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In Search of Perfect Client Service

Why lawyers don't seem to get it

Patrick Lamb named a 2018 JD Supra Readers’ Choice Award winner

Posted in Commentary, People, Places and Blawgs




On March 19th, JD Supra announced its 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards, which recognized 240 authors from among 50,000 who published on JD Supra’s platform this past year.  I am deeply honored to have been named a Readers’ Choice winner in the Marketing and Business Development category.

As described by JD Supra, the methodology for selection is:

As the name of suggests, the Readers’ Choice Awards reflect a deep dive into our 2017 reader data, in which we studied total visibility and engagement among readers across many industries interested in certain defining topics of the day.

JD Supra editors chose the 26 main topics covered in this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards for their timeliness as well as their proven, ongoing importance.

In each category, we recognize ten authors and one firm for consistently highest readership and engagement within that category for all of 2017. We also recognized a single, top author for each of eight topics that either emerged or dramatically grew in interest during 2017. In total, across all 34 categories, we recognized the excellence and achievement of 242 authors selected from nearly 50,000 who publish their excellent work on our platform.

My thanks to all who read my posts during the past year.  I hope to continue to be worthy of your time and interest.

The Law Firm of the Future

Posted in Commentary, General

Several news items, reports and articles in recent weeks have provided insights that should make traditional law firms nervous.  Here’s what caught my eye:

So what does all of this mean?

Actually, it may mean different things for different firms and differenty types of firms.   But there is one overarching point to consider, best articulated by the sage Ken Grady:

The changes ongoing in the legal industry…are established and point to the steady economic decline of the industry unchecked by a few bright points here and there. This is an industry that peaked and will not return to any semblance of former financial glory.

The pie is not getting bigger.

What is unstated in all of the above is that the use of averages to look at the industry disguises the true problems many, perhaps most, firms face. The 2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market references the old cliché “that one can drown in a lake having an average depth of only six inches,” and then noting that “relying on average performance data to bolster our sense of well being in the legal market is perilous.” Consider this data from Bruce MacEwen:

First and foremost is that a bell curve’s “average” is a highly descriptive number; it defines the central tendency of the universe under inspection. For power curves, no such thing holds true; averages aren’t just misleading, they can approach falsehood. Consider a few characteristics of this year’s Am Law 100: (a) 10 percent of the group’s total revenue is accounted for by the top three firms; and another 10 percent by the smallest two dozen; (b) 25 percent comes from the top nine firms and 25 percent from the bottom 50; and (c) the top three’s combined revenue was over $8 billion and the bottom 20’s under USD$7.5 billion. In short, big firms really matter. Their performance can easily move gross measurements for the entire group.

Think about it from this perspective.  As noted above, Amlaw 100 realization rates are now at 80%.  I doubt that firms like Wachtell and Cravath have any realization issues, so where do some firms have to be to lower the average to 80%.  I suspect the distribution of the realization rates would be shocking. The existence of many poor performing firms in the Amlaw 200 is a given and certainly contributes to the merger heat mentioned by Tom Clay, noted above.

One last point for context.  Lawyers tend to see the world in a binary way, best exemplified by the “lawyer, non-lawyer” dichotomy.  Businesses don’t see themselves and non-lawyer enterprises, and people outside the legal industry never describe themselves as “non-lawyers.”  Lawyers see right vs. wrong, black vs. white, while most business people see the world as variations of gray.

Because the business world is more than ever driving change in law departments, and law departments are starting to drive change in the delivery of legal services (rememeber, not just by law firms), it is useful to understand that the distinctions that have historically governed our profession—inside counsel v. outside counsel, law firm v. law department, law department v. rest of the business, are quickly eroding.  Rather, service providers are best seen as those who solve business problems and those who don’t.  Put another way, when McKinsey or Accenture analyzes a problem for a company, do they limit themselves to a single department if solutions require them to go elsewhere?

All of this should have meaning for law firms.  Law firms need to first accept the inherent applicability of this truth, first uttered by legendary economist Herbert Stein.

