Survey Says...You Should've Asked!

Law Firms finally turn to a proven form of market research to learn what they thought they knew.

By Micah U. Buchdahl

For starters, it is important to point out that client surveys are different things to different people. And there is no single “correct” way of doing them; only “incorrect” ones.

Client Surveys can range from virtually no-cost (online, telephone) to little cost (via mail) to varying levels of budgets (in-person meetings, focus groups). Your budget should be driven by (a) the type of practice; (b) the type of clients (i.e. consumer, general counsel, prospective client); and (c) the goals for utilizing the survey data.

For budgeting purposes, the most significant cost is often in the third-party that structures the survey, conducts the interviews and creates a report from the findings. Many elements of the survey preparation (such as client/industry research) can be conducted by the firm to lower cost. Keep in mind the internal costs of billable hours and marketing staff when defining project cost.

Personally, I started focusing on client surveys after seeing the way many consulting firms promoted law firm client surveys in their own written promotional materials. They often focused on how the firm was described, or how they felt about the firm (i.e. satisfied, dissatisfied, tolerable); lots of benchmarking; and the process of hiring outside counsel. Those are weak starting points because human nature prevents people from telling the truth in response to those types of inquiries. That is not to say you can not get the answer. Only, it must be through more general approaches to the industry and the practice of law.

While “benchmarking” and comparative data from similarly-situated firms are nice to show how you might stack up with another, I often ask “who cares?” I need to now how I am doing and how I am perceived and how I can improve things. “Deliverables” through solid market research. Translating data into dollars, through action plans and better short and long-term strategic planning within your firm.

What a survey can help you accomplish:

  • Get a clear picture of your relationship with the client.
  • Redeploy resources in the direction that the client sends you.
  • Discover ways to cross-sell and provide new business.
  • Prepare marketing plans that mirror your data.
  • Follow client revenue from survey participants in the short and long-term.
  • Get an all-important “touch” from key clients and those you would like to become more significant to the firm.

Planning for a Successful Client Survey:

  1. What are you trying to accomplish? You need clearly stated goals from the outset.
  2. How expansive do you want this survey to be?
  3. How much is the firm going to invest in dollars and human resources?
  4. Figure out who you want to survey.
  5. Determine who is going to conduct the survey.
  6. Create a list of what you want to learn.
  7. “Market” the survey to participants, showing them how they are benefiting from participation.
  8. Have a game plan for disseminating and reacting to the data.
  9. Track survey participants in the short and long term (i.e. revenue).
  10. Before starting, have a start/end date for the survey and a realistic number of participants planned.

Which clients participate?

Depending on how extensive the project is will dictate the mix of clients participating. In some instances, a boutique may only seek out data from one type. In others, the target is limited to a specific set (i.e. Fortune 100 GCs). The selections go back to the goals (which can vary significantly).

  1. High Revenue
  2. Low Revenue (with greatest growth potential)
  3. New practices/locations to the firm.
  4. Hot Industries
  5. Squeaky Wheels – They’ve been waiting for this chance.
  6. Market Research – Use to determine firm planning for specific regions, practices or industries.

What type of questions do I ask?

Poor surveys focus too much on what the law firm does, do not or might supply. The true value is in learning what the client and the client’s industry is doing.

  • How many law firms do you utilize?
  • How do you budget for “legal”?
  • What is the state of the company?
  • What is going on in your industry?
  • Increase or decrease in use of outside counsel?
  • Have you been changing law firms, or decreasing the number of firms you use?
  • To what type of matters is your legal budget going?
  • What do you keep in-house vs. outsource?

Plan of Action

Do not ask about what you can do better and NOT immediately address the issue.

  • How do you handle a client request or complaint?
  • How do you disseminate the information in a usable form to offices, practice groups and attorneys?
  • Do you share the results with the client?

Client Services:

Just one component to the standard in-person client survey meeting.

  • How do you rank compared to other firms?
    • Cost
    • Responsiveness
    • Delivery
    • Quality of Work
    • Need for multiple offices, practice areas
    • Knowledge of Business
    • Knowledge of Industry
    • Ability to “make money” for the firm
    • Loyalty
    • Importance in Community
    • Lawyer Pedigree
    • Thinking Outside of the Box
    • Are you pro-active?
    • Do you anticipate the clients’ needs?
    • Education/Training Services
    • Diversity
    • Technology
    • Office Space/Resources
    • Attorney Staffing
    • Non-Lawyer Staffing

Do you even get the RFP?

Make sure you are invited to pitch, for areas and offices that are outside the scope of the business you are getting, but not outside of what you or your firm can offer.

Is there such a thing as too much experience doing client surveys?

Yes. Chances are the more surveys a firm is doing, the more cookie-cutter the approach and the results. In addition, if you are doing major “players” in many markets and industries, you do not want the same third-party interviewer going back for yet another law firm. As a rule, I keep the firm; the results; and the findings from surveys strictly confidential. Many companies sell the idea that they make results available through databases and publications. That data, if handled right, is some of the most sensitive (and valuable) market research you’ve got.

Real Life Law Firm Survey Samples:

All of the following examples can be found on the respective law firm web site.

Fulbright & Jaworski
Litigation Trends Survey

For the second year in a row, F&J commissioned an independent survey of corporate General Counsel, in the US and UK, regarding a wide range of litigation trends. The 354 conducted interviews made this a statistically significant survey sample.

General Topics addressed: Litigation Exposure, Experience, Cost; Measuring Success; Litigation Management, Hold Policies; Class Actions; International Arbitration.

Kirkpatrick & Lockhart
Top of Mind Senior In-House Counsel Survey

For the third year, KL commissioned independent researchers to interview senior in-house counsel in FORTUNE 500 and 1000 companies. Phone interviews with 97 senior decision-makers.

Fennemore Craig
Client Service Survey
Online at www.fclaw.com

Powell Goldstein
Client Interview Program
The web site has a description of the rationale, purpose, outcome and program administered by the firm, online at www.pogolaw.com/f-cip.html