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In-House Attys Point to 8 Firms for Top Service

An elite eight firms have been recognized by corporate counsel for their long-standing commitment to service, an honor they say they earned by institutionalizing a focus on clients.

The 2011 BTI Client Service All-Stars report from The BTI Consulting Group Inc. (Wellesley, Mass.) lists 318 attorneys nominated by in-house counsel for their outstanding client service. Attorneys from eight firms have made the list in each of the 10 years the report has been published, earning them top honors.

The eight firms are Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, Foley & Lardner LLP, Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Mayer Brown LLP, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Sidley Austin LLP and Winston & Strawn LLP.

In-house counsel at large corporations named the client service all star attorneys, unprompted, in response to BTI's annual survey.

Law360 spoke with several of the honorees, who said the secret to their firms' enduring success was to make client service a top-to-bottom priority.

"At the end of the day we're in a service business and if we cannot attract and attain clients based on the level of our service, there are an awful lot of law firms out there that can provide straight legal advice," said Steven Wall of Morgan Lewis, one of that firm's three honorees.

"You have to have a reason, beyond the fact that you have a law degree, to convince your client to stay with you," Wall said.

BTI's research backs that statement — the consulting group said the legal services market was still a "predator's paradise" where the firms who win business often do so at the expense of their competition.

The legal services market itself is only growing by about 1 percent annually, BTI President Michael B. Rynowecer said.

"Every law firm out there wants to grow between 5 and 8 percent, so the only way to grow is by taking fees from somebody else," Rynowecer said.

The firms that have consistently succeeded at client service are those who have built their practices around it, he said.

"The leadership partners exhibit these behaviors, everyone from the partners down to the associates observe these behaviors, and it becomes part of the everyday fabric of what the firm is," Rynowecer said.

At Jones Day, which had a report-leading 11 attorneys recognized, client service has been at the heart of business decisions for years, said Daniel Reidy, one of the firm's honorees.

The firm chose to go national when it thought its clients needed a national firm, and chose to go international when it thought its clients needed internationally based legal help, Reidy said.

"We literally sit around and think about where we're going to go next geographically or what practices we're going to develop based on our perceived client needs," he said.

Jones Day also structures its compensation so that clients that need talent from multiple practice groups can get what they need without in-fighting between practice group leaders, Reidy said. The firm does not even calculate any kind of fee-credit metrics, so leaders have no incentive to horde their top talent, he said.

"If you get caught even remotely thinking about that, it's a big spank here," Reidy said.

At Morgan Lewis, a variety of tools help attorneys focus on clients, Wall said. Intranet pages aggregate the latest news on individual clients, for example, and software helps track billing in real-time to make sure projects do not go over budget, he said.

Some practice groups even have laminated wallet cards with attorneys' name, home phone, cell phone and specialty, so clients that want instant answers can quickly find who they need, said Donald Silverman, another honoree from the firm.

Kirkland, meanwhile, has made sure that young attorneys are mentored with client service in mind for decades, honoree William Pratt said. A free-market assignment system helps create incentives for young attorneys to develop their client service skills, he said.

"I certainly think the that the partners use as one of their criteria which young lawyers are really developing client savvy and appreciate the importance of client service," Pratt said.

"Our younger lawyers quickly pick up on what goes into getting on the most attractive assignments, so they learn that their careers can be furthered by learning quickly the value of great client service," he said.

The firm also more directly incentivizes client service — attorneys who are better at it make more money, Pratt said.

"It's not a lockstep firm and it never has been," he said. "The people who are really rising are people who almost without exception have a demonstrated record of client service."