The words being thrown around were trust, intimacy, empathy, vulnerability, honesty, transparency, communication, emotional intelligence, teamwork, forgiveness, feedback, collaboration, connectedness, courage, relationship-building.  It would be understandable if you thought that you had walked into a marital counseling conference or some new-age event.  

In fact, the setting was Georgetown University Law Center’s March 9th conference entitled "Welcome to the Future: Trends in the Delivery of Corporate Legal Services," led by Co-Director Mitt Regan.

After presentations on survey data showing how firms attract and keep potential clients (more on this in later entries), the attributes that were identified as being most conducive to outstanding client service were those listed above that make all types of relationships good and better.  And it was acknowledged that it can take only a few individual lawyer behaviors to destroy a client’s trust, and in a startlingly short time.

Jeff Emelt, GC at GE, was quoted as saying that empathy is the quality he wants in his lawyers, which is particularly important when he gets legal advice he doesn’t like.  While his predecessor valued his favored lawyer for being the best listener he’d ever met. 

Susan Hackett of the ACC Value Challenge said all the metrics used by firms and clients to capture data and set and meet goals need to be discussed with a lot of transparency and vulnerability–so clients can see how firms make their profits and even what those profits are.

Lisa Damon, member of the Executive Committee at Seyfarth Shaw, was instrumental five years ago in designing and promoting a firm culture that emphasizes "standing in the shoes of the clients," relying on transparency, communication and collaboration to weld strong bonds. While only into the first year of that program, Damon says that they already have delighted clients who are more engaged in the entire client/lawyer process.

Amy Schulman, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at Pfizer, was the featured speaker, discussing the Pfizer Legal Alliance, a program in its 3rd year that limits the number of firms that Pfizer uses to 20 for the bulk of its work. Pfizer requires that the firms use another value device other than the billable hour to determine fees ("If what you use to anchor the relationship is money, you’re going to lose, because it’s not motivational at some point," according to Schulman), that they help Pfizer achieve an overall 15% reduction in legal spend, and that they work cooperatively with each other, as needed, to staff and manage projects. 

Each firm has an in-house relationship partner at Pfizer and Pfizer encourages secondments and sharing associates, even recruiting at law schools together with some firms. Twice a year Pfizer grades each law firm on performance issues ranging from substantive knowledge to responsiveness to willingness to collaborate, as well as how well they take the feedback they are given. This is, of course, a challenge for most lawyers–they are often highly defensive to anything that smells of criticism.

"We learned a lot about firms," Schulman says, "by whether they welcomed the feedback or responded by saying, ‘You got it wrong.’" 

According to Schulman, making the PLA work is like developing other intimate relationships–it takes hard work, vulnerability and bravery–and ultimately requires a leap of faith. "Relationship-building requires a certain kind of emotional courage and confidence."

Most speakers acknowledged that feedback from clients is necessary to improve relationships–proactively asking for and acting on client evaluations should be the starting point of sophisticated client service.  But once the feedback is received, understanding how to respond at the time and in the future requires a panoply of skills that firms must identify, develop and support from the top down.  Inculcating these skills and values into the DNA of a firm becomes geometrically more difficult as the size of the firm increases.

As J. Warren Gorrell, Co-CEO of Hogan Lovells, pointed out, there is "a lot to be learned by firms from organizational behavior theory."

There were a couple of provocative questions.  Are women lawyers more likely to have some of these skills and therefore be able to deliver better service?  And if so, why aren’t they being recognized and rewarded for those abilities?

And in the end does expertise always trump empathy or any of these other touchy, feely skills?  The conclusion seemed to be that regardless of the legal arena or degree of subject matter difficulty, quality of advice is considered a given from all firms, with clients repeatedly going to the qualified law firm that provides them with the better relationship as well.