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.

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.

When lost in the desert or a thick forest terrains devoid of landmarks people tend to walk in circles. Blindfolded people show the same tendency; lacking external reference points, they curve around in loops as tight as 66 feet (20 meters) in diameter, all the while believing they are walking in straight lines.

Livescience.com

This natural tendency appears to apply to law firms as well. Yesterday, Above The Law reported that yet another large law firm has raised the associate hours requirement as a result of salary increases awarded in 2016. So what does this mean?

Law firms do not have the ability to “just create more work,” so the extant work now has to support that many more hours.  Won’t clients just love that.  Now they will have to go on high alert to review invoices with that much more diligence (their favorite thing to do).  Then what happens?  Clients object to portions of the bill and resentment builds while firm realization decreases.  This has been going on, and firms, apparently, are not taking the hint.

Will this vicious circle ever end?

 

I just spent a couple of minutes looking for the telephone number of someone who sent me an email.  No big deal, except that if it is your client’s time spent looking for your number, it is a big deal.  If you do something that wastes your client’s time, it suggests you have no idea how wasted second and minutes can quickly add up.  Don’t be the cause of the addition.  So here are a couple of quick tips:

  1. Include your phone number on every email.
  2. Think about your use of email real estate. If the case is Smith v. ABC, Inc. and you’re corresponding with an inhouse lawyer at ABC, he or she will know the case involves the company.  Think this doesn’t make a difference? Look at a client’s email in-box on a mobile device.  If you have to open an email to find out whether it is important, you’ve just wasted time.  Time that adds up.
  3. After the name of the matter, let the reader know if it is time sensitive. In other words, is your matter so important they have to look right then instead of focusing on other matters?  Or can your matter wait?
  4. Are you asking the reader to do something? Specify that in the re line of the email.  For example: Smith: URGENT: Signature needed.
  5. Learn the importance of BLUF—Bottom Line Up Front. Give your client the choice to read the detail or ignore it. Sometimes, a client just doesn’t care at that moment and you should not force them to read through the detail to get to the result.

Good email etiquette is easy.  It just requires you to put yourself in your client’s shoes for a minute.

Several years ago, I was part of a proposal to a large tech company to create a custom, build-to-suit, build-to-serve law firm to handle the company’s IP work.  The company showed interest, but ultimately it was too big a leap to make.

That was then.  Crain’s Chicago Business is reporting today on an ad created by “Omnicom’s We Are Unlimited, which was created and tailored for McDonald’s in late 2016 after a competitive review.”  So we have a piece of Omnicom now devoted exclusively to McDonald’s.  The question, obviously, is whether this foreshadows things to come.

When clients complain about their [fill-in the blank–ad agencies, law firms, accounting firms, engineering firms, etc.], one possible answer is “build-to-suit.”  The concept works incredibly well in the real estate area.  Why would it not work with a custom built law firm (or whatever)?  The answer is, it will.  It will just take one committed client to make it so.

Anyone who sells legal services to corporate America knows the important role procurement professionals play in the acquisition of legal services.  Dr. Silvia Hodges Silverstein leads the premier group for legal procurement, Buying Legal Council. The group allows procurement professionals to learn, from each other and from outsiders Silvia brings into group discussions.  The group also allows law firms to “listen in” on the procurement dialogue. Smart firms join so their proposals can reflect insights learned from the group.  In November, my partner Nicole Auerbach and I had the pleasure of leading a session at most recent Pricing Bootcamp.  We left the group with six pricing action items, and with Silvia’s approval, I wanted to share the list.

2016-11-03 Pricing Bootcamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are interested in a copy this list of action items, please let me know.

BTI_Client_Service_A-Team_2017_A-Team

 

My Valorem colleagues and I are honored to have been named to the 2017 BTI Client Service A-Team.   This is our fifth consecutive year to have been named to the A-Team.

BTI’s identified the firms awarded this distinction based on over 330 in-depth interviews of General Counsels, direct reports to GCs and other key decision makers from organizations with average revenue of $13.8 billion and median revenue of $4.9 billion.

Valorem was recognized by clients in the following categories:

Commitment to Help

Client Focus

Providing Value for the Dollar

Meets Core Scope

Handles Problems

Helps Advise on Business Issues

Innovative Approach

This recognition validates the efforts we have been making to provide a level of client service that distinguishes us from others, and we are humbled by the recognition from our clients.  We will continue to strive to be worthy of this recognition.

According to a survey of corporate counsel at large U.S. corporations reported by Law.com, nearly 70% of law departments expect their annual operating budget to be flat or decrease in 2017.

Let me say that again—nearly 70% of law departments expect that annual operating budget to be flat or decrease in 2017. And we know that, in the face of this challenge, law firms will respond by….wait for it….raising their hourly billing rates. Because that’s what firms do.  Every year. Of course, it does not take an advanced degree to see the incongruity between the clients’ needs and firms’ response.

To make this statistic even more sobering, consider this: the amount of work that must be done by law departments with static or shrinking budgets likely has increased, not decreased.  Why? Because the world is smaller, businesses expand their offerings and operating geography.  Because that’s what businesses do.  And when they do, the work for the law department increases.  So demand for legal services increases while the budget to purchase legal services does not not. This is not good for law firms, especially large ones.  Nor is it good for law departments.

