There was a time when towns had just one law firm. Run by father and son, the business was passed from one generation to the next. Townsmen knew their local legal representative and trusted him like a neighbor (because he actually was one).
These days, trust and clients are not so easily secured. Law practices are competitive to build and complex to operate. Obtaining a client base takes time and money, and many mom and pop or boutique shops have pooled their resources into biglaw. These mega-firms diversify their services and hire hundreds of associates to handle anything from intellectual property disputes to contract law, from estate planning to corporate litigation.
With complex organizational structures comes a middleman. Customer service has transformed to automated service. To speak to your lawyer, press one. To pay your bill, press two. Between emails, phone calls, and expensive hourly fees for partner billing, it’s not surprising that the once frequent and highly personalized client-attorney relationship has diminished, if not disappeared. However, this trend, for the entire legal industry, is to the detriment of both client and attorney. Here’s one example why.
With over 650 lawyers and eight international offices, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP did not consider client relationship management a priority. Two lawyers who handling the death-row, pro-bono case for Cory R. Maples left the firm, but neither the court nor the mailroom was informed. So when the Alabama court sent two copies of its ruling—addressed to the former associates—to the firm, the letters were marked “Return to Sender.” It wasn’t until after the deadline for Mr. Maples’ appeal expired that Sullivan & Cromwell took note of the error. The court has since rejected all requests for an extension, despite these circumstances.
Certainly, a variety of mistakes were at play. But if the new attorneys representing Mr. Maples had kept him up-to-date with the status of his appeal, they too may have noticed the approaching deadline. Weekly phone calls are not too much to ask when somebody’s livelihood or life—in this case literally—are on the line.
Missed death-row deadlines aside, for both lawyers and clients, there are numerous advantages to institutionalizing a client relationship management program.
Client relationship management is a systematic method for managing relationships with existing clients for the purpose of maximizing the utility of each relationship by increasing client satisfaction with a law firm’s work product and with the firm’s service delivery.
On the client side, regular communication with their attorney ensures the client receives focused attention and feedback tailored to their specific needs. With frequent correspondence, a client is more likely to trust a firm, pay attorneys fees without complaint or negotiation, and employ the same firm for future work. For the firm, this is an opportunity to pitch the different resources available to their client, who may or may not be aware of the breadth of services offered. Lawyers are also more apt to keep track of case developments.
Client relationship management can be a simple excel tracking system or weekly status conference call. Whatever the method, it should be systemic and part of new associate training. With the variety of social media, technology, and communication tools presently available, there’s no reason why contacting clients must be costly. In fact, try offering these brief conversations for free. Preserving a long-term relationship, in the end, will be more valuable that half a billable hour today.
For more information, please see:
 Sabol, Byron G. “Maximising the benefits – making law firm client relationship management work.” Managing Partner, Feb 2002 in Volume 4 Issue 8.