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In Search of Perfect Client Service

Why lawyers don't seem to get it

Steve Jobs and Collaboration: what lawyers can learn

Posted in Commentary

I make no secret of the fact that I have looked to Steve Jobs for ideas and inspiration.  I found this Fast Company article on the Evolution of Steve Jobs to be fascinating.  The discussion of his evolution as a collaborator was terrific.

As he steered Pixar through the many difficult periods that preceded the creation of Toy Story, he nurtured an intelligent, respectful, and effective culture. Catmull was so firmly in charge of the place that he was able to keep Steve from getting too involved in the production, so Jobs watched from a distance as writers and animators worked their way through failed plotlines, poorly conceived characters, and interference from Disney’s then-chief of animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg. After Toy Story, he got to see the team do it again, with A Bug’s Life, and then again and again and again. “Watching our collaboration, where we were making ourselves better by working together, I think that fueled Steve,” says John Lasseter, the director of Toy Story and The Incredibles, who now heads up Disney Animation and Pixar with Catmull. “That was one of the key changes when he went back to Apple. He was willing to be open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by that talent, but also to inspire them to do amazing things he knew he couldn’t do himself.

Collaboration is a phenomenal tool.  The most experienced people rarely agree on everything and fresh eyes are always needed to challenge conventional thinking.  No one person has the breadth of experience and the freshness of view so that their view does not benefit from challenge and the free exchange of competing ideas.  How people collaborate, then, is critical, and the highlighted sentence says volumes about the mindset needed for successful collaboration.

At Valorem, we so believe in the power of collaboration that we’ve designed our firm up to foster, indeed, require, it.  I think many of  the firms around us have embraced models that result in collaboration being an underutilized tool.  The benefits of collaboration to clients and firms alike are amazing.  Those that do not seek it and clients who do not demand it are missing out on one the most important tools available.

A small step that makes clients’ lives easier

Posted in Client Service, Commentary

Have you ever read an email and wondered to yourself, “what’s the point?” Then you get to the end and realize there is no point. Or the point is something totally different than what you thought. When this happens, it’s annoying. Did you ever wonder if you annoyed anyone with your emails? You should. And you should do something about it.

We live in a world where massive amounts of information are transmitted daily. Many lawyers receive over 150 or 200 emails daily. Some of those lawyers are in-house counsel. Many of them are reading emails on mobile devices. If each email takes 30 seconds to open, respond to, file or delete, that is an hour and 15 minutes just dealing with email. But what happens if emails need to be open and closed more than once? You know what happens: you open an email, glance at it and realize it can wait, so you close it. That simple act of opening an email, glancing at it and then closing it takes precious time.

We also need to consider that people send emails when it is convenient for them, not when it is convenient for the reader. That is one of the fundamental flaws of the medium. We exacerbate the flaw by not communicating essential information in the subject line. With an eye on our clients, my colleagues and I have tackled this shortcoming by adopting some simple rules for email subject lines:

  • The first word will be the short name of the case. Jones. Not Jones v. Client. The client knows the case and they know their employer’s name. Use limited real estate wisely.
  • The second word or phrase will convey the level of urgency: URGENT, TIME SENSITIVE, NOT URGENT, etc. If a client sees something is not urgent, she knows she can open the email when it is convenient.
  • The third component is the action requested, so the client knows the point of the email. Informational, Signature requested, approval required and so forth.

The next problem is people get chatty in emails, apparently thinking every email should be a personal monologue designed to help the client know more about you. Most clients want to know immediately what needs to be done and by when. So we have implement a BLUF rule for emails—Bottom Line Up Front. The top line will not be a name or hello or any other greeting. The top line will be: “Signature required by COB 3/31/2015.” Any needed background can be in the text of the email.

The last issue relates to attachments. In reviewing the slides created to roll this out internally, one client said “And forwarding along updates/orders without telling me what is in the attachment is a pet peeve.  We frequently are checking email by phone, so we cannot easily read attachments.” I was reminded how much I hate opening attachments wondering if the effort do so is worth the time. Message heard.

These tips may not seem like a lot. But I promise you your clients will appreciate the effort to make their lives better. The feedback we received from a number of clients was uniformly and enthusiastically positive.

Copies of the roll-out slides for this effort are available. Email label protocols–Public

International Women’s Day: a thought

Posted in General, People, Places and Blawgs
Nicole Auerbach

Nicole Auerbach

Yesterday was International Women’s Day.  There are a lot of great, strong women in my life, and I am all the better for it.  And while it is a fool’s errand to pick just one, I want to highlight just one, meaning no disrespect at all to the other women who make my life richer.

Nicole Auerbach is one of my fellow founders of Valorem Law Group.  We have been partners in this adventure for seven years. We have argued about cases, about strategy, about tactics, about people and lots of other things.  Her arguments always make my ideas better.  I hope I have returned a fraction of that value to her.  We have talked about values, about what we want Valorem to be and how we want it to become an institution that survives both of us.  We’ve never argued about those dreams or values. We’ve worked hard together, we’ve had fun together, we’ve listened to each other when struggles were encountered.  I find it hard to imagine anyone could be more as a partner.  I know no one can be more as a friend.

