Lawyer's Turf vs. Firm's Growth/Success

July 2001

by Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC

Marketing Director: When I was at a large law firm, we used our own contact and marketing database. When attorneys left the firm, the marketing department reviewed client and contact lists together with the attorney to determine which clients were going and which were staying. Where the departure was contentious, it was a tricky road to go down. We also used a departure checklist to review clients/contacts/WIP/AR.

EP response: These comments reflect exactly what is wrong, in my opinion, with today's legal world. Lawyers think clients "belong" to them ... that "their" clients are their book of business. It is for this reason, I believe, that most cross selling efforts fail. One has to think of the law firm, the institution, as "owning" the clients ... and the lawyers are "merely" the service providers. The loyalty should be to the firm, not the lawyer, even though most everyone would agree that today's business world is relationship based, and relations are created with people, not institutions. (Of course, this statement sidesteps the directive of rules of professional conduct that no one "owns" the client and that the client has freedom to choose his/her own lawyer at any and every moment.)

In my career, I had two major experiences that highlight the importance of the firm, rather than the individual, as being the key factor for success. In one instance, when I was General Counsel, a major law firm (whom everyone would recognize) had three people assigned to my account, a senior partner, a junior partner and an associate. This assured that the firm had the best possible chance to retain my loyalty even if one of the three were to leave for another firm or start up his/her own practice. While some would argue today that this may be over-billing or "churning" a file, it is possible for three lawyers in a firm to maintain a client relationship while billing only for necessary work done by each lawyer individually. Thus, the principle asserted still remains valid, in my opinion.

Another experience was when I owned a food processing company years ago. In that case, major companies such as Vlasic, Nalley's and Oscar Mayer could not break into our market place because of the loyalty to our family business. Almost the instant we sold our business, and the buyer failed to retain us in the same face-to-face contact with the customer (believing that it, the large company, knew best), these companies began to penetrate the previously protected market place. I was able to repeat this experience in another industry later in my life, creating relationships which competitors could not disturb.

Thus, irrespective of the industry, I believe that relationships are what creates business ... and, in the process, the firm must be the entity to which loyalty from the client is given. Anything short of this may benefit an individual lawyer in the short run, but will harm the firm and the collective benefit of all the lawyers and staff in the long run. And, in my experience, everyone rises or falls with the ship. If the ship can rise in the water, everyone benefits. If the ship has problems and sinks, everyone has problems.

This is a different philosophical approach for most law firms; the more successful ones do work on this premise and it is the lawyers in these firms who consistently receive the largest compensation packages. Perhaps we should review our attorney-client relations one more time with these thoughts in mind.

(The original posting and my response appeared in a recent issue of Law Marketing listserv at

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July 2001