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How to Handle Difficult Feedback

The two most frequently asked questions we answer when working with our clients at the beginning of any engagement are:

  1. How do we handle difficult feedback?
  2. What happens if we don’t have a formalized system to act and follow up on the feedback we get from our clients?

Those two questions are more connected than many firms realize, and having a set strategy in place to follow up on feedback is what will help your firm handle the difficult feedback effectively and graciously.

Difficult feedback happens but is relatively rare. However, defining difficult feedback is incredibly important. It comes in various forms:

  • An ask by the client that is hard to implement
  • An ask by the client that is unreasonable
  • Feedback from the client that is critical of the firm
  • Feedback from the client that is critical of the lawyers working on the matters
  • Criticism of some lawyers who are not managing the relationship but are active on the matters on a regular basis

When firms do not have protocols in place to address the most common types of difficult feedback, they put themselves behind the proverbial eight ball. In the most successful relationships and engagements we have with clients, we address all of the above forms of difficult feedback with firm leadership, including practice group leaders and client team leaders. We share success stories (and horror stories) where firms received challenging feedback and how they addressed it.

For each of the above, a firm has to have a plan. When feedback is hard to implement, have a candid conversation of what aspects are challenging. Those component parts may not be critical from the client’s perspective. But sharing with the client the relationship improvement plan is essential. And as we have written often in this space, engaging the client in the process is step one. The worst thing you can do when getting feedback is to have the client take the time to share their opinions, thoughtfully offer advice and then not hear back from the firm.

Sometimes the feedback is unreasonable. This most often comes in the form of rates and fees. More and more frequently, we hear from clients that annual rate increases at the current rate are unsustainable. Firms still cling to the notion of increased profits via rate increases, which is not a business strategy and is, well, unsustainable. Firm leadership has to be rigorous in examining the economic model and business plan while listening to clients to understand their rate sensitivity. If those conversations are not happening now (at the time of the year when rate increases begin to be contemplated), clients will leave.

In many ways, difficult or critical feedback about the firm, some of its lawyers or the relationship partner all fall into the same broader plan. What is firm leadership prepared to do when it receives the feedback? We advocate taking clear and decisive action, including changing relationship partners, moving underperforming lawyers off the matters and, when the client is important, having executive committee-level conversations about how the firm is failing to meet client expectations.

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind an important truth: Sometimes a client is not a good fit for the firm.

If you prepare for feedback, both the good and the less positive, you actually will have a plan in place. Modeling behavior and preparing for outcomes is exactly what the best lawyers do every day—not just in the practice of law but in the business of law as well.

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