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In Search of Perfect Client Service

Why lawyers don't seem to get it

Do in-house lawyers care less about second opinions than people who don’t care about second opinions?

Posted in Client Communications, Client Service, Commentary

50% of Americans do not get second opinions for important medical diagnoses.

30% of the time the second opinion causes changes in the diagnosis or treatment.

Do the math.

I don’t know the data on what percentage of in-house lawyers get second opinions about a strategy.  But I bet it’s pretty darn small.  I  have only rarely heard of it being done.

Fresh eyes are often the best eyes.  People trying to solve a problem often lock-in on a strategy and play favorites with it. Fresh eyes can provide needed perspective.

Want an example?  When a company tries a product liability case, the first of many cases to be addressed, who evaluates the trial?  People involved or from the trial firm are not going to cast a critical eye on things if that is the deserved outcome.  And why incur the cost?  Because it is critical to get better in future cases.  Trial performances should be shredded and rebuilt constantly, but they rarely are.

Sad.  A real missed opportunity.

The Greater Fool

Posted in Uncategorized

Most people spend their lives trying not to be the Greater Fool. We toss him the hot potato. We dive for his seat when the music stops. The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed.

This whole country was made by Greater Fools.

Sloan Sabbith, a character on HBO’s Newsroom series


Here’s to the Greater Fools among us.  They make us better.

Winning the daily war within

Posted in Uncategorized

complacency-meaning-definitionI have internal demons. To ease the burden of these demons, I imagine that everybody has their share.  Even if not true, believing it to be makes it easier to accept that I have demons.  But deep down, I know I must fight mine every day.

Every. Single. Day.

My number one demon is complacency. It is a trap for my ego, to believe that I am doing my best, that there is no room for improvement.

When I am candid with myself, I know I can do better than I have before. I know that I have let myself be held back, whether by laziness, fear of change, a desire to appreciate the distance I have traveled or to avoid the hard work that lies ahead.  But when I give into complacency, I stop trying to be better.

Not everyone battles complacency.  Those that do not are trying, every day, to get better.  I know that if I give into complacency, they will pass me by or increase the distance by which they lead me. I hate that.

Each day is a choice.  Do I let complacency win? Or can I be just a little bit better today than I was yesterday. Improvement is a choice. My choice.

Every assertion of client ownership weakens a firm

Posted in Commentary

“It’s my client.”  “I get the billings.” Even the magnanimous say, “I”ll share the billings.”  In court, you often hear lawyers refer to “my client.”

Each own of these assertions of ownership weakens everyone involved.

Most lawyers believe it strengthens them, especially in any intramural fighting over control and billing.  It doesn’t.  Everyone knows. Saying it is does not make it so.

It weakens the firm. Firms should be enterprises, not hotels.  Hotels are places where people put their luggage for a while. Then they leave and go to another hotel.  The assertion of ownership of a client is strong evidence the lawyer views his or her role as a hotel room occupant and not part of an enterprise team.

It weakens the client-firm relationship because it suggests the client is chattel.  It isn’t.

Law Firm Signal and Noise: More telltale signs of signal

Posted in Client Communications, Client Service, Commentary

In Part 1 of this post, I noted how law firms had become so adept at creating “noise” about various topics, focusing on client service and alternative fee arrangements.  In Part 2, I identified 5 questions a General Counsel could ask to help separate signal from noise so she or he would know who is for real and who has ramped-up their marketing efforts to sound like a firm that is for real.  In this final part, I share 5 additional questions that should help separate signal from noise (which is why I start with number 6).

6.     What is the average cost of a deposition taken by your firm?  Not the preparation, just the deposition itself.

There is a lot of ways to go to actually answer this one–the average billing to a client for a deposition, the average length of the deposition (so you could multiply by an hourly rate in your head), or the firm’s actual cost.  I think the fairest one of these, one that everyone should know, is the average of the amounts billed to a client, but knowing any of these is enough to earn a gold star. The betting line is that most outside lawyers do not know any of these.

7.     Can I see three samples of Early Case Assessments?

Don’t ask if the firm does ECAs–of course they do (wink, wink).  You will get noise in response.  If you want signal, ask for three examples.  And if you get three, how close in form do the three look?  If the forms vary more than might be explained by the difference in cases, you have an indication that different people do things differently within the firm.  That may not be disqualifying, but it is worth knowing when someone from the firm talks about “the firm” doing things a certain way.

8.     At the same time, can I see three After Action Assessments and how those were communicated to the client?

Most firms say they do A3s (noise).  Few do (signal).  Those that do A3s will happily share the results, what lessons were learned, how their client reacted and so forth–because they will have experienced the power of structured After Action Assessments.  Everyone else will flounder on this: very few firms have embraced the notion that mistakes happen and provide an opportunity for improvement. I discuss A3s in more detail here.  If A3s are not communicated to clients, or are not done with full client involvement, how is the firm helping the client learn?  Not including a client in the process is the surest sign that a firm’s statement that it “partners” with clients is just more noise.