Faced with this, 43% of law departments expect to decrease their overall use of outside counsel. This work will be redirected to law department attorneys.  And, to be sure, there will continue to be efforts to shift work from higher priced lawyers to less expensive ones. Law departments will employ legal operations professionals to help improve operating efficiency within the law department.

The broad range of tools to reduce costs so more work can be done for the same amount is laudable.  But it is not enough, because it it not sustainable.  Once an efficiency is obtained, more work will still require more resources.  After some point in time, the issue will not be efficiency, but the amount of work.

Because of this, leading General Counsel are focusing on prevention, how they can work with the parts of their enterprise that generate legal work to operate in a manner that requires less involvement of the law department or produces less work for the law department.  A simple example is that improved contracting can reduce the number of contract diputes that the law department must handle.  Prevention is the key for long-term sustainable success—instead of having to do more with less year in and year out, law departments would have to do less and therefore be able to invest the less they get more wisely, on issues that better serve the corporation’s interests.

How many law departments have a structured preventive law program?  For those that don’t, what are the reasons they don’t?  For those with a structured preventive law program, what metrics on effectiveness are tracked?

These are interesting questions, and I am not aware of any generally available data.  Jeff Carr, Nicole Auerbach and I are conducting a preventive law survey for inhouse counsel.  We encourage all in-house lawyers to participate.  The results will be shared publicly.

Something interesting happened recently.  Jeff Carr, Nicole Auerbach and I consulted with a client about how to improve the law department’s performance and save money.  Shortly afterwards, Nicole and I consulted with a law firm about moving to alternative fee arrangements.  The interesting thing was that we found ourselves enjoying being consultants.  We found, in these two experiences, that we have a lot to offer.

This should not have been a surprise:  Valorem has been a classroom of sorts since we formed the firm in 2008. We learned from trial and error how to do alternative fees when there was no roadmap to guide us. We also figured out how to frame the national discussion about AFAs when no one was talking about anything but the billable hour. We learned how to divorce hours from pricing when most people to this day still use hours as the basis for calculating an alternative fee.  We learned that AFAs are just one of several tools necessary for a successful representation and delivery of exceptional client service.  You learn a lot in 9 years, and believe me, we’ve been drinking through a fire hose.

We are grateful that clients have responded so favorably. In 2016, Valorem was recognized as one of 22 law firms “Best At Delivering Alternative Fee Arrangements,” and has been recognized for the past four years as a member of the BTI Client Service A-Team. For the past two years, we have been recognized as one of the “Most Recommended (by clients) Law Firms.”  And I have been humbled to have been named a BTI Client Service All-Star MVP for the past four years.  We’ve learned a lot, but we also have put what we’ve learned into action.

We haven’t exactly kept most of the lessons we have learned a secret. I have shared my thinking on alternative fees in two books, and shared my thoughts on customer service and the delivery of value in this blog, which I started back in 2004.  And I have written extensively (with my friend Paul Lippe) about what we affectionately refer to as “the New Normal” in a column for the ABA Journal. These columns are soon to be released in book form. Jeff just started a blog, Life at the Speed of Prevention, that focuses on the enormous untapped value of preventing legal problems from occurring. Nicole, Jeff and I also speak regularly at various industry events across the country to share the lessons we’ve learned and our (often outspoken) views of the legal market.

In the past, though we’ve willingly helped others with their AFA programs or customer service initiatives, we drew the line at formal “consulting.”  But as we found ourselves enjoying the consulting experience, and as more people are asking us to devote more time to this aspect, we realized that maybe the line we had drawn in our minds was a bit artificial.  And one of the many good things about being in a small firm is the absence of rigid rules, or objection to changing them. So we’ve erased the line, and have officially launched a consulting practice for both companies and law firms on these broad topics (and anything in between):

 

For Law Departments:

  • Analyzing processes to identify and eliminate waste
  • Analyzing workflow to identify prevention opportunities—reducing work coming into the department at the front end
  • Alternative Fee Arrangements (training and structuring fees, making AFAs profitable)
  • Deploying tools to reduce total fees even if they are billed by the hour
  • After Action Assessments and programs to embed continuous improvement into the Department’s culture
  • Developing RFPs for AFA engagements
  • Deploying an low-cost arbitration program to address small cases that, in the aggregate, can add up
  • Designing prevention programs and helping departments see around the corner to know what’s coming

For Law Firms

  • Alternative Fee Arrangements (training and structuring fees, making AFAs profitable)
  • Firm culture audits to determine if the firm is customer-focused
  • After Action Assessments and programs to embed continuous improvement into the Firm’s culture
  • Responding to RFPs that address AFAs

Our goal is to help others go through the learning curve we experienced, but at an accelerated rate and without having to learn the hard lessons through actual experience.

So as they say in the consulting biz, if you have interest in any of these topics, please give us a call. We will customize the right program for you.

patrick.lamb@valoremlaw.com   nicole.auerbach@valoremlaw.com    jeffrey.carr@valoremnext.com