Square Mile

How refreshing to read David Bramson's column (The Lawyer, 3 May) on meeting the needs of clients through the creation of industry groups. Client is a word mentioned surprisingly infrequently by the authors of these columns – and for the sake of the whole profession we should know better.

Thinking about what clients want should occupy every waking hour of every lawyer and every marketing department of every firm. Bizarrely, it does not.

Lawyers will tell you they have worked with clients for years and they know what clients want and how they want it. When you ask them how they know, they tell you that they just do. Rarely do they say they have actually asked the client.

Marketing departments should know better, but mainly they do not. I am still baffled by those who spend their time and the firm's money engaged in what I call "formula" marketing – endless brochures, newsletters, briefings, technical bulletins, practice notes and a whole paraphernalia of unfocused blurb, which destroys forests and goes straight into waste paper baskets. Add a few more unfocused seminars, adverts, cocktail parties, trips to Twickenham and there you have it – 80 per cent of the marketing budget gone and still no-one has asked the client what he wants.

Despite the evidence that formula marketing is a waste of time and money, many lawyers stay in their "comfort zones" – nice and cosy, sitting at a mahogany desk doing what they were trained to do: write letters, draft documents, answer the phone and attend transaction-based meetings. Most of it equals chargeable time. What a wonderful safety blanket – high chargeable hours mean immunity from criticism.

Sure, it pays the bills. But it is not an investment for tomorrow. Time spent with clients and target clients at their factories/offices/buildings on really getting to grips with what clients want and how they want it, is not chargeable. Yes, asking them. A novel, but ultimately profitable, concept.

What is so reassuring these days is the volume of trainees who have no knowledge – and so no expectations – of the comfort zone. Exceptional ones almost demand a secondment assignment – and we encourage it – to get close to clients, to learn about their business, to know their people. And the most highly prized applicants for senior positions are those who have worked in a business or organisation.

Starting with the senior partners, many lawyers and marketing people need to sharpen up their act. If the key to success is asking what clients want, then ask. If this means a systematic review of client service and following up every major transaction with a non-chargeable client meeting, then do it. Yes, bucket loads of non-chargeable time. At Wragge & Co our partners' average annual chargeable hours are less than 1000 – I think it should be less still – and we just announced a 22 per cent increase in fee income over a year.