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

If you doubt the truth of this wisdom, ask the thousands of businesses displaced or materially changed by, say, Amazon or Walmart.  Have you seen a paper map lately?  And are you interested in investing in your hometown newspaper?  Get over it—most law firms likely will not be able to continue in their present form.

The takeaways from the above, as I see them, are:

  1. Being “a law firm” is becoming more and more of hindrance, since it limits the areas where you can serve as a problem-solver.
  2. An effective business model will require the ability to do work that Legal Services Providers now provide, and to do so in a business-like manner rather than a law firm manner. Simple disaggregation is unlikely to be a workable option.
  3. An effective business model will require the ability to do “non-legal” work, that is, to solve problems that might end up in the corporation’s law department, but which originate elsewhere.
  4. An effective business model will require the ability to solve business problems, even if the problems only tangentially involve legal issues. Clients want problems solved—who does so is not their greatest interest.
  5. The combination of 2, 3 and 4 makes the “law firm” model, a business only owned by lawyers that operates on calendar year, cash-basis accounting. Firms must figure out work-arounds to the non-lawyer ownership issue.  It’s easy—those interested in on workable way of accomplishing this should read Mark Cohen’s post, The Clearspire Story.

The hardest part of this evolutionary stage is not figuring out a workable structure.  It is figuring out a workable culture. Even law firms that have centralized management do not operate the way normal businesses operate: too much power resides in rainmaker partners. The absence of equity interest makes everyone the equivalent of a free-agent athlete, free to sign with whatever team offers the best contract.  Firms have little incentive to invest in R and D, so they don’t.  Sales and marketing tends to focus on lawyer pedigree instead of solutions to problems or other outcomes.

While firms like McKinsey have a “McKinsey Way” that everyone down to the weekend janitor can recite, very few law firms have similar brand value.  Law firm brand value among all but the most elite firms is instead driven by which adminstration some of your partners served in.  Getting people used to being at the top of their personal silo to instead be a piece of an enterprise is a challenge no law firm I know has accomplished effectively.

These hurdles are ones that, in my opinion at least, few firms will be able to effectively overcome.  The result is that firms that are not law firms will find lawyers to operate as their independent front door, satisfying the lawyer-owned firm for legal work, but bringing work in through that door and others that is done by skilled employees, some of whom may be lawyers and many of whom will not.  Problems will be solved by a collaborative effort involving many skill sets.

That is the law firm of the future, as I see it.

The underlying connection in my most-read posts of 2017

Posted in Commentary, General

Courtesy of JD Supra, I get data every month on how many times my posts are read.  I thought it might be an interesting exercise to identify the 5 most-read posts of 2017 and see if there is any common thread.  It turns out there is.   Here are the most-read posts:


  1. HAL 9000, washing machines and AI in Law. Addressing a tweet that says “I hate the term ‘AI’. It makes people thing we’re building a single monolithic HAL 9000. We’re not.  We’re making washing machines.”  But buyers need more that a series of gadgets—washing machines, blenders, coffee-makers, TVs and so on.  Legal buyers need things that integrate seamlessly into the stuff they already have or with other stuff being made that will address their other needs.  A series of unrelated, unintegrated gadgets won’t solve the big problem.
  2. Getting to where you want to be—it’s like going on vacation. Change is a process and a journey that needs to be planned and navigated.
  3. Renter v. Investor? Buyer v. Builder? This post is really a challenge to in-house counsel. Is your relationship with your outside counsel a transactional one, a series of one-off engagements where you are looking for the best price?  Or are you building something, investing in the future in a way that will provide the long-term return you need for continued success?
  4. Is Time Really The New Black? Hardly.  This post is a response to the article Time Is The New Black.  I couldn’t resist. The article was a series of arguments about why the billable hour was a good thing. The arguments raised in the article were not winning ones, at least in my view.
  5. Justifying shadow billing as promoting diversity? Much better ways exist. Casey Flaherty and Vince Cordo wrote an article that said, in part, that Shell uses shadow bills (hours tracking) as a way to determine the level of diversity Shell’s firms were achieving.  I thought this was a great idea (tracking diversity efforts) that was poorly executed and provided options that were, in my view, would provide more useful data on diversity efforts.