9.     What is an area where your firm led innovation? Where it was at the front end of change?








10.     Tell me about your approach to project management, process mapping and use of checklists?  Can I see examples?

The noise is “of course we use project management. Of course there is a process. Of course there are checklists.”  Seeing is believing, so ask to see them. When you have them in hand, you have signal.

I hope these questions are helpful.  Law firms are so very good at the quality of their noise that they actually believe it. Sadly, you can either be a victim of the noise or you are forced to take steps to separate the signal from the noise.

Law Firm Signal and Noise: Telltale signs of signal

Posted in Client Service, Commentary, General

In Part 1 of this post, I noted how law firms had become so adept at creating “noise” about various topics–client service and AFAs for example, they they effectively drowned out any signal on these topics.  Much of what firms have to say about these topics is nothing but gibberish, but it accomplishes the objective of allowing a client to effectively distinguish between firms on the topic of importance.  With so many firms trying to be “all things to all people,” all firms become nothing to everyone.

So a client who wants to partner with a firm who is actually focused on client service and good at it, or a client who wants a firm that offers real alternative fees, not just hours dressed up as an AFA, has to do some work to do.  While a complete investigation could be time consuming, here are ten questions clients should ask that will provide revealing insights:

1.  Are your associates eligible for bonuses based on the number of hours they bill? 

If the answer is yes, you know for sure that the firm has not moved away from the hours based environment that makes it successful only if you spend more on them. You know you can count on annual rate increase letters that always come after your budgets are established.  You know that the associate doing your work today will soon bill much more simply because another class has entered the firm below them.  How do these things help you?

2.  Is your satisfaction with performance and service a factor in compensation?

If the answer is anything other than an unqualified “yes, and here is how we determine it and how much it impacts the associate/partner,” you know that everyone in the firm knows your satisfaction does not influence how much people are paid.  If you believe you get what you pay for, no one is being paid for your satisfaction.

3.  Does the firm provide alternative fee quotes on every matter or only on request?

There is a huge difference between doing something you want to do and doing it because you have to.

4.   What percentage of a firm’s revenue comes from alternative fees? What is the firm’s definition of an alternative fee?

A firm committed to AFAs knows exactly what percentage of revenue comes from AFAs and what the firm’s definition of an AFA .  If the firm does not categorically and unequivocally excluded blended hourly rates, discounted hourly rates and capped hourly rates from its definition of an AFA, you know they are playing games to make their AFA revenue number and percentage look higher.  Anything with “hourly” in the description of the rate structure is, well, hourly.

5.   What changes has the firm made in how it handles cases in the last 5 years?

A firm that has not consciously changed the way it staffs cases, handles discovery, investigates cases, disaggregates work and utilizes project management tools has made no effort to streamline the bloated approach to litigation that dominated the landscape for so many  years.  Firms should be able to be very precise about this and should indeed show you specific tools, like checklists and process maps.

In the third installment, I’ll go through questions 6-10.


Law Firm Signal and Noise: The Art of Saying Nothing

Posted in Client Service, Commentary, General

I was reading this interesting Fast Company article about what the 2016 Presidential candidates talk about when speaking of income inequality.  This statement was interesting:

Does all of this talk about inequality render the term meaningless? Especially at a time when wealthy donors have unprecedented sway on elections, the idea that government must work to reduce inequality risks becoming just another general economic platitude that no one is against. Kind of like being in favor of “jobs” and “growth.” When this happens, candidates of both parties link generic terms to whatever economic and social policies that they would have proposed anyway, based on where their parties traditionally stand, says Rigby.

Is there any candidate not in favor of “growth”? Of course not.  Any candidate not in favor of jobs?  Again, no.  The discussion of such general concepts is an elixir, designed to dull the senses that otherwise might focus on policy details to see whether the policies espoused by a candidate are consistent with her or his platitudes.

How different is the business of law?  Not one damn bit different.

Ask any law firm about client service, and they are all for it.  After all, it says so right on their web page and, hey, if it is on the web, it must be true.  What about Alternative Fee Arrangements?  Firms that had not heard of them in 2008 have now been doing them for decades.  Again, it says so right there on the firm’s website.

There is a concept at play both in politics and law firm marketing called the signal to noise ratio. Wikipedia describes it as:

Signal-to-noise ratio (abbreviated SNR) is a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power, often expressed in decibels. A ratio higher than 1:1 (greater than 0 dB) indicates more signal than noise. While SNR is commonly quoted for electrical signals, it can be applied to any form of signal (such as isotope levels in an ice core or biochemical signaling between cells).

Signal-to-noise ratio is sometimes used informally to refer to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data in a conversation or exchange. For example, in online discussion forums and other online communities, off-topic posts and spam are regarded as “noise” that interferes with the “signal” of appropriate discussion.

