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INSIGHT: Is the Honeymoon Period Between Clients and Law Firms Real?

Sept. 12, 2019, 8:00 AM

As a general counsel, there is something frustrating I encounter with some law firm relationships: While a few relationships get better over time, as they should, many others stagnate or even deteriorate.

It’s what AdvanceLaw and I call the “Honeymoon Effect.” Like some marriages that erode or end in divorce, the warm glow of a new client-firm relationship often trails off. The timing varies, but the early magic tends to disappear.

I wanted to see if other large company GCs experience the same thing, and what we and law firms can do about it. It’s one of the reasons I signed the Open Letter from 25 GCs. Based on data from dozens of clients and hundreds of firms across thousands of legal matters, AdvanceLaw is closely examining client-firm relationships, including what happens over time. The hope and conventional wisdom are that relationships get better, since there is valuable upside in well-earned trust and experience.

Unfortunately, the AdvanceLaw GC Thought Leaders Experiment data validated and sharpened my observations—and we are not an outlier in experiencing the Honeymoon Effect.

As the chart shows, both efficiency and solutions focus actually decrease after a couple of years. We choose these two specific variables because if firms promise one thing to clients, it’s that more reps and time will increase efficiency—the firm will cut its teeth, get to know our business and internal clients, and flatten the learning curve on new work.

For similar reasons, we’d also expect solutions focus to improve. And firms would like it to as well—AdvanceLaw has elsewhere observed (based on statistical analysis, not anecdote or opinion) that solutions focus is the number one factor correlated with a client’s likelihood to recommend counsel.

So, on what GCs value most—solutions focus—and what firms promise will improve over time (efficiency), we see a small but noticeable decline across the data. (As for other variables measured, such as expertise, outcomes, and quality of work, the results were less predictable, dipping and rising across time).

Complacency as Root Cause

Complacency appears to be at the root of this Honeymoon Effect. We take one another for granted. As clients, we may not communicate the way we should. And firms—especially in an era of reporting profits per equity partner and using that as a yardstick for success and to attract lateral talent—may focus too much on business generation rather than on client service.

Further, while law firms and general counsel at some level understand the relationship between solutions focus and a client’s likelihood to recommend, it’s striking to see solutions focus outrank even expertise and quality. And yet, how many GCs issue RFPs focusing exclusively on lawyer credentials and pricing, instead of service ethos and how to innovate and solve our problems?

This, by the way, is why I find so many GCs work with AdvanceLaw—the participating firms excel at solutions focus, and AdvanceLaw’s system helps relationships stay energized.

My view is that the world has changed and not all lawyers—inside and outside—are adapting enough. Business clock speed has accelerated, and the issues we are involved in are more like business questions with legal implications than the other way around. Legal advice, and how outside counsel deliver it, should mirror our business environment. That’s where solutions focus comes from and it’s troubling that we don’t always receive that (or efficiency) in our longest, most established relationships.

So, I started thinking about my own relationships. Which firms stand out and why? One is Bird & Bird, a large global firm based in the UK (which we found through AdvanceLaw), and another, here in the US, is McDonald Hopkins. Both have impressed me by building widespread cultures of high-touch and consistent client service.

Here’s what that means: it begins with accountability and having a relationship partner uniquely focused on client service. They are especially attentive and responsive, replying promptly to calls and emails. (While I’m sure they have other clients, they know being a trusted advisor means making each client feel like a priority. And while that sounds like a human relationship thing, it actually requires a lot of systems and process to pull off.)

Guided by the involvement of a relationship partner, their work is consistently high quality and solutions focused. They take billing seriously—reviewing the firm’s invoices isn’t a pro forma exercise. They examine bills to determine value received for the cost and whether firm resources were allocated most effectively. And through billing reviews or otherwise, relationship partners follow the progress of engagements, determine if they’re going well or poorly, and reach out directly to me or my team to confirm or change course.

Accountability Is Critical

This sense of accountability is critical to maintaining strong relationships. And in my view, it requires pervasive messaging from firm leadership about client service, and that it’s not just about winning business.

I suspect that the firms making this work have compensation models that incent growth of existing client business as much as, if not more than, winning new clients, and that discourage hoarding of work in favor of solving client problems. Likewise, these firms avoid the “shiny object” trap where, after a delightful honeymoon following our courtship, a firm gets distracted when the work feels less interesting or novel, or otherwise locked in.

Of course, this shouldn’t fall on law firm shoulders alone. I feel just as responsible for ensuring the firms get to know our business. If we’re making a commitment to a firm, we need to give them the opportunity to succeed and even broaden their portfolio of work with us. Communication drives success, and the reason honeymoons can turn into bad marriages is that the sides stop communicating. When that happens, divorce looms—or, perhaps worse, client and firm stay together, but without much enthusiasm.

Other GC Thought Leaders data shows us that, like all relationships, the answer lies in our ability and willingness to conduct important conversations. Across the Experiment, one tactic consistently tracked with success over time: a regular practice of delivering feedback to outside counsel. Lawrence Greenberg, chief legal officer of The Motley Fool, shares his thoughts on this and the impacts he discusses strengthen even further as relationships lengthen. It’s something I know that AdvanceLaw believes in too—when they help GCs create their own panels of preferred firms, they reward collaboration, communication, and relationship-building.

Keeping the magic alive in client–law firm relationships boils down to the firm being a great dance partner who gets client service, delivers solutions and value, and is willing to continue to invest in the relationship over time. Moreover, each party must be willing to provide candid and constructive feedback to the other when necessary to keep objectives and expectations aligned. Much like marriages and friendships that endure, successful long-term client-law firm alliances require mutual effort, honesty, and communication.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Joshua Sherbin is the senior vice-president, general counsel, and chief compliance officer of TriMas Corp. (Nasdaq: TRS), a diversified global manufacturer. Prior to joining TriMas in 2005, Sherbin held in-house legal roles with Valeo, a Paris-based automotive parts supplier, and Kelly Services, an international staffing provider, and practiced with Butzel Long, a Michigan based law firm.