I have an iPhone. I really like my iPhone. I actually LOVE my iPhone, but the service sucks. I have too many dropped calls. I have a dead zone just as I’m pulling into my garage. I can use my phone in the living room, but not in the master bedroom. I’ve been with AT&T since they were Cingular, since they were the carrier before Cingular. I’ve been with them since my first cellphone back in 1995. I have always had a nice working relationship with AT&T. I have no complaints about billing, adding new phones, or the company not being responsive. However, they’ve never fixed this one “little” problem: Coverage sucks. But, I love my iPhone, and that was my quandary. Sacrifice my iPhone for better coverage, or sacrifice coverage for my iPhone?? Like many iPhone users, I’ve been waiting for Apple to open up the iPhone to other carriers, and Verizon it is! I’ve now begun my research. How do the phones stack up to one another? Does Verizon offer anything that AT&T doesn’t?? What will I give up if I leave AT&T? How easy will it be to port my phone numbers over?? How much money will I lose if I change carriers? I am now seriously contemplating the move, and there’s nothing keeping me loyal to AT&T, or the AT&T-offered iPhone, at this point because all things are no longer equal. I can get my iPhone somewhere else. As I was researching the switch it struck me how similar the relationship I have to my phone and carrier are comparable (not perfectly) to the relationships between a client, the attorney and the law firm. Clients are loyal (for the most part) to their lawyer, not to the law firm. And, in turn, the attorney’s relationship with the client isn’t necessarily with the corporation itself, but is limited to the client-contact (the general counsel, for instance). The relationship that exists between the client-contact and the attorney is the primary relationship. The relationship between the client-company, or the client-contact, and the law firm is the secondary relationship. The law firm, however, must do its best to support and reinforce the primary relationship, while also developing and maintaining a separate relationship with both the client-contact and the client-corporation. My primary relationship is with my iPhone. AT&T, my secondary relationship, should be doing everything it can to keep me happy with their services, which only goes to reinforce my primary relationship. The relationship between AT&T and Apple is also important, but secondary to me, the consumer. If Apple remained happy with AT&T, there would have been no reason to open up their service to another carrier. No matter the quality of the primary relationship between client-contact and lawyer, the law firm can sabotage the relationship to the point that the client-contact has no other choice but to leave and find another law firm? In the past few years, as attorney rates skyrocketed in many firms, we read story after story of lawyers departing big law to start their own shops, how many were moving to smaller firms, all upon the request of the client-contact pushing for lower rates. Big law was working against the primary relationship. What about technology? Based on personal experience, I remember a time when clients had moved to Word for their word-processing, yet my law firm insisted upon sticking with WordPerfect. It took clients threatening to leave the firm (and their lawyers) before the firm became willing to switch software. Clients continually ask law firms to upgrade finance software, provide online billing, provide access to files via Extranets, to actually CHANGE the way they conduct business, law firm to corporation. Law firms, however, continually drag their heels, push and scream, and only when the client starts requesting their files, do they eventually invest the time and money to make the switch. As I sat on the phone with the AT&T agent yesterday, finding out how much it would cost me to discontinue my relationship with them, it was apparent to her that my main concerns about coverage had never been addressed and corrected to my satisfaction, despite my numerous complaints, and the complaints of most AT&T customers. Offering me discounts or additional services did not appease my main (and only) concern. They offered me a new iPhone, to switch to a different smart-phone, but my main problem was not addressed. AT&T has had enough time to fix the problem, and now they are on the cusp of losing a long term and loyal customer. The balance of “when all things being equal” has tipped. I would argue that, at a certain point, the BUSINESS of the client-company will take precedence over the attorney/client-contact relationship. Law firms cannot afford to ignore the concerns of a client’s company:

  • If your online finance system won’t interface with theirs, you risk losing the client.
  • If your software updates are not keeping up with theirs, you risk losing the client.
  • If your business practices are not aligned with theirs,  you risk losing the client.
  • If your strategic growth plan does not take into account their strategic growth plan (for instance, your biggest client is moving its headquarters from down the street to across the country. Will you follow them and open an office there?), you risk losing the client.

At a certain point, if the law firm does not address the corporate/business issues of the client, the balance the attorney has with his client-contact will shift away from “all things being equal” to the point where there is now an opening for a new attorney-client relationship to take seed and develop.

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  • Heather –
    What a great discussion of relationships that matter and ones that aren’t so important! Law firms who think they can escape the elemental human connection misunderstand marketing. Without the engagement of a face-to-face relationship with a lawyer, a client has only the most tenuous of relationships with the firm. Now, reputational weight in choosing a firm that a client has no current relationship with is an entirely different matter. At that point, the hiring decision rests on the expertise and facility of the lawyer who represents the safe choice.

  • I don’t think I’d categorize the secondary relationships as not mattering as much. They do matter as much, just differently.

    Law firms like to believe that they have the relationship with the client, but they do not. It is ALWAYS with the lawyer.

    How often, when a partner leaves a firm, does the firm go into over drive to get in touch with the client, take a team over to meet with them, and do everything they can to “keep the business.” Unfortunately, they won’t be successful. The client might leave active matters behind, but they will most likely move their new business to their lawyer’s new firm.

    But it works both ways.

    If you have a client who goes in house as a general counsel at a company, most likely he will start to move his business over to you and your firm, if the firm can align correctly with the corporate interests.

    Once again, relationships are built and developed between people, not with entities. However, the entity does play a lead-supporting role.