In other words, if someone is sending out an attractive message (a signal), the best response is to make a lot of noise to drown out the signal.  We see this a lot in politics. One candidate says “immigration” and soon everyone is talking about how long they have opposed illegal immigration. One candidate says “jobs” and soon all are talking jobs.  It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on, your party’s candidates are doing whatever they can to look like everybody else or show they are going farther on the issue than the other candidates (in the primary).  Thoughtful discussion in politics has become a quaint historical relic because the goal is to create enough noise to drown out the other candidate’s signal.

This same strategy is prevalent in the business of law.  Almost every law firm website says somewhere that the firm is “committed to client service” or “provides exceptional client service” or something akin. In listing the things that makes it special, one firm says (and this is really going out on a limb) that “you and your employees will be treated courteously and with respect.”  Wow.  Bold.

Another firm touts that it “keeps its clients informed” about the client’s matters.  Still another says that for 137 years it has “put clients first.”  Law firm websites are full of adjectives describing client service:  unmatched, superior, dedicated, improved and exemplary are just a few examples.

What does all this mean?  Sadly, not a damn thing. Its gibberish.  It is noise, intended only to drown out the signal.

This marketing approach is nothing if not successful.  Can you identify with specifics the differences between two candidates’ positions on any issue when the candidates are from the same party?  Can you identify any feature about law firms that distinguishes one from another?

Next, in Part 2 of Law Firm Signal and Noise I will share some specifics on how to separate noise from signal.

Why ValoremNext?

Posted in Commentary, General

valoremnext - with swoosh in xA lot of people have asked why we chose this name for our prevention platform. I wanted to answer those many inquiries.

My new partner Jeff Carr, the iconic former General Counsel of FMC Technologies, sometime ago defined the four stages in the evolution of law. The first stage is what Jeff refers to has Old Law. I think PaleoLaw better describes those in this stage. But the OldLaw/PaleoLaw stage describes firms and lawyers who bill by the hour, raise rates annually and see their clients as a giant wallet. My kids and firms in this stage have a lot in common. One of the major drivers of daily life is to get more money from the relevant wallet.

Everything about firms and lawyers in the PaleoLaw stage revolves around billing for time. Firms buy software to help lawyers capture more time. Associates and income partners receive bonuses entirely dependent on how many hours they bill. Partners are compensated on revenue (more hours equals more revenue). And so on. The entire system is so built on the premise of hourly billing and “more, more, more” that many lawyers can’t even see that hours are the basis of everything they do, let alone acknowledge the truth of the premise.

The second stage is “NewLaw.” Lawyers and firms in this stage are trying to lower costs by trying to reduce the cost of hours. Hourly rates are lower. Firms might be based in Indianapolis or some other low cost metropolis, but have an office in New York that serves as a portal to send work back to HQ in the lower cost locale. Overall costs to the client might be lowered, but the focus of the firms remains on hours and “more, more, more.”

The third stage, according to Jeff, is EngagedLaw. Firms and lawyers in this stage are focused on value, cost of production, operating and profit margins, and lowering the clients’ costs of legal service permanently and structurally. EngagedLaw is a major step forward, where EngagedLaw entities act like real businesses. But the focus remains on solving problems.

The problem with these the second and third models is that savings, while potentially meaningful, have limits. More problems cost the client more money, no matter how efficiently they are solved. As corporations grow, become more global, or both, the range of problems increases, often without a corresponding increase in resources to address those problems. In-house lawyers, a great talent pool, spend their time as clerks rather than true partners with the company’s business units, adding value by preventing fires.

Because in-house lawyers can add such great value if they prevent problems, Jeff counted the term NextLaw to describe the next stage of evolution for law departments. They must identify how to prevent problems so can focusing on helping the business grow. The problem is lack of knowledge about how to move from current state to future state, lack of knowledge about the right tools and processes to employ or lack of resources to effectuate the transition: the current fires still need to be fought.

That is the space in which we seek to establish a presence. So it only made sense to combine the NextLaw moniker with Valorem. Valorem. NextLaw. ValoremNext.

The 4 stages of change.

Posted in Commentary, Hourly Rates and Alternatives

Richard Susskind wonderfully described the 4 stages of change:

Stage 1:  “What you’re saying is worthless nonsense.”

Stage 2:  “What you’re saying is an interesting but perverted point of view.”

Stage 3:  “What you’re saying is true but quite unimportant.”

Stage 4:  “I have always said so.”

There is truth in what Richard says, and if you think about it from the laggard’s perspective, he’s right.  But I received the latest issue of American Lawyer in the mail yesterday and it caused me to think about how Valorem has experienced these 4 stages.

Stage 1: It’s 2008. Valorem announces it will use alternative fee arrangements to bill its clients.

The reaction went just a bit beyond Susskind’s stage 1.











Stage 2: We get your point but no one cares.

No one cares










Stage 3: But that’s not how WE do it, so it is irrelevant.











Stage 4: Playing Catch Up

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With AmLaw now saying clients want non-hourly fee arrangements, you can bet on two things:

1)   Every firm will be saying they have been doing AFAs in a big way for decades.

2)   These same firms are scrambling to figure out how the heck they can do anything without reference to 6 minute increments.

Yes, we were crazy way back then. We still are.