Will Your Clients Come With You?


         Maybe you are frustrated with your firm’s office politics, sick of feeling unappreciated, and fed up with the culture of jerkiness. You may have been asking yourself for months, or years, if its time for you to go. It feels like there are a lot of factors at play, but mostly it comes down to one simple question: Will your clients come with you? If they will, you are golden. If not, you may still choose to leave, but it will take longer to reach your income goals. Consider these examples of attorneys who brought big clients with them when they left their AmLaw firms.

          After working at an AmLaw 20 firm for 12 years and not making partner, Ayse resolved to go out on her own. When she decided to make the leap, she taped into her savings, rented an office, and hired an assistant. She was fully expecting to have to start from scratch in developing clients, but when she called up her existing clients to tell them that she was leaving, one whom she had been servicing for years said that he would like to move with her. This was a multi-billion dollar company. She was shocked that the client would consider moving even a small part of its business from one of the most prestigious firms in the world to her one-woman shop. However, her in-house client was able to rationalize it to his higher ups since it would be the same person doing the work but at a lower cost. They are still working together 15 years later.

           After working at an AmLaw 50 firm for many years and not making partner, Jennifer decided to move to a boutique firm in her practice area. Of course, she didn't tell her firm that. She said that she wasn’t sure what she was going to do, maybe take time off, travel, explore options and then possibly move to the government. Jennifer is very petite and dresses in a way that appears almost childlike. Before she left the firm she was asked to help train the new male lawyer whom the firm had designated to take over responsibility for the client (at a much higher billing rate, no less). They even paid for her trip abroad to visit the client. It apparently didn't even occur to the firm that she might be capable of taking the client with her. And yet, that is exactly what she did.

          How can you determine if you will be one of the lucky ones, like the ladies above? Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. Life and business don’t come with guarantees. However, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the clients’ priorities, thought processes and opinions about you and your work, and therefore make a more educated assessment of whether or not the client might go with you when you leave. All you have to do is ask your clients for feedback. Yes, I know it feels scary. That is completely normal. However, it serves us to put aside our fears and initiate those uncomfortable conversations. In the context of talking with clients, this approach also has the non-negligible side benefit of being useful even if you were not thinking of leaving your firm. The following are the top four reasons why you should consider soliciting feedback from clients.

(1) It improves your relationship with clients. Simply by reaching out and asking how they feel about your service and what you could do better, your clients will feel closer and more connected to you. They will feel respected and heard, and know that you care about them and their opinions. It will strengthen your partnership and increase the sense that you are in this together, finding ways to meet their needs and serve their internal clients.

(2) The information helps you serve clients better, and therefore increases the likelihood they will go with you. As much as we all wish we were superhuman, sadly, we are not. While we are unlikely to eradicate our flaws, simply understanding better how others perceive us can make us more effective. Very often we obsess over the shortcomings that others don’t care much about or ignore ones that others find seriously problematic. When you ask a client, you may discover that he doesn’t really mind that you tend to be a day or two late with deliverables. He knows you do amazing work and now he just builds that into his planning process. However, what bothers him could be that you don’t communicate much about the progression of the projects as you are working on it. What you see as a huge weakness may seem insignificant to a client and vice versa. Once you know what a client really cares about, you can adjust your behavior accordingly.

(3) You can get a better understanding of how much the client values you individually versus your team or the firm as a whole. In the course of the conversation you can steer the discussion to address all the factors that might influence a client to stick with you personally versus stay at your firm. Even if you think you understand how their internal decision making structure works, it would behoove you to revisit that in order to flesh out your understanding of who makes the final purchasing decisions and what they value. Here are some sample questions:

  • From your perspective, what benefits do you get from the fact that we are an international firm/full service firm/have offices all over the country?
  • How much difference does it make to you when I am the one responding to issues and working on your case versus when it is someone else in this office?
  • What factors does your company consider when choosing a firm to address a particular matter?
  • What is most important to the final decision maker (cost, consistency, safe choices, etc.)?

(4) Taking courageous action makes you stronger. “Courageous” may seem like a strong word. After all, you are not rescuing children from burning buildings. However, most people find asking for feedback to be very intimidating. For anyone who thinks its not, I would suggest you go do it and notice that feeling in the pit of your stomach. That is fear. (For some it may manifest as lots of logical reasons why this is a pointless exercise and a waste of time. But I promise, those little voices are all rooted in fear.) In any case, every time you flex your bravery muscle you become more at ease stepping outside your comfort zone. If you are serious about leaving your firm, regardless of whether you are looking to go out on your own or to join another firm, you will need that extra courage. Indeed, even though it feels scary, this is actually a very safe way to build up your confidence and tolerance for risk.

          Asking clients for feedback is one of the most valuable things you can do for your practice. Even though very few law firms do this, those that do say that their clients are delighted to be asked and pleased that outside counsel are trying to create a better partnership with them. This is especially true when the person soliciting the feedback is a lawyer with whom they work regularly, rather than a marketing person or consultant. The infrequency with which lawyers ask for feedback creates a wonderful opportunity for you to stand out as well as to gather useful intelligence. Whether you stay at your firm, join a new one or hang up a shingle, the information you obtain will help you retain existing clients as well as acquire new ones.