Recognition for “Timekeeping Company argues lawyers using AFAs still need to keep time”

Posted in Commentary, People, Places and Blawgs

http://www.attorneymarketing.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/29/the-attorney-marketing-center-technolawyers-smalllaw-pick-of-the-week/smalllaw-450.gif

I am honored that my recent post, Timekeeping Company argues lawyers using AFAs still need to keep time, has been selected by the editorial team of SmallLaw, as its SmallLaw Pick of the Week.  SmallLaw is a popular email newsletter for solos and those who manage and work in small law firms.

This recognition was a complete surprise.  The email notifying me explained:

Many awards given out these days are meaningless because marketing can play a role in determining who wins. By contrast, those who win our SmallLaw Pick of the Week award don’t even know they’re in the running and cannot influence our editorial team. We think this makes the award meaningful.

Thanks to the editorial staff at SmallLaw.

Timekeeping company argues lawyers using AFAs still need to keep time

Posted in Commentary, Hourly Rates and Alternatives

One of the great things about non-hourly billing is that it frees you from the tyranny of timesheets.  You stop thinking about billing and start thinking about results, about outputs, about deliverables.  That approach is an anthema to the many vendors who specialize in products that help lawyers find more time to bill to their clients.  Timekeeping companies are not fans of non-hourly billing.

Smart Time is a timekeeping company that claims to have “reinvented” timekeeping for lawyers and others. It’s CEO recently identified 7 reasons why timekeeping is still essential to lawyers using AFAs.  Let’s explore these.

Reason 1: Measuring timeliness and compliance. Project managers still need a tool to evaluate how timekeepers are performing with regard to a project’s expected timeline.

Wrong! There is a huge difference between “how long” and “by when”.  Project managers and those performing a project need to be very focused on “by when.”  Timekeeping does not come close to measuring “by when.”

Reason 2:  Planning for estimates. While your client may perceive flat-fees as a good value, you must make them valuable for the firm, by accurately estimating to cover your costs and make a profit. Looking at previous time investments will help you to know exactly how much time it takes to perform specific tasks.

Most wrong! The truism that flats fees need to be profitable is not debatable, but timekeeping and cost, that is the amount that one subtracts from revenue to determine profit, have little to do with one another.  An the what value of knowing the amount of time one spent doing a project before brings to mind the saying about the value of learning to do the wrong thing better.

Reason 3: Client trust. Many, if not all, clients will still want the ability to monitor and check in on the engagement, and hours are one good way to do that. AFAs don’t do away with client-firm discussions on the progress of the matter.

Wrong! Clients are concerned about outputs, deliverables and results.  They care about strategy and the timely completion of projects and tasks.  Few truly care about the amount of time spent doing a task. They have been victimized by this approach for too long.

Reason 4: Keeping to budgets. How else can a timekeeper review and stick to a case or matter budget, if they don’t know how much time they’ve spent on it? In an AFA, following budgets strictly is key.

Wrong! The key is when, not how long.  The quality of the deliverable should not be artificially restricted.   The “budget” and the “fee” are the same–you make money by having the fee exceed the cost.  Cost and the time spent have little relation to one another.

Reason 5: Measuring profitability.  Without timekeeping its impossible to measure the profitability of the engagement.  Hours are still the best measure of cost. Understanding how much it costs, in time, to complete the engagement changes a firm’s focus to efficiency and value.

Really wrong! Hours are not the best measure of cost–they have nothing to do with cost. Cost is the best measure of cost.  You measure profitability by subtracting cost from revenue. Hours don’t fit into the calculation.  What the author appears to be suggesting is that one measures profitability by comparing the fee to what you would have made had you billed by the hour.  That’s not how business works.

Reason 6:  Continuous improvement of the AFA model. If you track time, you can refine your pricing based on increased understanding of costs and clients’ needs. Potential pricing systems might contain inclusion of some hourly rates, as well. Just remember to keep any pricing system easy for the client to understand.

Wrong! This falls in the close but no cirgar category.  The key for delivery of service is “by when.” Know when you can deliver something is important to pricing.  Just as focusing on learning how to accomplish delivery faster.

Reason 7:  Rules of professional conduct.  If you end up in a fee dispute with your client, you’ll need hours expended to defend your position in court.

Wrong! This is nothing but fear-mongering of the worst kind.  Restated, the argument is that if you get into a fee dispute with your client (how often does that happen, really?) and a court declines to follow the terms of the fee argeement, you’ll need to have hours recorded somewhere.  Does the concept of self-interest enter anyone’s mind here?

I get why companies that sell timekeeping software and services are concerned about AFAs. Freedom from the constraints of timekeeping is the dream of countless lawyers, as is the desire to avoid having to buy software and services that add no value to the business.  But these kinds of arguments are disingenuous and misleading.

