June 2017

Seth Godin just posted Four Ways to Improve Customer ServiceAs always, Seth’s insights are insightful and thought-provoking.  The four ways are:

  1. Delegate it to your customers. Let them give feedback, good and bad, early and often.
  2. Delegate it to your managers. Build in close monitoring, training and feedback. Have them walk the floor, co-creating with their teams.
  3. Use technology. Monitor digital footprints, sales per square foot, visible customer actions.
  4. Create a culture where peers inspire peers, in which each employee acts like a leader, pushing the culture forward. People like us do things like this. People like us, care.

I think if law firms were self-critical, most would evaluate themselves as failing in each of these categories.  And since many of these firms profess (well, at least say it on their website) to be “client-focused” or something akin, one can only wonder about the gap between what is professed and the truth.

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.

Example 1

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?

Example 2

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.

Details for Entry

  • The preferred formats for entries are Word and PDF via email to dcurtis@colpm.org. Prior approval is required for other formats. Please contact the College Administrator at dcurtis@colpm.org or 224.337.9033 to discuss alternatives and to receive special instructions.
  • All entries must be received by June 16, 2017, and accompanied with the $250 USD entry fee. The College waives the entry fee for recognized 501(c)(3) organizations. Please include your tax id number on your application to receive the waiver.
  • Winners receive a beautiful crystal award at the InnovAction Awards ceremony and are invited to make a presentation describing their innovations.
  • Winners will be highlighted and promoted in ads placed in media sponsor publications, on the College website and featured in the COLPM e-newsletter.
  • Winners will be prominently featured on the InnovAction Hall of Fame page that celebrates the innovative accomplishments of lawyers and law firms on a global basis.

Click here to download the 2017 entry form.


Geography is not a consideration. Past winners have come from Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States.

You need not be a lawyer to win, though lawyers have won.  You need not be in private practice–pro bono groups and law student organizations have won.

InnovaAction Awards are for big thinkers who execute.  Submit your entry.