Clients Complain Their Lawyers Are Not Responsive, But What Does That Mean?

Perceptions Vs Reality

By: Robin Rolfe

According to an October 2003 Altman Weil report,[1] nine out of ten law firms rate themselves as excellent on client service, including responsiveness. Yet, almost every recent survey of corporate law firm clients indicates that one of the leading client complaints is that their lawyers are not responsive.[2]

Similarly, corporate counsel report that they are seeking relationships where their primary law firms work more as an extension of the law department and understand their business needs and pressures, suggesting that there is an element of responsiveness missing. While cost management usually tops the list of client complaints, could it be that a lack of responsiveness contributes to the perception of insufficient value? The fact is that truly responsive firms, those that meet the needs of their clients, are rarely terminated merely to reduce costs.

A Google search of the terms, “responsive” and “lawyer,” produces more than 26,000 website references and many hundreds of law firms that describe themselves as responsive to their clients. Possibly none of these firms has clients that have been surveyed but, more likely, there is a discrepancy between law firm perspectives and client expectations. Of course, when it comes to evaluating performance, only the client’s opinion really counts.
An Adjective, Not a Noun

The word “responsive” denotes answering or replying, or responding quickly. If this is what corporate counsel really mean by responsive, it should be enough that their counsel return phone calls, e-mail, and reply to inquiries and assignments. But to clients, responsiveness connotes more.

Today’s technologies have changed both the standards of client satisfaction and client expectations dramatically. It was not so long ago that a rapid reply to a client’s request included a buffer of days for postal mail. With the advent of voice mail and fax, client expectations changed and responsiveness meant hours, not days. Now, with worldwide remote and wireless access, mobile phones and handhelds, the criterion for responsiveness has been further compressed to minutes. In fact, responding to the pressure of round the clock service, some firms have established client extranets or other types of secure resources through which clients can access information pertaining to their matters at anytime. Other firms finesse workdays and time zones through their global offices to ensure continuous service to clients. Thus, the new standard for responsiveness could become instant accessibility 24/7. However, even this technical capability does not necessarily equate to client satisfaction.

A Subjective Standard
The gap in what was previously considered responsive and what is now considered responsive can be understood by examining recent definitions of “client focus.” For example, a 2003 BTI study[3] of 600 corporate counsel ranked “understanding my company needs,” “understanding my business” and “responsive” at about equal levels, which suggests that they are essentially interrelated and directly related to client satisfaction. In that same study, only 26.5% of in-house counsel identified their major law firm as “best” in client service.

In other words, no matter how immediate the reply, responsiveness per se is not sufficient. In the context of client service, responsiveness extends beyond the act of replying. There is a proactive element that is integral to the working relationship between client and attorney. It is a relationship that results in the attorney’s ability to understand and interpret the client’s needs and allows a response that is commercially valuable to the client. Without value-added responsiveness, client satisfaction will not ensure client retention.
Responsiveness and Loyalists

In a 1995 article, “Why Satisfied Customers Defect,” which appeared in the Harvard Business Review,[4] Thomas O. Jones and Earl Sasser, Jr. reported their findings on customer satisfaction and loyalty. Rebutting prevailing business assumptions, their conclusion was that client satisfaction is not enough to assure client loyalty. In fact, they asserted there was a dramatic difference in predicting the behavior of clients that are satisfied, as measured by traditional client satisfaction instruments, and those that are truly satisfied.

According to Jones and Sasser, the key measurement of satisfaction is the share of each client’s business. It is not what the clients say but what they do, and specifically, the larger the percentage of a client’s business, the higher the level of client satisfaction. In industries (like law) where competition is intense and differentiation is difficult, the level of client satisfaction is ultimately the key to retention.

The study concludes that it is necessary to create “loyalists.” Loyalists are satisfied customers (clients) that have confidence in their service provider (attorney) and are likely to seek advice exclusively from that counsel on every move. They repurchase services whenever the opportunity arises and refer new business as well. In contrast, “defectors” are generally satisfied clients that have no reason to leave but also have no reason to stay. If they do not leave, they are just as likely to spread their work to multiple firms and reduce the loyalty share.

A Holistic Concept
To achieve a top loyalty level[5] and control market share of the client’s business requires responsiveness but that term has little to do with promptly returning phone calls, e-mail or even accessibility. Responsive counsel must add and demonstrate value in their representation. It comes back to understanding the client’s business and being innovative in the relationship. Innovation requires investing in learning about the client’s industry and its particular business issues. It also requires tailoring services to address those needs, such as providing systems that are specifically beneficial to clients in case management or proactively implementing value billing to adjust invoices based on value delivered. It is about commitment to the client and taking a longer-term view of client service.

Responsiveness is a holistic concept. It is not only about returning client calls. She who is responsive is most likely to achieve true client service and satisfied, loyal clients.

Kraftka, M., Altman Weil, “Report to Legal Management: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is on Client Service,” October 2003.

The American Corporate Counsel’s 2003 Chief Legal Officer Survey, reported that of the 59% of chief legal officers that fired or were considering firing at least one of their outside counsel, the number one reason given for terminating a relationship was “cost management” and the number two reason was “lack of responsiveness.”

The 2004 Corporate Legal Times Annual Survey of General Counsel listed responsiveness as the fourth most important factor for law firms to improve their relationship behind (1) reducing costs; (2) working more as an extension of the client’s law department; and (3) understanding the client’s business needs and pressures. That survey also asked general counsel: How important are outside counsel’s contributions with respect to responsiveness, to which 99.4% of general counsel replied “important” and 100% of law firms surveyed replied “important.”

The 2003 Survey of Client Service Performance for Law Firms, conducted by The BTI Consulting Group, singled out 200 corporate counsel at Fortune 1000 companies to inquire which of their law firms stand above others and why. Fifty per cent of clients identified client service and loyalty as defining the best performing law firms, including, notably, responsiveness.

The 2004 Fulbright & Jaworski survey of 300 corporate counsel at companies with gross revenues ranging from $50 million to over $100 billion indicated that while responsiveness was not a primary factor in the selection of litigation counsel, 37% said they were troubled by their litigation counsel’s lack of responsiveness.

Jones, Lucy M., “Giving Clients Added Value Through Exceptional Service: Law Marketing Portal, February 10, 2003 citing The 2003 Survey of Client Service Performance for Law Firms.

Jones, Thomas O., and Sasser, W. Earl, “Why Satisfied Customers Defect,” Harvard Business Review, November/December 1995.

David Maister would call such attorneys “trusted advisors.” See D. Maister, C. Green, R. Galford, The Trusted Advisor (2000 Touchstone); D. Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm (1993 Free Press Paperbacks).

Robin Rolfe

Robin Rolfe


Robin A. Rolfe is President of Robin Rolfe Resources, Inc. She has more than twenty years of experience working with professional service organizations. Prior to founding Robin Rolfe Resources, she was Executive Director of the International Trademark Association (INTA) for seventeen years.

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work! Please upgrade today!