The “new” power of the client
Some pundits have declared that the era of the customer is now upon us. In an announcement by Costco Wholesale Corp. and American Express Co., the 15 year relationship of exclusivity will come to an end in 2016. The economics appear to be clear. Costco wants/needs to bolster its sagging profits; AmEx believes it will not be earning “enough” to continue. Hence, the power of the buyer (Costco) to pick up its marbles and find another credit card company. Obviously , the buyer has options. AmEx will lose about eight percent of its gross revenue and its stock price has already suffered.
A similar situation occurred years ago between a large regional supermarket chain and an even larger (by revenue) national cheese supplier. The supplier believed it had a unique customer branded franchise and could force the supermarket to bend to its will. The supermarket gave the processor 48 hours to remove its product from the store cases and it was years before the manufacturer could reenter. The franchise was not so strong as the supplier believed.
In each case, and in most others, there is a breakdown in communication and relationship that far transcends the economics.
Law firms have felt similar pressures in the last several years. To say that law firm clients have reached new heights of power is a mis-characterization. Rather, a super sensitivity on the part of General Counsel to the needs of the corporate employer/client which signs his/her paycheck and a breakdown in the loyalties of organizations to their outside counsel fostered by a “take it for granted” attitude by outside counsel. The goal still is a “partnership” between the lawyer and the client. In the past, some lawyers have taken the client relationship for granted. Perhaps, the client will speak up more assertively today. There is more to loyalty than merely a technical command of the law.