August 10, 2014 at 11:21 pm

Metro Detroit law firms step out of office to woo business

Miller Canfield principal Stan Stek said it makes sense for the firm to go to its construction clients, who are often 'time challenged.' (Al Goldis / AP)

The trappings of plush legal offices are becoming less important, as some Metro Detroit law firms find new ways of reaching out to clients by meeting with them on their own turf.

Firms are taking seminars, legal updates and other information to their customers through onsite visits, webinars and even Twitter. The shift is influenced not just by improving technology, but also by increased constraints on clients’ staffing, time and legal budgets.

Independent lawyer coach Elizabeth Jolliffe is the past chair of the State Bar of Michigan’s practice management section. She said that since the 2008 economic downturn, companies’ smaller legal budgets have forced many law firms to devise client service strategies to stand out from their competitors. Firms are tailoring their services more closely to the specific needs of the industries they serve.

“That’s what business owners and businesses want,” Jolliffe said. “They want to work with people, including lawyers, who know what their business is, who understand their business.”

Miller Canfield, a blue-chip Detroit firm, recently announced customized onsite legal updates for its clients in the construction industry. Miller Canfield offers clients a menu of topics to choose from and delivers a presentation and lunch to their facility.

While the firm has long offered similar presentations at its offices, Miller Canfield principal Stan Stek said it makes more sense for the firm to go to its construction clients.

“Particularly on the contractor-subcontractor side and also the developer side, these are folks that are probably more time-challenged than we are,” Stek said. “It’s difficult for any active, successful construction company or development company to bring together the people that need to be engaged in this and send them out to another location.”

For some firms, reaching clients in their native environment means harnessing technology rather than leaving the office. Many firms have adopted webinars in place of the seminars they once held either at their offices.

One such firm, Troy-based Secrest Wardle, is presenting a complimentary eight-week webinar series on premises liability. Over the past four years, senior partner Mark Masters said Secrest Wardle has largely eliminated traditional client seminars in favor of webinars.

“Over time, we were getting feedback from (clients) that it was time-consuming,” Masters said.

“If you have an insurance company that has a claims department, you can’t shut down your insurance company’s claims department and send everybody to the seminar one day.”

Ruby McGraw is a team manager for Broadspire, a Livonia claims management company. She had high praise for Secrest Wardle’s series, which she has encouraged her team to attend.

“We do claims all over the country with zillions of different attorneys, and this is the first time that anyone has offered us a webinar with so many topics over such a length of time,” she said.

John Cornwell is a practice development manager in the Bloomfield Hills offices of Plunkett Cooney, which has also adopted webinars to update clients on important legal developments. Cornwell said many of the firm’s clients have “streamlined” operations, leaving them with fewer staffers to attend events outside the office.

“Between that and the fact that we have a lot of out-of-state clients ... the webinars seem to make more sense these days,” Cornwell said.

Changing with the times

Firms are leveraging other technologies to get information to their customers. The Royal Oak offices of Howard and Howard have implemented a service called BlueJeans to improve video conferencing capability.

The paid cloud-based service offers conferencing between devices, including laptops, phones and tablets. Darren Ginter, director of information technology at Howard and Howard, said the firm now uses BlueJeans “nearly for everything” after first trying it about a year and a half ago.

“People really started to buy into it at that point, and it spread by word of mouth,” he said. “We’ve usually got two or three video conferences a week now.”

For the Kitch firm, which has four Michigan offices, keeping in touch with clients has led to a technology that’s now commonplace in the rest of the world: Twitter.

Attorneys in the firm’s long-term care and birth trauma practice groups have established Twitter accounts to share relevant news with their clients. Richard Joppich, a principal at the firm, says it’s mostly the firm’s younger attorneys who have embraced Twitter at this point. But he sees a valuable role for it — particularly for practice groups with national clients.

“Those kind of things really fit in,” Joppich said. “When it is a large geographic expanse, that kind of helps communicate well across a larger area.”

Looking to the future

From Twitter to onsite client lunch updates, a profession perceived to be tradition-bound and staid is slowly embracing new forms of customer service. In the face of nationwide economic troubles, Jolliffe said the legal field has become significantly savvier.

“This profession is a little slower to catch on than some professions,” Jolliffe said. “It’s a little bit more conservative, a little more traditional, than, say, accountants. But I think they’ve been doing a good job with this the last five years.”