Tips on Conducting Law Firm Client Surveys

When surveying clients, a law firm should ask questions about the quality of service being provided; determine what other business opportunities might be available to the firm and seek suggestions on how the law firm can improve, said Tom Clay, a consultant with Altman, Weil Pensa, in Newtown Square, Pa.

Speaking at the February ABA midyear meeting in Miami to members of the ABA's TQM Task Force, including demonstration firm representatives, Clay noted that it's important that firms be able to identify which clients have provided what information on a client survey.

For instance, 11 percent of the surveyed clients included in an Altman Weil Pensa database said returning phone calls in one hour was being responsive. So if a lawyer were to return a call 24 hours later to a client from the 11 percent group, she would probably feel the lawyer was slow to respond.

Lack of responsiveness is one of the main reasons clients fire their law firm. Other key reasons according to a Lex Mundi/Gallup poll include:

  • A change in the quality of service;
  • An increase in the cost; and
  • Marketing by other law firms.

 

Concerning cost, law firm clients surveyed with the help of AWP showed a clear preference for an estimated budget on cases. This was preferred over a fixed fee arrangement, budgeting by tasks, setting a cap on billing, or hourly billing. "Clients don't like surprises," said Clay.

Benefits of Conducting Surveys

Despite a feeling among some lawyers that clients don't like surveys either, they typically welcome the opportunity to provide feedback on their legal counsel. Nor is doing a survey of clients something to be feared. It doesn't necessarily mean you are opening your firm up to lots of criticism. In fact, you may be pleasantly surprised. For example, more than 72 percent of clients surveyed by AWP who were served by law firms with 50 to 100+ lawyers said they were "extremely satisfied." Clay said this is surprising given press reports that claim the public's impression of lawyers is generally negative.

Although some lawyers might be skeptical about surveying clients and think something like this, "I know we're good. I don't think we need to collect data to confirm what I think," an Altman Weil Pensa survey of Fortune 500 general counsel revealed that more than 70 percent thought satisfaction surveys "critical" or"important" to a continuing relationship with their firms.

Also, more than 85 percent of those general counsel surveyed stated that private law firms should conduct formal surveys to assess client satisfaction on a regular basis. Half of this group felt client surveys should be conducted annually or even more frequently.

Other tips on surveying clients:

  • Base your choice of survey methods -- written, face-to-face and by telephone -- on the objectives you want to achieve. If your firm would like general quantitative information about service quality and what clients think about fees, a written survey is best. If, however, you want qualitative information that is actionable with respect to specific clients, a face- to- face survey is best.

  • When sending out a written survey, (the most commonly used method) it should take clients no longer than 12 minutes to complete.

  • Use random sampling. As TQM Task Force chair Larry Richard, a lawyer and consultant in Wayne, Pa., reminded the group, "Every client should have an equal chance of being selected to complete a survey. Otherwise, the survey is not scientifically valid."

  • Thank clients for participating in the survey. For instance, Mays & Valentine, a demonstration firm based in Richmond, Va., had attorneys write thank-you letters to clients for participating in their survey. In cases where concerns were raised, the letter said that the attorneys hear your concerns and are working to address them, while survey respondents that expressed appreciation were thanked for their kind words, according to firm managing partner Robert D. Seabolt.

  • Give clients feedback on the survey results.

  • Surveys are more effective if there is some benchmark against which to measure. For instance, AWP has a database containing hundreds of thousands of client survey responses. This enables them to have a basis for comparison when they are hired to help another law firm survey clients.

  • If your firm has a quality initiative in place, ask clients if they would like more information about this when conducting the survey. Perkins Coie in Seattle, Wash., included such a question on its survey and received many "yes" replies. "Talk about an opportunity for selling your services,"said TQM Task Force member David Andrews, a partner with Perkins & Coie.

  • Know your clients' expectations when you survey them. To accomplish this, a firm might want to bring together a focus group of selected clients and query them about what they would like to be asked before deciding on survey questions.

  • When surveying clients, be less concerned about what the lawyers want to know and more concerned about what clients want to say.