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In Search of Perfect Client Service

Why lawyers don't seem to get it

Some thoughts on the Top 5 Bad Excuses for Resisting Legal Project Management

Posted in Client Service, General, Leadership and Management, Trends and Innovations

Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson penned a terrific post, Top 5 Bad Excuses for Resisting Legal Project ManagementI wanted to compliment them and share some thoughts on the 5 excuses.

1. My clients don’t want or need LPM. 

I had to laugh when I read this.  Most lawyers who talk about what their clients don’t want have never asked the client directly.  They simply infer this viewpoint from the fact the client hasn’t insisted on use of LPM.  I mean, really.  Try to imagine this conversation.

Lawyer:   Would you like us to do your work efficiently, in an order that made sense, and was within agreed-upon budgets?

Client:   Absolutely not. I won’t stand for it. If you operate efficiently and bill me less, I will fire you.

To quote one of the great philosophers of our time, Forrest Gump, “stupid is as stupid does.”

2.  If we are efficient, we won’t make as much money. (And the corollary: if we are efficient, we won’t be able to meet our annual hours requirement.)

This, of course, fits in perfectly with the “my clients don’t want this” excuse.  At least people who mouth this excuse are being honest about why they are stealing from their clients.  But this is a stark illustration of the failed business model that most law firms cling to.  Try to imagine this excuse being used in any other profession or business.

3.  I’ve practiced the way I do for decades, and I’m not going to change now.

The blather illustrates why the eight worst words in the English language are “because that’s the way I’ve done it before.”  Being so closed-minded is not an attribute, it is an indictment.  I only hope these lawyers have the courage to say this in front of their clients, who would be fired if they uttered this excuse.

4.  All my matters are unique, and LPM imposes a bunch of lockstep protocols that will standardize all legal work and devalue my legal judgment.

I’ve referred to this excuse as the “we’re special” excuse.  Want a list of highly customized work reliant on project management for successful execution.  Instead of proclaiming how special you are, perhaps you should just wear this.

Stupid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.  LPM is all about monitoring and metrics, and my mamma didn’t raise me to be a math major.  Also, LPM will impose a whole new learning curve and add a ton of additional work to my already overburdened schedule.

This person is the first cousin of the person in no. 4.  It is, apparently, a shared trait that they don’t give damn about their clients need.

________________

The tragedy is not that there are people who use these excuses, providing so much fodder for Pam and Doug to write their posts. The tragedy is this thinking, expressed or not, reflects the views of a substantial majority of lawyers.

Example of bad budget methodology

Posted in Commentary

I just read something that made me say “wow, that is soooo wrong.”  Out loud.  Here is what I read (from Today’s General Counsel, Jun/Jul 2015, p. 42:

Compounding the problem is the fact that most complex cases are unique. An estimate based on past experiences may not be applicable. Furthermore, litigation is unpredictable and the party trying to budget does not have complete control. [I thought this excuse was banned in the 1990s, but the author apparently did not get the memo.]….

The most meaningful budget is one that attempts to identify every project that might be involved in a case, each member of the team that may be involved in each project, and the estimated hours for each team member.  These hours can then be multiplied by the team member’s billing rate and then added together to develop the budget.

If litigation is so unpredictable, how can it be predictable enough to identify every project that might be involved in the case? Litigation might be predictable at the periphery, but that does not make it too unpredictable to plan and budget accurately.  That’s the benefit of experience.  But peel the layers back a bit more.  How accurate is it to list a project that “might be involved”? How accurately can you estimate the number of hours involved for each supposed project? Do you even know the amount of the hourly rates over the lifespan of the matter (because a firm that would budget like this would certainly believe it is entitled to raise rates annually)?

Of course, the author’s answer to these problems is to “adjust” the budget.  Changing the budget then allows you to declare victory when your final spend is in the same ballpark as your adjusted budget.  But this kind of “budgeting” does not work well with in-house budgets.  In-house budgets rarely benefit from the elasticity the author assumes is available in his suggested process.

Pricing and budgeting today is much more nuanced and sophisticated, and clients have seen far past the unpredictability excuse that served for too long as a litigator’s mantra.

Are e-auctions the ticket to lower legal fees?

Posted in Client Service, Commentary, General

According to Bloomberg BNA, Honeywell General Counsel Katherine Adams has determined that e-auctions are the ticket to lower legal fees. For those unfamiliar with the process, an e-auction is where the the corporate counsel throws chum in the water and the pool of sharks start thrashing around trying to feed on the skimpy morsels being offered.  Actually, a post about a case is made and firms bid against each other.  According to Adams, Honeywell gets a better deal, but “it’s not grotesquely cheaper.”  It may be cheaper than it was before, but absolute cheapness is a fool’s metric–the relevant issues are value and sustainability. Frankly, I would like to see the data on how much cheaper final spend (total legal spend and total resolution cost) actually is, because there just isn’t data that proves this process is a successful one.

