Pedantic is defined as “narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned a pedantic insistence that we follow the rules exactly” and “unimaginative, dull.” You’ll see in a minute why I began with this definition.
I read an interesting article in today’s Chicago Tribune on the signs of greatness in companies. One of the key signs is that “no one is pedantic.”
For 26 years, [the author has] been involved in multiple organizations and volunteered at many different entities both small and large, and the one thing that seems to kill all progress and creativity is a heaping dose of pedantry. When everyone acts like know everything, when they are slavishly devoted to rules and when they are fussy, finicky, strict and overly fastidious, then nothing good will happen.
When the company is filled with open-minded people who want to learn new things, it becomes a great place.
So, what kind of firm or department do you work in? And even more specifically, what are the new things you’ve learned in the last month? Year?
This trait fits tightly with the need for a culture of continuous improvement. If you are not improving, you are falling behind. One easy example–good client service just a few years ago is nothing special today. You should be able to map your changes and demonstrate why the changes are an improvement. Can you?
If you spend any time reading law firm websites, you soon come to one conclusion: all of them were written by the same person. We know this because all law firms say the same things–best schools, best lawyers, client-focused, great client serviced, alternative fees, focused, collaborative, efficient, blah, blah, blah. Some websites use more words to say the same thing, some use less. But all use lots of adjectives to modify conclusory statements. This isn’t marketing. It is the manifestation of fear–fear that if you say anything real, it will turn someone off. So, to offend no one, firms create websites that appeal to no one.
We live a world where noise drowns out signal, something I’ve written about previously. (Here, here and here.) If you don’t stand out, consider yourself one of the crowd watching the championship game–no one watching on TV will ever see you. If you want to stand out, you need to differentiate yourself.
In his post on Gorilla Marketing, Seth Godin describes it this way:
Today, because noise is everywhere, we’re all surrounded by a screaming horde, an open-outcry marketplace of ideas where the race to be heard appears to be the only race that matters. And so subtlety flies out the window, along with a desire to engage for the long haul. Just a troop of gorillas, all arguing over the last remaining banana.
Differntiation is an easy concept to understand, but it is very hard to actually do. Perhaps instead of adjectives and conclusory statement, a better approach might be to explain what you really stand for, and then to offer enough examples to prove it.
If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. If you stand for something, believe in it enough to say so.
Truth be told, nothing. Well, at least nothing of consequence. Oh sure, there is the occasional in-house program on client service and websites are edited to talk about the firm’s commitment to client service. But if you asked 10 lawyers in any given firm what changes the firm has made that are intended to improve client service, the odds of getting the same answer from even 7 of the 10 are pretty remote.
Client service is not about what you say. It is about what you do. What is your firm doing to improve client service? In these days of declining realization and client mobility, you need a compelling answer to this simple question.
Really? I just received an invitation to a seminar that stresses that the average attorney bills 6 minutes per day less than they did two years ago. Six minutes a day! According to this invitation, that costs firms more than “$12,000 in lost billings per lawyer per year. If you have 200 associates, that’s $2.4 million.
It appears the legal profession’s addiction to the billable hour has so consumed it that now must have seminars and how to recover 6 minutes a day. I can’t imagine any better use of time.
If clients ever wonder whether their firms are actually becoming as efficient as they claim, the firms’ concern with six minutes a day provides the answer.
When I have the opportunity to speak, I ask participants and co-presenters about their experiences with alternative fees. Better than half the time, I am told “my clients don’t want alternative fees.” I always ask whether the firm has developed different work methods or whether the work methods are the same for both hourly and AFA work. Always–100% of the time–the answer is that the work methods are the same.
The firms just don’t get it. AFAs are not simply a different form of billing. They are the billing format for a different way of working. Without changing the way you work, you are simply putting a different suit of clothes on hourly billing.
Clients should always ask, and firms must be ready to answer, how the firm’s workflows are different for their AFA and hourly work. And it is not as simple as saying you staff with fewer people or do less work. Sometimes, if the fee is structured as a success fee, you use a far more senior staff than you otherwise would. The fee structure should be designed to drive behaviors and outputs, so consideration must be given to objectives to formulate a proper answer.
