By Vivek Jayaram
A lawyer I know had been representing a large, very well-known corporation for several years. He (and his firm) had been managing the client’s trademark portfolio on a worldwide basis. The client perceived that an error was made on a cease and desist letter, and my friend’s representation was terminated. Just like that, one arguably minor error after so many years of service.
He and I were reflecting upon this at dinner recently when he told me that he ultimately found out that there were a couple of other issues regarding his representation that he knew nothing about but probably could have been addressed had he known. I asked him “did you ever ask your contact in house how things were going” to which he responded “no, I didn’t know that there was anything wrong!” And therein lies the problem many of us outside counsel who are serving our clients in-house: we don’t ask for feedback, and so often times we don’t receive it until it’s too late. We cannot allow that to be the case.
Asking for feedback is difficult. We might feel like it’s largely pointless because we believe that our in house contacts aren’t going to want to hurt our feelings or be negative towards us. On the other hand, we may be scared to solicit truthful criticism; what if the client’s criticism leads to something worse? Maybe, we deduce, it’s better not to ask. The danger in not asking, however, is that negative opinions build to a point of no return where a minor error results in a total breakup.
In my experience, there are two ways to ask in a way that produces a truthful response that can be implemented to result in better service:
First, make it anonymous. There are several platforms out there (like https://www.suggestionox.com) that make this process easy. An anonymous process inspires truthfulness. But it also reduces effectiveness insofar as you will not know which client made the suggestion. That does not, however, mean that the feedback is unusable. In my experience, criticism by one client is probably true for others as well. As a service provider, your strengths and weaknesses probably migrate across your client list.
Second, ask your best clients in person and one on one. When asked for critical feedback in person, an otherwise hesitant client may open up because their response will allow you to respond, and a discussion begins. While that type of dialogue may be possible on the phone (but not over email), in person allows you to ask follow up questions based on body language and response. In person also allows for an opportunity to pick a non-office setting, which also helps people be more relaxed and honest.
Here are 3 examples of how obtaining feedback helped me provide a better service, not only to that client but to all clients:
- One GC told me that they didn’t need a robust legal response each time they requested our opinion on a potential trademark infringer; a simple response and call to action, he told me, would suffice. We obviously modified our future responses to this client. But we also took a harder look at the nature of our responses on similar issues to other clients. We made it a point of providing memos to clients when the circumstances required, but truncated practical advice in most other circumstances.
- Another GC told me I could do a better job delegating tasks to less experienced lawyers. This GC always reached out to me directly with a question on their matters. Dutifully, I always responded, dealt with the issue, scheduled a teleconference with the client, etc. I figured this was a “high-touch” client who wanted me (and only me) handling their matters (which is not uncommon initially). When we were out for lunch one day, she mentioned to me that she understands that I have other clients, and so it may be better for me to delegate some of the more minor issues to a junior associate. Of course, this is nothing new in the law firm world, but my assumption had been that she always wanted to talk with me (and only me). The truth of the matter, however, was that I was not taking charge of the engagement and delegating tasks to younger associates, which probably provided for slower response times and a higher bill. After that experience I decided to address the delegation issue clearly and openly at the outset of the engagement.
- Another GC told me they would use our firm more if they knew what kinds of matters we handled. My heart sank on this one. After working on and off for this client for nearly 2 years on IP issues, I asked if they had any feedback or questions for us over dinner one night. They said they would be happy to use us more, but they really didn’t know we handled other kinds of matters. That was completely my fault, a lost opportunity. But better late than never, I thought, as I spent the next 30 minutes explaining to them that we could advise them on a number of areas other than IP. This client remains a growing client today, in large part because of this discussion we had.
There may be times where getting feedback is difficult. Sometimes you might not agree with the feedback, and other times you might not be able to act on the feedback provided. But it’s never not helpful, and it’s never a waste of time. In fact, in every instance, it has made me a better lawyer. And even though I could do it more often, I am glad that I’ve gone from not doing it at all, to doing it regularly.