BOSTON - Client surveys are slowly being recognized as a viable marketing tool by law firms, but the profession still lags far behind the rest of the business world.
"Client feedback is a normal part of an intelligent marketing program," said James W. Jones, director of Hildebrandt International, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. "In most every other business you can think of, it's only natural to ask your customers about the service they're getting. But it's only a distinct minority of law firms that are doing these, and it's puzzling to me."
The lawyers who do conduct client surveys are also puzzled by the failure of most firms to use them.
"From what people tell me, it's not as rare as it was in 2000," said Patrick J. Lamb, a partner in the Chicago litigation firm Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd, which regularly conducts client surveys. "But it's still rare enough that clients say they're happy that we do it."
The idea of using client surveys as part of a law firm's marketing strategy is not exactly new.
"There's been a lot of buzz about it, but it's still not as commonplace as we would have thought," said Marci Krufka, a principal with Altman & Weil, a legal consulting firm in Newtown Square, Pa.
Altman & Weil conducts annual surveys of corporate general counsel, and one of the questions they ask is whether the legal department has been surveyed by any of the law firms they used the previous year. Krufka said that in the last survey 80 percent of the general counsel said no.
"I think a lot of lawyers operate on the premise, 'If the clients are paying the bills, we assume they're happy,'" she said.
But as Jones pointed out, clients seldom announce their intentions to seek new legal representation until they have already reached the decision.
"The fact is, clients very often vote with their feet," he said. "All of a sudden, they're not calling you. And very often you don't know they've gone to somebody else."
The advantages of surveys
Proponents of client surveys say they are an excellent way to strengthen relationships and keep the work coming.
"Like most law firms, our greatest growth area is repeat work and referrals from our existing clients," said David A. Baram, a partner with the eight-lawyer Bloomfield, N.J., firm Clayman, Tapper & Baram, which conducts an ongoing client-survey program. "So we think it's important to cement our relationships with them."
For the last 10 years, his firm has sent out one-page surveys to clients at the conclusion of legal matters. The survey asks them to evaluate the legal work they received on a scale of one (poor) to five (excellent) in various categories, including how they were treated, responsiveness from lawyers and staff, satisfaction with result and billing.
In addition, the survey asks a few yes/no questions, including whether clients plan to use the firm again and whether they'd recommend the firm to others. It also asks if there are any specific questions they'd like to discuss with the firm - and if so, the firm vows to call and talk about those matters.
Baram said that 20 to 25 percent of the surveys are returned, which he considers a good rate.
The chief benefit, he said, is to serve as a firm-wide reminder of the importance of client service.
"For me, personally, what the surveys do is remind me to keep in constant communication with clients," he said.
For bigger firms, client surveys are often face-to-face affairs involving senior partners and/or consultants who meet with the general counsel and other executives from client companies.
"They accomplish a number of things for law firms," said Micah Buchdahl, a Moorestown, N.J., lawyer and law-firm consultant who does surveys. "Number one is the simple touching of clients - contacting them and asking them, 'What can I …