Client Service: An Advanced Concept at Dykema

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - 09:57

The Editor interviews Michael C. Borders of Dykema Gossett PLLC. Mr. Borders is Vice Chairman of the firm, Office Managing Member of Dykema's Chicago office and a member of the firm's Executive Board. He represents clients in a wide variety of litigation matters, including insurance disputes, product liability, personal injury, commercial disputes, and class actions.

Editor: Welcome, Mike. Let’s start with your thoughts on Dykema’s approach to client service.

Borders: Client service is a significant emphasis for Dykema. While you would think that this is a common skill, it is too often lacking in the practices of individual attorneys. A few years ago, our chairman, Peter Kellett, started a firm initiative that emphasizes service in a variety of ways, and we constantly reinforce the message internally. We train new associates and lateral hires in the basic tenets of our philosophy, and Dykema’s service standards are constantly being affirmed and reinforced throughout the firm. They even appear as bullet points on our mouse pads and screen savers for firm computers, so the message is always right in front of us. The overall message is that “everything speaks.”  Every interaction with a client is important in delivering top-of-market service.

We make it a point to know our clients’ businesses and partner with them to deliver value in managing matters effectively and at a predictable and reasonable fee. We insist on being highly responsive: our policy is to return client calls on the same day, or within 24 hours, and we regularly seek feedback, including, at minimum, end of matter or annual performance reviews that clients seem to appreciate.

One other point is about relationship teams, particularly for large clients or those with multidisciplinary needs that require services from various practices, such as litigation, intellectual property or public policy. You’re probably going to have de facto teams under normal situations, but we’ll make sure, for example, that big automotive clients are served by a team that is familiar with issues that are important to the clients across the various disciplines.

Finally, we recognize that what excellent client service means to one client won’t necessarily be the same for another, so we offer a customized approach to exceed each client’s expectations. From a litigation perspective, just as an example, some clients want to see every pleading before it goes out the door while others don’t. So our client teams really make a point of understanding individual client preferences and actively managing to meet those expectations.

Editor: That sounds like a strong message about the firm’s culture.

Borders: The intent is to embed our service standards within the culture and put them into action. Some people need reminders, which we handle through internal communications. If a team of lawyers has done a particularly good job for a client, say on a transaction or piece of litigation, we’ll make that known internally, specifically highlighting the level of service and client satisfaction. Sometimes these are top-down messages from management, or maybe the relationship partner will send an email reporting on the successful completion of a project and implementation of our service standards.

While I can’t be very specific, this anecdote should give you a sense of the firm’s willingness to go the extra mile. One client recently had to respond, in very short order, to extensive questions from its federal regulator. As we have done for this client before, a dedicated team coordinated a detailed analysis of the client’s practices and procedures, and their conformity with granular requirements in every district in the federal court system. The work came in on time, within budget, and the client was extremely pleased.

Editor: Some firms are organized around practice areas or niche expertise while others have more of an industry focus. Tell us about Dykema in this regard.

Borders: We have a foot in both camps. The firm is traditionally set up with directors and practice group leaders within departments, such as business services, litigation, real estate, IP and regulated industries, and multiple practice group leaders may be assigned to larger departments. We also have cross-departmental industry groups; automotive, energy and financial services are good examples. Leaders of those groups have dedicated budgets and resources, including support from colleagues in related departments or offices, and they are charged with driving a uniform approach to business development and client service within that sector. They also manage regular communications with clients and other industry players and hold annual off-site retreats. These retreats focus on current and anticipated issues with the objective of ensuring that we remain thought leaders who can provide comprehensive and proactive counsel.

Editor: Please describe the firm’s strategy with respect to placement of your offices across the country.

Borders: In most cases, the strategy to open a new location is based on the needs of our clients rather than by the desire to plant a flag in a particular jurisdiction. For example, our Los Angeles office opened as a result of work we were already doing there for automotive manufacturers. Since then, it has expanded into a more general practice office, but it was opened because clients took us there. In general terms, we want the ability to do work nationally for our clients where the need arises.

Digressing just a bit, we see that clients are buying legal services in new and different ways. In this day and age, the work of many areas of legal practice and specialties is not location specific, and clients don’t care if you work from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Certainly, in some market segments, geography still matters – litigation can be one – but our experience reflects a trend away from where bodies are located and more toward seeking specialized knowledge, skills and experience to deliver the desired value. If we do that, clients will hire us knowing that if it becomes necessary to have boots on the ground in a specific location, we can associate with local counsel.

Right now, we have a good platform, and we’re focused on building out of the LA office with our expansion in Dallas and into Austin, Texas, as well as to Minneapolis, which is the location we most recently expanded to. There is no single strategy for growth that fits each geographic area. Each office seeks to expand to enhance our known-for practices and meet client needs. As an example, in litigation clients may be interested in consolidating services from outside firms and, in that regard, may have an interest in having boots on the ground in a particular geographic area. However, we often respond to litigation RFPs based on two criteria – specialized legal skills and jurisdiction. Location is not as significant a factor outside of litigation.

Editor: Continuing the discussion about client service, let’s talk about managing legal costs and how you collaborate with corporate clients on legal budgets.  Do you embrace the trend towards alternative fee structures?

Borders: In terms of fee structures, we try to be as creative as our clients want us to be. In the simplest situations, clients may be looking for a discount, which we will consider when it’s necessary to remain competitive; however, I will add that our rate structures are already competitive, so we don’t offer discounts on a knee-jerk basis. We talk to clients about what they need and the value that we provide.

You’re right in identifying a trend in this area, but it’s moving more like the lava flow in Hawaii – rather glacially. In the post-recession world, we’re seeing that the largest clients are getting more and more sophisticated in their pricing requirements for outside legal services; they are carving up their legal needs into segments of work and sending RFPs that ask responding law firms to be creative.

Commonly, clients are looking for some type of flat fee proposal. Because we have extensive historical experience in many areas, responding to these requests is not simply a shot in the dark, but rather is based on our best assessment of the services and quality we can deliver for the proposed fees. Then you just have to have realistic discussions with clients about staffing and creating expectations from the outset of the engagement as to how matters will be handled. Most clients are receptive to safety-hatch provisions in flat-fee arrangements, and they recognize that some matters will become extraordinary. So, there is a critical element of trust in achieving successful outcomes with alternative fee proposals. To make that happen, we work internally on the process management side to make sure that we can then deliver results and value in handling the case efficiently. We look to provide savings to the client in such a way that the matter is still profitable to the firm. At the end of the day, it has been our experience that clients are reasonable.

We have to remind ourselves that we are in a highly competitive service industry, and that if you don’t provide exceptional client service while delivering legal services at a price clients value, you will simply not succeed. Easy to say, harder to execute.

Please email the interviewee at mborders@dykema.com with questions about this interview.