A client survey, although considered a useful tool, is one not often employed by law firms. Canadian Lawyer’s annual corporate counsel survey last year found that 87.8 per cent of large companies asked were not surveyed by law firms, 5.3 per cent had in-person surveys done, 4.8 per cent were over the phone and 2.1 per cent were written.
The unspoken assumption behind surveys and asking clients how the firm is doing is that there is a desire to do it better, says lawyer and legal consultant Jordan Furlong, principal of Law21 based in Ottawa.
He suggests that those questions be asked during the course of the engagement as well as at the end so lawyers can “shift course” and “change tact” if it’s not working. Questions asked during the course of the work should be very limited and short, he adds.
The firm should also be clear that it is responding to the results of the survey.
“If you don’t give people some reason to think that their feedback matters, they’ll stop giving you feedback,” says Furlong.
“[T]hey’ll feel worse about your firm in some ways having been asked to stop what they’re doing, take some time to fill out the survey and seeing no results from it whatsoever.”
While they are often done annually, it may be better when they’re conducted at the end of a project or file, says Howard Kaufman, counsel at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in Toronto.
Kaufman, who was an in-house lawyer at Xerox for years, prefers the more narrow after-engagement surveys because they involve the lawyers who worked on a particular file. At that point, the survey can double as a de-briefing to find out how the firm did and what it can do better.
“Either one of them . . . is useful to the law firm and the client. Although, I think the one that’s more useful is the episodic one, which is narrow and also you deal with the lawyers who you worked with on the file,” he says.
Kaufman has seen their value. Post-file surveys help to provide a better picture of what went right and what didn’t and how things might be improved in the future. If it’s the lawyer who worked on the file who is asking the questions, it gives them the opportunity to deal with any issues.
However, Kaufman wouldn’t have that same lawyer or the relationship manager involved in the broader, annual survey. He believes the managing partner or a senior lawyer in the firm might be better suited to gain an overall understanding and critical look at what can be improved. Surveys can be an opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with a client and learn more about their business, he says.
“It should be a time at which we should be getting information about the client, [asking them], ‘What are the things keeping you up at night?’” he says.
That information should then be shared with the lawyers internally so they, too, have a better understanding of the client’s needs.
Legal consultant Stephen Mabey, principal of Applied Strategies Inc. in Nova Scotia, agrees. He says the challenge with client surveys is making sure their concerns are addressed, not ignored. Mabey believes the most effective surveys are done in person. And he suggests they be conducted in a meeting-like setting, giving the client a chance to talk about their business.
“I don’t know a lot of people who don’t like talking about their business . . . ,” he says.
Electronic surveys or those conducted by third parties can also be useful, says Mabey, such as when a firm-wide survey is conducted. An outside party may also be effective in engendering more honesty and bluntness from the client, an approach employed by Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP.
The Toronto-based firm used its last biennial survey to get a good handle on communication by asking clients their preferences.
Typically, its survey provides insight into what clients think of the service they received, possibly unearthing perspectives the lawyers working on the file may not have necessarily gleaned, allowing them to make the necessary adjustments, says co-managing partner Marc McAree.
Willms & Shier hires a marketing consultant to run the survey, which also includes some confidential interviews. The consultant then organizes all the information and delivers the result. McAree says that, even though a third party is involved, taking on a survey project can be a lot of work so they ensure the parameters are clearly defined and that there is followup.
In its last annual survey, a specific element the firm wanted to address was added into the questionnaire.
The firm’s lawyers are involved in many articles and research projects conducted in its specialty area of environmental law, and the firm wanted to know how much of that information clients wanted to receive.
Through the survey, McAree says, the firm learned that clients were not interested in receiving additional information through email.
“The answer we got, almost unequivocally, was, ‘Please do not send me anymore information because my proverbial inbox is full . . .,’” he says.
The finding was “a little surprising,” he says, but valuable. The firm has since limited its email communications to short articles, instead of full newsletters, and it posts other information in the business-friendly LinkedIn platform. Following Canada’s anti-spam legislation, those emails are dispatched only to those clients who have requested them.
“What we found is that the survey reinforced that we were doing many, many, many good things. But, over the years, there were a couple of occasions when followup was required . . . and we were able to learn and make change,” says McAree.
“If the followup is not there, don’t spend the time and the resources, in my respectful view, to carry out the survey. It’s a lot of work and a lot of organization, and it needs to be a meaningful tool.”
The followup, he adds, involves understanding in a meaningful way the message that the client is sending to the law firm. That could include going back to the client to ensure client service and satisfaction is improved.