Advocatus clienti

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The indispensable Bruce MacEwen writes another superb piece at Adam Smith, Esq., this time on the lessons law firms could learn about client relations from consumer packaged goods companies’ marketing strategies (short answer: a lot). This quote in particular grabbed my attention:

Focusing on clients means viewing the service your firm provides from their perspective and ensuring it’s aligned with what they really anticipate, need, and expect from a premier law firm. … At FedEx, it means that a key part of marketing’s job is “speaking up on the customer’s behalf and ensuring that what we have to say is taken seriously,” according to Mike Glenn, executive vice president of market development and corporate communications.

Wouldn’t it be great if a law firm adopted FedEx’s credo in real terms?

Imagine if a firm designated one senior lawyer to be the full-time representative and advocate of clients’ interests. This would be more than simply the “client relationship partner,” a position that might simply amount to the emergency contact who buys lunch once a month. I’m thinking of someone who actively, zealously advances the client’s cause, even to the point of full-blown irritation of the partnership.

This lawyer, while a member of the partnership, would not be “on the partnership’s side,” so to speak. She’d be a fifth column, an inside presence, an aggressive client ombudsperson. Just as the Church used to designate a canon lawyer as an advocatus diaboli to “take the devil’s side” and argue against a proposed canonization, the firm would appoint an advocatus clienti to take the client’s side (although probably not by that specific term, as the client might reasonably dislike its implications).

What kinds of demands would this lawyer press? The usual things, of course — more frequent and more useful communication, better cost control and rationalization, greater understanding of the general business environment. But it would go beyond that. The advocatus clienti would fully assimilate the culture, context and aspirations of the client and bring that perspective to bear on every matter and every meeting that concerns the client’s work.

The client could be pitched thus: “It’s as if your CEO spent all day at our firm, reminding us of your needs and ensuring that we meet today’s and anticipate tomorrow’s. This lawyer will know your industry inside out — competitors, regulatory environment, global opportunities, the works — and will speak up on your behalf. She will help us keep your priorities front and center, deal with your current matters, and look down the road to improve your competitive position going forward — at no expense to you.” What client wouldn’t like the sound of that?

Obviously, this is the kind of service that only major clients would justify, at this stage anyway. And the advocatus clienti would have to be chosen carefully: too junior a lawyer would be easily ignored, while an active senior partner would not want to sacrifice the billable time. So this might be the ideal role for partners on the cusp of retirement — ready to reduce their workload and take on a more statesmanlike position, but still with plenty of presence and influence to get the client’s point of view taken seriously.

Done right, it could be a real client service that innovatively matches the growing demands of sophisticated clients with both a firm’s generational evolution and its increasing client awareness.

This post first appeared as a post at the College of Law Practice Management’s blog on September 18, 2007.

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