  As the article puts it, this “manual contracting dilemma” drags down output and morale.  Click here to see the article.  http://www.metrocorpcounsel.com/articles/19657/survey-house-counsel-reveals-potential-law-department-innovation

 

Contracts are one opportunity for self-service.  Here is an update on client self-service, starting from the first metapost (See my post of May 18, 2008: self service with 7 references; Dec. 23, 2009: Carillion plc and its self-service capabilities; Jan. 7, 2010: Catholic Healthcare West and its use of ContractExpress; March 31, 2010: suggestion to boost self-service by clients; April 14, 2011: Cisco tries to have clients take on contracting services; and Oct. 19, 2011: eight reasons to consider contract automation.).

http://www.lawdepartmentmanagementblog.com/law_department_management/2008/05/help-clients-he.html

Get the budget right from outside counsel, particularly if you are going to charge back the costs to a business unit or function

A speaker at the recent InsideCounsel SuperConference made a point about budgets from law firms. He said that if the expense for that law firm is charged back to a business unit, it is even more important to get the budget right. If the law department pays for law firm’s services and it goes over, the department can make some adjustments and “take the hit.”

 

I favor chargebacks to clients but this dynamic could lead from both sides to higher budgets submitted by the law firms.  If neither the law department counsel who review bills and stand behind budget estimates nor the outside counsel want irate business clients, they will slip toward building in some padding.

Offer video-game software to help train clients in preventive law and compliance

An article in Fortune, May 21, 2012 at 90, describes one application of what it calls the popular “gamification” trend.  This form of software brings in videogame storytelling and interactivity to mundane tasks such as compliance training. Not only are forms of games more interesting to employees, they also allow the employer to collect sophisticated analytics about how often the training is taken and to what effect. The article mentions a company called True Office which has developed a compliance application as “a fast-paced game (usually a painless 20 minutes).”

 

This sounds like a useful area to explore for law departments that need to educate clients about how best to avoid legal problems.  Games could be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Is there something unique about legal departments not possessed by other support functions?

“Unlike other departments that have specific deliverables unique to that department, the legal department’s ‘deliverable’ is to advocate on behalf of and address the issues of other departments.” With this puzzling assertion in the ACC Docket, March 2012 at 35, perhaps the author means that IT has sole responsibility to keep everyone’s networks and computers running, HR looks after employees, and Finance alone delivers the company’s numbers. Legal, the authors seem to be saying, responds to the other support functions by enabling their unique activities.

I don’t buy that distinction. At least IT and HR would argue that their primary goal is to enable the business to progress (including support functions such as law). If the legal department needs software, IT helps; if the legal department has a nettlesome employee issue, HR helps; if analysis of data about outside counsel spend is needed, Finance helps out. What makes the legal department any different?

On the other side, only the law department handles litigation, only it pulls together Board materials, and only it makes SEC filings. Like other support departments, those “deliverables” of the lawyers are unique to it.

Reactions to a very high standard set for what constitutes a “successful law department”

“We propose that a successful legal department is one in which the quality of the legal services delivered is unparalleled, the feeling of job satisfaction by members of the legal department is high, and the legal department as a whole is regarded as a partner in achieving the corporate goals and thought leader in corporate life.” The high-flying definition comes from the ACC Docket, March 2012 at 26.

If that be the measure of success, all law departments are doomed to fail. Consider the three tests that need to be passed.

First, “unparalleled legal services,” strictly speaking, means uniquely good, so only one legal department can claim that honor. All the rest fall short of the hyperbolic standard. Second, job satisfaction doesn’t necessarily correlate with high value delivered to the employer. An in-house attorney can be pleased as punch with her perceived contribution but fall woefully short in the eyes of clients.

As to the third component of the definition, partner status is within reach for a number of departments, but in a company of any size not enterprise-level thought leadership. Such vaunting ambition detracts from the core contribution law departments should strive for, a goal amply hard to achieve.

When you combine the three requirements, where each is either extremely difficult or unattainable, no department can regard itself as “successful.”

Don’t get me wrong. It is admirable for each legal department to set its sights high and to strive to be the best it can by delivering as much value as the company is willing to pay for. That makes for success.