I have a bias on this issue, so I want to reveal it.  I think the “chum in the water” approach is counterproductive bidding is the errand of a fool or a mark of true desperation.  While some may disagree, my partners and I are not fools, and we certainly are not desperate, and so we take a pass on such “auctions.”  We prefer to build relationships that lead to a collaborative effort to solve the client’s spend problems, and we hope to work with the client’s other law firms toward that same end.

So let’s consider an alternative.  What would happen if, instead of creating an “every-man (firm) for himself” mentality, a client brought together the best and most creative minds of her legal team (inside and out) and got the team brainstorming to solve the client’s spend problem?  What would happen if, instead of focusing microscopically on a single transaction or piece of litigation, the client focused the team’s effort on the real problem the client was hoping to solve?  A macroscopic view is far more likely to yield greater value and a sustainable solution, one that does not reduce the attorney-client relationship to that of the company’s least important vendor.

Many people say that lawyers are very smart.  But along with very smart, lawyers are not trained in collaboration and teamwork, and those are two areas of historic weakness in the profession. But when a general counsel can develop a team of collaborative members, the opportunities to solve problems are so much greater and so much more permanent.

Have you hired an Innovation Intern?

Posted in Client Service, General, Leadership and Management

I just got an email from my friend John Kain in Australia.  John is the CEO/Managing Partner/Leader of the Pack (not sure of his title) of Kain C+C Lawyers in Adelaide.  John is as forward thinking as any lawyer I’ve met, trying to systematize the practice of  law whenever possible and treat law like a “real business.” I enjoy our discussions and always learn a lot from them.

Anyway, John’s email shared that his firm had created an annual internship position for a law student from Michigan State University Law School.  Here’s the announcement.  Dan Elliott of MSU has been chosen as the first intern and will spend August in Australia seeing the firm’s practice first-hand.

It will be interesting to hear how this experiment works, but kudos to John for his forward thinking.  It inspires me to think more about how to view critically what we do with an eye to doing it better.  I hope you find this idea inspiring as well.

Valorem Law Group Recognized by BTI Consulting as “Brand Elite”

Posted in Client Service, Client Surveys and Audits

I am normally reluctant to write about “us,” but I am so tickled by a recent report recognizing Valorem as a “brand elite” firm that I am breaking from this general practice.  Thank you for this indulgence.

Valorem Law Group is deeply honored to have been recognized by BTI Consulting as a Brand Elite law firm. BTI ranks law firms “with the best brand standing among [General Counsels] and legal decision makers.” Valorem was recognized by these GCs and decision makers as a Client’s Choice Recommended firm, a Client Service Strategist and as a “Leaders of the Best” for the Value Driver category.

The recognition as a “Recommended” law firm is gratifying. As BTI explained in its report:

Recommending a firm to a peer is a task corporate counsel do not take lightly. A recommendation is a personal statement about the type of provider—the quality, service and commitment-to which you are willing to entrust your company’s fate.

The firms earning recognition as a Client’s Choice Recommended firm command a highly respected place in the eyes of legal decision makers. These firms are mentioned regularly as part of clients’ casual conversations. The names of these firms are top of mind, evoking a level of comfort and attachment which clearly designates them as the preferred option for new work.

Valorem’s recognition in the Client Service Strategist category reflects the success of the firm’s commitment to provide superior service . As BTI states, it is “making changes other firms don’t to improve the client experience.” Superior service “goes far beyond being responsive and having chemistry—this is a systematic and formal approach to delivery embraced firm wide.”

Valorem is Latin for “value.” We chose the name to reflect our most profound commitment, delivering value to our clients. For this reason, our recognition by GCs and legal decision makes as a “Leader of the Best” in the Value category is so deeply appreciated. According to BTI, value is “making changes in process or the client experience to add value.” It is achieved “when a law firm delivers more than what is expected. Delivering value requires [firms] to articulate your value in terms the client deems important” and can include money saved, better outcomes than expected, faster resolutions, risks avoided and making things simpler.

The BTI surveys are the gold standard because of the duration of its research in these areas (25 years); its independence (no law firm or organization sponsors the research); the seniority of the persons surveyed (47% General Counsel, 53% direct report to GC); the number surveyed (648 in depth interviews); the size of organizations surveyed (more than $1 billion in revenue); and its unprompted questioning (for example, asking which firms a GC recommends rather than whether the GC would recommend ABC firm). Because of the rigor of BTI’s approach, its surveys and reports carry extraordinary value in the industry.

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.