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Key attributes for law firm clients

Discover the key attributes that law firm clients look for and care about most when prospecting and working with law firms in the US legal market.

Published on 22 July 2022
Written by James Haggerty and Kush Cheema
James Haggerty
Kush Cheema

What are law firm clients looking for from US firms?

This year at Chambers, we were able to quantify our research using new automated tools and really drill down into what the average client prioritizes and demands from their legal counsel. From the almost 400,000 tagged pieces of commentary drawn from over 35,000 respondents, we want to highlight four key attributes of Commercial Awareness, Cross-border Capabilities, Value & Delivery to Budget and Client Service.  

The importance of commercial awareness to law firm clients

This attribute was of particular importance to clients and is where we get some of our most nuanced criticisms of law firms from their referees. This mainly affects the biggest law firms, who's clients see the need for law firms to act more like business advisors than offering straight-down-the-line legal advice. The ability to provide the fuller picture is seen as a key value-add and is often considered a distinguishing factor in these elite firms as clients in fast-paced environments, often with lean in-house legal teams themselves, really value a lawyer who can offer a legal opinion tinged with some real-world appreciation of the client's business and the state of the market they operate in.

"The significant distinguishing factor of the team is their ability to think strategically and applying market and commercial awareness to their guidance."

Cross-border Capabilities of law firms

A large amount of the biggest in-house clients that we speak to are placing increased importance on the strength of integrated teams across multiple international jurisdictions and this capacity, or the lack of it. The biggest clients who face complex regulatory requirements, for example, increasingly covet expertise in the US, UK and EU; and the boom in outbound investment from US private equity firms investing in British companies late last year saw a lot of feedback for firms praising those transatlantic strengths.

The rampant expansion of Freshfields and Allen & Overy over the past couple of years is proof of this in the market today. With new offices in Massachusetts and California complementing dominant positions in the UK and Europe, we can see a lot of big firms betting on their international pedigree to win big clients.

"We have had issues in Europe, the Middle East & Asia and they have partners and offices in all those jurisdictions and their service and advice is consistently top tier."

Value and delivery to budget

Over the past few we've seen a real evolution in how in-house clients see value for money and not in a positive way for many law firms as this area is where clients had the most negative sentiments.  

While there are instances where the money is no object, in corporate megamergers or bet-the-company litigation matters, but overall fee structures and billing rates are increasingly seen as a bit too unwieldy for all but the most important matters. The two of the most common criticisms we receive from clients are around raw numbers and budget forecasting who may otherwise be very satisfied with their legal providers. 

It will be interesting to see if leads to a bigger flight to mid-market firms for those slightly more straightforward matters and what a potentially smaller pool of work does for the firms who price themselves at the top end of the market.  

There was some great feedback around firms offering alternative fee structures or efforts to slim down the amount of time billed to their matters; however this is obviously something that is particular to each firm.  

"Not only of they charge more than anyone, they usually exceed budget and do so without acknowledging as much before it happens."

Client Service

Client service is what Chambers initially started off analysing back in 2003 when we first launched in the USA and is where we get a significant amount of critical commentary from clients of all law firms, from the AmLaw100 to small boutiques. Responsiveness is what most in-house legal departments equate client service with and is possibly the single-most common word in our interview database for the past ten years.  

Our research has shown that clients are wanting a constant channel of communication on the status of their matters, however there's always going to be a bit of tension here given the attorney on the other side would probably receive even more criticism if they spent their billing increments on a detailed update.

"I've never had an issue on service level or responsiveness, I would hold them up as an example and with all firms were as good."

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