What do these posts have in common?  Each, in one way or another, deals with change in the legal industry and the discomfort people experience or difficulties they encounter as they navigate the tectonic changes now occurring.  It is a bright spot that more people in the industry now seem to care about the changes that are occurring and are thinking about the solutions.

Valorem honored to be named to BTI Client Service A Team for 6th Straight Year. Why it matters to us.

Posted in Client Service, Commentary

For the 6th straight year, Valorem was named the BTI Consulting’s Client Service A Team.  We were recognized in these areas:

  • Understands Client’s Business
  • Advising on Business Issues
  • Client Focus
  • Commitment to Help
  • Provides Value for the Dollar
  • Innovative Approach
  • Handles Problems
  • Meets Core Scope

We are deeply honored to have been selected to this honor for the sixth time.  Being recognized by BTI is especially gratifying because firms have no ability to influence their selection. BTI asks clients to identify firms and why the client names them. There is no leading question, no pay to play.  The recognition is based on client input and nothing else.  Needless to say, we are extremely grateful to our clients for recognizing us for what we do.

In just a month, Valorem will celebrate its 10th anniversary.  When we were designing the firm, we ignored the way lawyers had done things for basically ever and instead look at the service that lawyers needed to provide from the vantage point of a client.  If something in the design process could not be linked to client service and client delight, we did not do it.  We are best known for use of AFAs (well, they used to be alternatives, now, not so much), but we focused on other things.  We did not want to carry an army of young associates to do document review.  So we designed our firm to work well with document review professionals and disaggregated the work.  We focused on project management and process improvement to become more efficient (meaning, creating outputs using less time, not the way other law firms measure efficiency).  We invested in technology, not big offices.  We rewarded people for our successes instead of high base salaries. We created an advisory board made of up of clients and leading thinkers in the profession and asked them to help us continuously improve.  We designed a model that rewarded experience instead of law school graduation date.

And, yes, we tackled the 800 lb gorilla that stultifies more firm efforts to provide great client service and stands as an insurmountable barrier to real innovation—partner compensation.  For us, the best way to have all partners look past their own interests and focus on our clients’ interests was to eliminate the “own interest” barrier.  So our compensation model was not based on business generation or any other individual statistic. We decided that, absent unusual circumstances, each partner would earn the same amount.  The only way to earn more was for all us to earn more, and we would only all earn more if our clients were thrilled and paid our discretionary bonuses.  Or we earned bonuses because of great results.  You want to see what great collaboration looks like? Make sure people have a meaningful incentive to succeed.

So as we look back, we can be proud that we did a lot of things right, and that our clients have been so supportive of our efforts.  But as we spend a moment appreciating what we have done, we are more mindful than ever that the pace of change is accelerating to an unimaginable pace.  And while change is a four letter word for most lawyers, we love living change in the fast lane and look forward to an even more eventful next decade.

Renter v. Investor? Buyer v. Builder?

Posted in Client Service, Commentary

I have been a renter. I have been an investor in homes. I have been a buyer of homes and I have worked with a builder to design and build a home.  Each experience has its pros and cons.  The critical thing to making each role a successful one is to decide in advance what role you want to play.  The same lesson holds true for operating a business and for operating a law department.

Renting and buying are transactional experiences. They are two forms of acquiring a residence.  Investing is the act of using your resources to secure a return, generally both short and long-term.  Being a builder is using your resources to create something new, something that has your fingerprints on it, your DNA in the design.

Few law firms are anything but sellers and landlords.  They rent out their space to lawyers who rent themselves to clients for the duration of a matter.  It is a transactional experience for the law firm, and, in these cases, for the law department client as well.  Some clients make investments in their lawyers, knowing it is better to have a longer term relationship that will create returns for the law department over the duration of the relationship.  But a relationship with a builder is different.  It introduces the element of design and creation, going through an iterative design process to find out what is essential, what satisfies and what delights, and how those things can be accomplished within a budget.

