Today we have a column by my partner in Adam Smith, Esq., Janet Stanton.

Before joining Adam Smith, Esq., Janet had years  of experience leading highly profitable teams of professionals at a global communications agency for clients such as Pfizer and the US Department of Defense.  For the last several years of her tenure at that agency, she ran the largest single business unit, generating $25-million in annual revenue.  Immediately before joining Adam Smith, Esq,, she was Director, Client Relationship Program at Orrick, which she joined as the firm expanded a pilot initiative into a firm-wide priority.

A Vassar College graduate, Janet is based in New York City.


At the foundation of effective client relationship programs at law firms is a fundamental conundrum – which may help explain why Law Land is behind other high-end professional service industries in embracing client relationship efforts.

It goes something like this – first, lawyers, as a rule, tend to avoid asking questions they don’t already know the answers to. Pair this proclivity with perhaps the most essential component of nurturing long-term, mutually satisfying relationships – that is – asking clients questions. Questions about their business, their industry, their competition, what keeps them up at night – and the really scary question – “How are we doing?”

Get over it.

You simply cannot build trust nor be able to provide the added-value services that will distinguish your firm from your competition unless you understand your client’s business needs, what he or she values, worries about or must anticipate, etc., etc. And, that scary part again – what is his or her view of your firm’s performance and contribution. You must ask to find out these things.

The flip side of asking is assuming. Adopting unspoken assumptions inevitably leads to much more random results and inefficiencies of execution – as effort is often wasted on activities that are neither needed nor valued. Further, on a personal level, acting on assumptions can be confusing, off-putting or downright insulting to your clients; antithetical to building strong relationships and being viewed as a welcome advisor.

The power of asking was demonstrated in a completely different environment than the legal profession. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Phred Dvorak described how Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center was able to dramatically improve care to patients receiving chemotherapy by better understanding the real concerns of their patients.

Sloan Kettering had assumed patients disliked long waits to receive treatment and had undertaken changes to mitigate waiting times, including making staffing changes and resource re-allocations. At the suggestion of a board member, they hired IDEO, Inc., a design firm based in Palo Alto. IDEO is known as one of the most innovative industrial design firms, and has worked with Apple, Mattel and Procter & Gamble, among many others.

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