The moral of the story is this: firms that offer their clients a choice of hourly billing or the same work and fee amount under a different name, are not offering their clients a useful choice. The clients know this. AFAs are not for the weak of heart, and they require significant thought to make them work well.
So clients don’t want AFAs? When done right, they most certainly do.
Back in January, I copied a portion of an article that provided a list of questions lawyers should ask themselves. It was an interesting list of questions, but I was struck by how the wording of the questions could cause lawyers to avoid taking a sufficiently critical look at themselves. I have been unable to locate the original article, so I begin with apologies to the author of what was a very helpful article. I wanted to take a couple of the questions and rephrase them to help guide lawyers to a more critical introspective look.
From the article: “Is your business model focused on the client?
My comment and rewrite:
This question invites “of course” as the answer. Perhaps if the question was this: In what specific ways is your business model client-focused? And this as the follow up: What are the 3 most significant ways in which your business model is not client-focused?
From the article: “Are you entrepreneurial enough to encourage innovative experimentation?”
My comment and rewrite:
This question likewise invites the “of course” kind of answer. Perhaps wording the question to ask the lawyer to identify their five most innovative experiments and what define what happened based on the outcome of the experiments, followed by “what more is needed?” will elicit more actionable information.
There were other examples, but the point is the way you frame the questions determines the quality of the answer.
You have? Fantastic. Let us know about it and you may be recognized with an InnovAction Award.
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InnovaAction Awards are for big thinkers who execute. Submit your entry.
It is now public information that our colleague Jeff Carr has been named Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Univar, Inc. Univar is the “leading chemical distributor in the United States, providing more chemical products and related services than any other company in the marketplace.” We view Jeff’s departure from ValoremNext with mixed emotions. Univar is a great opportunity for Jeff to continue his efforts to reshape law departments to be business-like and business-focused, eliminating boundaries between the law department and the business. We believe in these efforts—ValoremNext is a manifestation of them, a tool to help law departments pursue these goals. We hope to have some role in Jeff’s efforts, but, if not, we will be watching his “mad scientist” efforts with equal measures of pride and interest, and sadness that he is no longer our colleague.
We learned a great deal from Jeff, first as a service-provider to him while he was General Counsel of FMC Technologies, and then as his colleague. The rigor of his approach, his view that the law department (and law firms too) need to run like a business, including clarity of “principles, rules and tools.” We learned about “Stretch, Step, Leap,” a way to view change, and “Plan, Perform, Perfect,” an approach that is essential to an organization that seeks continuous improvement. We learned the incredible value of prevention and his secrets to building a prevention culture. And I learned more about what law departments think and why than I had learned in the prior 30+ years of work.
Jeff was my friend before he became my colleague, and this opportunity does not change our friendship. If anything, the proximity of Downers Grove, where Univar is headquartered, to my suburb may allow us to enjoy more time together so we can, with appropriate lubrication, work on solving the problems that plague not only the profession, but world at large. I won’t miss Jeff’s continual push to be more than I am, to be better at what I do and to see the joy in the life we are privileged to lead. I won’t miss those things because, when you are friends, those things never change.
Here’s hoping Jeff’s path brings him back again.
For those interested, here is a link to Univar’s announcement.
I have long hated boilerplate objections, which frequently are made to “kick the can” down the road. That is, if you object to a request are “unduly burdensome” or “overbroad,” you can avoid answering for now and have more time to figure out what the answer is. Or maybe your opponent will forget about the request and you will never have to answer. The flip side is use of boilerplate requests and interrogatories. I remember litigating a lease dispute case in California and wondering why I had to answer form interrogatories about an occurrence that never took place. With that a background, I enjoyed reading Steven Gensler’s new post, Is It The End Of Boilerplate In Discovery? I commend it to you.
Sorry, but I just found out that Valorem is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Alternative Fee Arrangements. So I have to take a minute to celebrate this “achievement.”
Various firms and corporations are credited with leading the way in AFAs. Leading the charge are corporate clients such as Du Pont, Cisco, and FMC [Technologies]. Corporate clients are looking for a combination of cost savings, cost certainty, and alignment of law-firm interests with corporate interests in avoiding an excess of hours worked—and billed. Law firms such as K&L Gates and Valorem are taking the lead in proposing AFAs.
I feel like my life is now complete. Well, wait, does Guinness have an AFA category in its Book of World Records?