These experiences caused me to wonder why most law departments and law firms fall into the renter/landlord or buyer/seller relationship, and not the investor, designer and builder type of relationships with their outside counsel. So many issues that cause discomfort between law departments and law firms would simply vanish if both sides came at the relationship with a different perspective.

Justifying shadow billing as promoting diversity? Much better ways exist.

Posted in Commentary, General, Leadership and Management

Earlier this year, Vincent Cordo, the Global Sourcing Officer for Shell, and Casey Flaherty, a consultant to law departments, wrote an article for the ACC Docket, Shell Legal—Shadow Billing. Let me begin by disclosing that I have enormous respect for the work Vincent Cordo has done at Shell and that Casey is a friend whose work I also respect greatly.  However, respect and friendship do not translate into complete agreement on all issues, and this article presents an area where I disagree. I know Casey won’t be surprised.

The authors identify the value Shell places on diversity and the role of shadow billing in promoting diversity:

Shell is committed to diversity — internally and throughout its supply chain. One of the many ways in which Shell Legal pursues this company objective is to track and report on how much of the business sent to outside counsel is distributed to women and minority owned firms, as well as how much of the actual work is allocated to diverse attorneys and allied professionals. Shell measures not only the general diversity of its law firms, but also the actual diversity of timekeepers assigned to Shell work down to the percentage of total billing for which they are responsible. Measurement is central to management.

Although we will later write a full article on Shell Legal’s diversity efforts, this article focuses on a form of cost accounting that is sometimes referred to as “shadow billing.” There is a common belief that companies like Shell that have moved to appropriate fee arrangements (AFAs) should no longer concern themselves with billing data. The diversity imperative belies that belief. Indeed, there are many reasons why Shell will continue to be interested in as much data as is available.

Diversity as a chosen value is laudable, but I believe there are superior ways to measure diversity if one really wants to promote the development of diverse lawyers.  Hours measure the quantity of time spent on a matter, but not on the importance (value) of one’s contribution to the matter.  If you want diverse lawyers to be involved, why not activities performed by diverse lawyers, such as:

  • The number of depositions taken, both alone and as a percentage of all depositions on a matter
  • The relative importance of the depositions taken
  • The number of depositions of client personnel defended
  • The number of expert depositions taken and defended
  • The number of court appearances
  • The number of court appearances where the diverse lawyer was the primary speaker
  • The number of motions argued
  • The number of client meetings led
  • The number of trials first or second chaired
  • The number of witnesses taken at trial

And so on.  It isn’t hard to identify easily measured activities that are far more indicative of the actual role diverse lawyers play on a given matter or for a given client.  Measure things that are actually substantive.

If a client wants to truly promote diversity, there are other actions that will have far greater effect.  These things will help diverse lawyers develop as important players in their firms, which will have ramifications for diversity beyond just one client:

  • Require, as other corporations have done, that the relationship partner be diverse. If not immediately, then within one to two years
  • Require that the lead lawyer on important matters be diverse. And if the firm cannot accommodate that requirement, find a firm that can. The first firm knows how to hire people laterally.  Make it important for it to do so.

And if a client wants to promote diversity generally within the bar and not just at a few firms, why not require firms to report on things such as:

  • Number of public speeches given by diverse lawyers, or things like publicly available webinars
  • Number of committees or bar groups diverse lawyers are both active in and have obtained a leadership position
  • Number of committees or groups diverse lawyers are active in that are involved in selection of judges or judicial review.

External activities such as these involve diverse lawyers in the broader legal community and enhance their stature before the bench and the bar.

Recent data has shown that firms have done a miserable job developing and promoting diverse lawyers.  If it was a handful of firms, such a failure could be chalked up to happenstance or something specific to a firm.  But the failure is too broad and too consistent to be anything other than systemic.  And while I am heartened when clients say they are committed to diversity, few have really taken the steps available to them that make a real difference. Relying on hours instead of seeking more important data is missing a valuable opportunity.