 

Pinnache and Pizzazz or Milquetoast and Vanilla

Posted in Commentary, General

Some people speaking with style.  Some put you to sleep.  Most law firm websites are the latter.  Law firms are so afraid of offending someone that they fail to capture the hearts of anyone. We’ve tried to be the former, to let our personality come through in our website.  We believe it is better for people to know who we are before they hire us.

Virgin Hotels makes no effort to appeal to everyone.  They appeal to those who appreciate style and wit, who like the way they thumb their nose at convention. Sir Richard Branson has created an empire by simply being true to his personality. He made no effort to be all things to all people.

I took this photo outside Virgin’s new hotel in Chicago, which opened just a couple of days ago.  Welcome to Chicago, Virgin.  Thanks for bringing your style to this great city.

Firms that name a “Director of Pricing” miss the boat

Posted in Commentary, Hourly Rates and Alternatives

Many firms have created a job for “pricing.” The reason for doing so is that firms don’t have much experience with non-hourly billing, but clients are demanding non-hourly fee arrangements.  Since the firms want to make the same or more money on such engagements, they deploy a resource to help make sure the price offered to clients on any matter is profitable.  With due respect to these firms, I think they have missed the boat.

Pricing is a tool–one of several–that should be deployed to deepen and strengthen the relationship between lawyer and client.  It is not, of itself, the end.  Designating someone to be in charge of pricing is like putting a coach in charge of the 3rd quarter, not the entire game.

I know the argument will be that the relationship partner is “the coach” and the director of pricing is a resource for the coach.  Perhaps that is why the goal of so many firms when creating a non-hourly fee is to equal or exceed what the firm would make if it billed hourly.  Some have called such fees “hourly billing in drag” or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  Whatever the characterization, the bottom line is that such fee proposals do not deliver value to clients.

If a firm is interested in delivering value to clients, perhaps the title should match the responsibility.  A few firms seem to get the issue.  But far too few for clients to breathe easy.

Upcoming Conference on Legal Procurement

Posted in Commentary, Hourly Rates and Alternatives, People, Places and Blawgs

My friend Dr. Silvia Hodges Silverstein leads the legal procurement organization, Buying Legal Council.  Silvia and her group are holding a conference in New York City on February 2, 2015, Pricing and Collaboration.  The program looks outstanding.  I wish I was able to attend.  I am sure there will be a twitter feed, and I look forward to “attending” remotely.

Why should you care?  Whether at the front of the table or not immediately visible, procurement specialists are influencing law department purchasing decisions and many if not most companies.  A chance to understand how is rare and should be taken advantage of when conferences like this occur.

Lawyers Can’t Help Themselves: Client Gouging is just a way of life

Posted in Client Service, Commentary, Hourly Rates and Alternatives

In reading my morning mail, this post caught my eye: Don’t Lose Your Shirt When Raising Fees.  So I read the post, written by the CFO of a firm named Rivkin Radler.  It contains 5 suggestions on how to raise your rates and feel good about it.  To me, it reflected all that is wrong about the way lawyers view their clients.

Let’s start with this:

Don’t let fear keep you from raising rates! Chances are, if you are making excuses to avoid a rate hike, those excuses are a cover for speculations based on fear.

WRONG!  All the data and reporting available show clients are incredibly concerned about their legal spend, are moving more work inside where the cost structure is materially lower that what is paid to firms.  Fear of how clients respond to rate increases should keep you awake at night, especially if you can’t demonstrate that you have reduced your internal cost structure with the zeal of a private equity investor.

Then there is this gem:

Keep in mind that smaller increases — 3 to 5 percent per year — are generally better, and are met with less resistance when they are implemented consistently (i.e., the same time each year).

I just did a quick Google search–the cost of living increase for 2014 was just less than 3%.  But the author suggests 3-5% as if lawyers have a right to not only COL increases, but also “more.”  Lawyers need to understand that clients see this as implicit greed.

There are other statements made in the post which I think a fundamental lack of appreciation for the changed dynamic between law firms and clients, but these points suffice to show how much I disagree with the author.  There is no business I know of that has an unfettered right to increase its price annually.  Many are required to reduce their price to reflect the benefits of increased efficiency.  When lawyers defend a system that suggests they are entitled to a greater more of their client’s wallet just because 365 days have passed (not to mention the hidden fee increase built into associate advancement), I just have to express my disagreement. It laziness, greed and imperiousness.  Valorem takes a somewhat different approach.

An open invitation

Posted in Client Service, Commentary

 

Sometime last summer, my friend Peter Carayannis of Conduit Law reached out and asked if Conduit could use our Value Adjustment Line on Conduit’s invoice. We were thrilled to say yes, much as our friends at Summit Law Group in Seattle had said yes when we made the same inquiry to them when we launched Valorem seven years ago.  As Ralph Palumbo said to me, “everyone should be doing this.”

After seven years of including a Value Adjustment Line on every invoice we have ever sent, I still marvel that so few lawyers are willing to let their clients be the judge of the value of the services provided.  I wish that wasn’t so.  Clients deserve to be the judge of value.

So, in the interest of making it easier, this is an open invitation to lawyers to copy the Value Adjustment Line and let your clients be the judge of the value you provide to them.