Toward Better Client Service: A Few Questions For Outside Counsel

From John DeGroote’s Settlement Perspectives

What questions are you asking your clients?

In a world of alternative fees, law firm convergence, the ACC Value Challenge and more, what does the client really want? Is it lower fees, predictable expenses, more “value” for the company’s legal dollar, or something else? What’s the best way for a law firm to respond? It turns out that clients are eager to share the answers to all these questions — all you have to do is ask.

A few months ago the lawyers at DrinkerBiddle did just that — they asked. The firm invited a few of us with real experience as clients to the firm’s partner retreat to share our perspectives on client service. They got what they asked for.

The Question Outside Counsel Don’t Ask Often Enough

As soon as we began our talk it became clear that I wasn’t the only one who had thought about the law firm/client relationship before we got there. One of my co-panelists, P.H. Glatfelter Company’s GC Thom Jackson, started by sharing a simple question that outside counsel apparently don’t ask him often enough:

What is an acceptable outcome in this matter?

I have shared Thom’s insight with a few lawyers, both in-house and outside, and I’ve only gotten two responses. Outside counsel tell me “I always ask that question,” and their clients tell me “[m]y lawyers rarely ask that question.” Like it or not, there’s a disconnect here. How can we avoid it? As Thom’s question reminds us, and as we discussed in Settlement Advice: Avoid the Assembly Line, the best way to learn what your clients want is to ask.

10 More Questions Outside Counsel Should Ask (But Don’t)

Apparently an overachiever, Thom came to Philadelphia with a written list of 10 more questions outside counsel should ask the GCs they work with. Thom’s questions are quoted below, with his permission:

  1. Can you help me better understand your Company’s budgeting process, its timing, and the Legal cost center?
  2. Are you a fan of alternative fee arrangements, blended or discounted rates — all of which introduce some degree of expense predictability and risk sharing — or are you more concerned with a lawyer’s demonstrated ability to be efficient and knowledgeable and provide added value?
  3. In the case of an RFP, what would cause the Company to solicit an RFP? What value does the Company realize in that process?
  4. If the client is a public company, what has the Company reserved for this matter and what is the rationale for that reserve amount? Does the Company reserve for legal fees? For SEC reporting purposes, what amount is considered “material” for the Company?
  5. Give me some feedback on whether our firm has done a good job for the Company. Are we thought of as a true business partner to the Company?
  6. When was the last time you brought outside counsel in to brief the Board or senior management on a risk management, loss exposure or legal compliance issue? How was that received?
  7. In which areas do you expect to spend the greatest portion of your outside legal spend over the next 12 to 18 months?
  8. In the case of a litigated matter, on the continuum between winning and losing, what is considered acceptable? Is there a possibility for success short of complete victory? Prevailing without success? Not prevailing but not losing?
  9. What can the firm do to help the Company and [its General Counsel] be successful? What are the Company’s and your aspirations?
  10. What do you see as the “next big issue” that your industry and your company will face? What risks or opportunities might that create for us both?

To be clear, this blog isn’t necessarily about customer service — Patrick J. Lamb at In Search of Perfect Client Service and Dan Hull at What About Paris? have that more than covered. But when I saw Thom’s questions, I wanted to make sure that more lawyers than just DrinkerBiddle got the opportunity to ask them. While only a few tie directly to the settlement process, don’t discount the rest. They’ll all give you great insight into your client and what it needs — and that can help you in your next negotiation and beyond.

If you’re an outside counsel, ask your next client a few of these questions. You’ll be glad you did.


John DeGroote

John DeGroote is a nationally recognized practitioner, author and speaker known for settling disputes and getting deals done, both as a business executive and as an advocate. With particular expertise in early case assessment, detailed case analysis, and innovative disposition techniques, Mr. DeGroote’s background includes service as Chief Legal Officer… MORE >

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