Getting to where you want to be–it’s like going on vacation

Posted in Commentary, General

If you want to take a vacation, there are a few basic steps.

  1.  Figure out where you are.  Travel requires a starting point.
  2. Figure out where you want to go.  Tropical paradise? Check. Ski chalet? Check. Great wall of China? Check.
  3. Figure out how to get from 1 to 2.  Plane? Check. Train? Check. Automobile? Check.
  4. With figuring complete, move.  Move to computer to book travel. Move to airport.  And so on.

It’s not a complicated process.

Figuring out how to deal with the massive changes in the legal landscape and the even greater changes that are plainly now coming is not any different, though some might be harder.

  1.  Figure out where you are.  What is your firm, really?  Are you innovative? Change-resistant? Cutting edge? Wedded to quill pens?  It is hard to conduct a candid and honest self-assessment. But it is essential.  And if you delude yourself, you’ll find yourself going to O’Hare for your flight when your train leaves from Union Station.
  2. Figure out where you want to go.  What type of business will be successful in 5 years?  Don’t look farther ahead. Ten years ago, most of us didn’t have smart phones.  Now, does anyone other than my 89 year-old mother not have one?  Five years is the right time frame.  Will artificial intelligence help LPOs or start-ups capture work you are now doing?  Very probably. If so, your leverage model might not be a good thing.  Indeed, your whole business model might be a liability.  I think you get the point–figuring on where to position your business is a difficult process.  But if you don’t engage in it, start getting used to the odor of the trash heap.
  3. Figure out how to get from 1-2.  Very. Detailed. Step. By. Step. Plans.  Timelines. Burden yourself with realism.  War-game the process.  This, too, is a very difficult step. People tend to turn into Pollyanna for this stage. Don’t, unless you really want to go to O’Hare instead of the true departure station.
  4. With the figuring complete, move.  To share a quote on my partner’s wall, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Saving your firm for the future is not like taking a vacation, except when it is.  But remember the role a travel agent can play in making your vacation successful. The odds are, you will need help going through this process.  Ask for it.

Is Time Really The New Black? Hardly.

Posted in Client Service, Commentary, Hourly Rates and Alternatives

I just finished reading Mary Juetten’s post in Above the Law, Time Is The New Black. I was struck by this statement:

“Also, all should reject the value billing theory that recording time is unnecessary.”

Since there are few statements with which I would disagree more, I decided to parse the article and respond to the arguments the author makes in favor of the necessity of timekeeping.

Argument No. 1: “Considering the Big 4 accounting firms track time, BigLaw should pay attention.”

Apparently, we are left to simply accept the notion that the Big 4 do everything precisely the right way.  I am not ready to make the blind leap. The leverage model is a dying one.  Most of what young lawyers and accountants do day-to-day will be automated in the near future. Indeed, a lot of it already has been. If a machine can do weeks and months of tasks in a milsecond, how is that hourly model working for you then?  Beyond that, real businesses don’t sell time—they sell outputs. Law firms provide outputs and that is what clients want to pay for.  Deal with it.

Argument No. 2: “Timekeeping is the key to understanding your costs and pricing because human effort is still the law’s largest expense.”

Again, the growing significance makes this statement less than accurate and less true with each passing day.  If a law firm invests in technology for the betterment of its clients, it should be able to charge for the value that software provides, not the time it takes for the computer to do a task. The author makes a nifty argument that “Ford knows precisely how much it costs to build my F150 for both materials and labor.”  What she ignores is that Ford knows that information before it begins to manufacture the vehicle and if there is a breakdown and the time to complete a vehicle is longer, the price does not increase.  Third, there is a discrepancy between using time as an element of “cost” when the resource devoting the time is not paid based on time.  A lawyer who works 7 hours to complete a task is rarely paid more than a similar lawyer who takes 6 hours. When that is true, what difference the difference in time make? And what about lawyer who can reuse work? If time plays a role in price, you end up overcharging purchasers of the work-product.

