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.

IDEO approached their work for Sloan-Kettering the same way they approach other design challenges; they put themselves and the clinic’s staff in the shoes of patients. In essence, they asked patients what their concerns were.

And, to Sloan Kettering’s surprise, the research revealed that patients did not mind the waiting time for treatment, which averaged 80 minutes at the busiest clinic; “patient” indeed. Rather, patients were troubled by another step in the process – waiting for the results of a test that determines if they are strong enough to receive treatment on a given day. The uncertainty of not knowing if they’d be able to get their treatment out-weighed the wait. In fact, many patients preferred making two trips to the clinic – once to determine if they were up to the treatment – and a second to receive treatment. There were other improvements Sloan-Kettering made to their patients’ care and management as a result of this work, but you get the idea.

Sloan-Kettering asked.

Now, back to Law Land. Obviously, the main point here is the value of asking. Even so, as powerful as asking is – it’s not enough unless you and your firm respond to what your client tells you. In the many, many interviews we’ve conducted, clients have demonstrated that they are more than willing, nay often eager to let you know what they need and value. Also, you are likely to hear ways to increase your work with that client – as long as you are listening and acting on what you hear. Another point is – if you just can’t ask the questions yourself – you can hire someone to do the asking for you. The important thing is to ask.

Any questions?

–Janet Stanton


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