Argument No. 3:  “Recording the non-billable or non-client hours can also help evaluate the efficiency of the department or practice administration.”

The time from task assignment to task competition may be a slight indicator of efficiency, but the number of tasks completed over a period of time is a much more important piece of information, as is the number of tasks completed in a given time period to meet required quality standard. Time devoid of quality assessment is just not important.

Argument No. 4: “[T]he hour information will help you identify where attorneys and paralegals might be struggling or have gaps in their training.”

This necessarily implies you have an existing baseline you can use tocompare the hourly total. If you have the baseline, you certainly don’t need to hours for pricing.  And do you really think looking at time data is the best way to evaluate productivity?  Businesses around the world regularly evaluate productivity of their professional works and they manage to do so without requiring those professionals to keep time.  And they have been doing so for decades.

Beyond these arguments, the author wholly ignores the costs incurred by firms in recording and tracking time.  Timekeeping also allows firms to default to time as a basis for evaluating and rewarding their lawyers.  Not a good thing.  But most importantly, all of this focuses on cost of production and not on the clients’ interests in buying.  If Ford’s market showed that people did not want to buy F150s and instead wanted a low-priced vehicle, making the cost accounting for the F150 isn’t really worth much. The focus needs to be on the buyer, not the producer.

Lawyers always seem to look to our own profession for reasons to justify the practices we follow.  The horizon for such justifications should be our clients, not our competitors.  If a firm has clients where the law department professionals track their time and are compensated based on how much time they bill, then maybe the law firm can claim to track their clients as a justification for the focus on time.  But if anyone finds a department like that, let me know.  I have not heard of a single one in 10 years of practicing without time sheets.

HAL 9000, washing machines and AI in Law

Posted in Client Service, Commentary

I read this and immediately started thinking about my Saturday morning encounters with our washing machine. Walk by, put the towels in and then feed the dogs. Swing by later after grabbing morning coffee, put the towels in the dryer and put the whites in the washing machine.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat.  Episodic encounters with the washing machine while life goes on.  So as I returned my thought to the tweet, I wondered if this “washing machine” frame of mind was the right one.

Artificial intelligence aims–or at least it should–to solve a problem for the consumer of the AI.  If it doesn’t do that, I am not sure what role it will play for the user other than being a shiny new object.  Think

(yes, I confess to having one of these)  Don’t get me wrong, shiny objects can be fun and you can sell a lot of them.  But they don’t last and they don’t make an impact.

So, how my washing machine and shiny object obsession fit in with AI?  I believe buyers need something more than a washing machine to use it.  The AI must integrate with existing life and reduce or eliminate a problem.  If a General Counsel is forced to add a whole new platform or file system to get a benefit, I think the likelihood of success of the AI is reduced.

It seems to me a useful exercise would be to define the attributes that must be manifest if something new is to capture the market.  To me, a starting point would be: simplicity; ease of use; eventual benefit; time to achieve eventual benefit; “fit” with what I am doing now. I think the holy grail in attributes is holism. HAL 9000 offered these attributes.  Washing machines, not so much.


Valorem recognized by in-house counsel as a Leading Collaboration Firm

Posted in General, People, Places and Blawgs

Valorem Law Group is honored to be one of the law firms “who leading legal decision makers say are the tops in collaboration.”  According to BTI Consulting, which reported the findings of its interviews with corporate law departments.

Clients say collaborative law firms show deep understanding of client needs across the team, are up to speed on all the issues whenever an attorney joins the team, and are all focused on the same overriding objective. The attorneys at the most collaborative firms work at it.

That last sentence is so important–we really do work at being collaborative.  We dedicate space to it.  We schedule it and we take pride in it.  We believe that collaboration yields better outcomes for our clients.  We put a lot of thought into collaboration, so it is so gratifying to be recognized as a leading firm in this area.