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July 09, 2014

Research update: What clients should do to increase value (Part 1 of 2)

This post previews results from my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which will be published in October, and can be pre-ordered now for a 25% discount.

Over the past year, I have interviewed managing partners, chairs, senior partners and executives from AmLaw 200 firms about how to meet client demands for greater value while protecting profitability. 

The 50 firms who were interviewed are listed on our web page, but I agreed to keep the name of every individual I spoke to confidential, and gave them complete editorial control over what appears in print. (In fact, participants are currently reviewing a Preview Edition of our final report, to insure its accuracy.)  This approach enabled senior decision makers to speak frankly and openly about highly sensitive issues. The research provided a platform that made it easy for firm leaders to say what they really think, since they would not be quoted by name.

Most of the book focuses on internal operations:  what has worked and what hasn’t in such areas as measuring and managing profitability, legal project management, software, new staff positions in pricing, contract attorneys and more.

But one chapter focuses on participants’ answers to this question:  “To maximize value in a sustainable way, do clients need to change the way they work with law firms?”  98% said yes they do. 

Today’s post describes the single most important thing clients should do to increase the value they receive:  Better define objectives and scope at the beginning of each matter.

However, before we begin, it is important to note that several participants noted an important caveat: the client is always right.  In fact, as one firm chair put it, these days,

Clients can do whatever the hell they want to.

A senior executive from another firm put it a bit more diplomatically:

If law firms are sitting back saying, “Well we’re in the right and we’re just going to wait it out, and clients need to be doing this or that,” I wouldn’t want to bet on that horse.

The underlying problem is that the legal profession is in the middle of a period of historic change, and both clients and law firms are still finding their way:

I think there have been some false starts in the in-house world, things that have been tried and have not really worked out.

The belief that clients have this figured out, and if these darned law firms would just get on board, everybody would be in a better spot, is, I think, a complete mischaracterization. Take a look at some of the RFPs. It’s just laughable, the questions that are being asked. We have to come together as an industry to do a better job of defining value and doing things that will help relationships on both sides.

In our view, this respondent really hit the nail on the head:

Clients only need to change if they perceive that a change is necessary for them to either reduce their cost or to improve their outcome.

That is the answer to the client-is-always-right quandary. Clients only need to change if firms can persuade them that it’s in their own interest. It puts the burden on firms to think through how to raise these issues diplomatically and persuasively enough so the client sees the benefit.

While no respondent claimed to have a roadmap for conducting these difficult discussions, the discussions below of problematic client attitudes, policies, and practices suggest that the best place to start is with this key issue: Define objectives and scope at the beginning of each matter.

In a previous post about this research, I quoted evidence that the most important thing law firms can do to increase efficiency is to start each engagement by getting a better sense of the client’s objectives and what is inside and outside the scope of a particular engagement.

The fault lies not just with law firms but also with clients who fail to spend enough time thinking through what they need vs. what they want, how much they are willing to pay for what they want, and communicating those decisions to their law firms.

As one chair put it:

If there was one single thing that clients could do to make it easier to assure their satisfaction, it would be to help me identify at the outset of the project what the client would consider to be success. What would make them smile? So many things evolve from that. How do I spend my time on that objective? How do we structure our fee arrangement so that we are providing value to the client? What sort of communication does the client want from me?

Many other respondents echoed this concern:

Often, what we’re hired to do is not clear, and so we have a lot of people sitting around, treating all of this as research of documents, and it turns out that’s not what the client really wanted. Then they change what they want.

We can certainly reduce the cost, but clients have to jointly work with us to figure out what it is they want us to do less of in order to meet their expense goals. You can’t do scorched-earth approaches to matters at reduced fees.

It’s important for clients to really understand upfront what they’re willing to spend and how far they’re willing to go. You can try to explain as things are going on, but if a client didn’t anticipate something would take so much time, it’s hard to explain it when you’re in the middle of the process.

Our biggest issues are in getting our partners and our clients to sit down to properly scope and budget prior to a project. Clients want lower cost, but they want to do it the way they’ve always done it. When you sit down and talk to a client about the practical nuts and bolts, things work out great. When our partners dismiss the conversation or the client doesn’t have time, that’s where we have some matter management issues.

Some clients understand that working with the lawyer in advance makes it easier to get what the client wants, at their price, time, and so on. Others are a harder sell. Some general counsel communicate better than others and know what outside counsel is saying. Others misunderstand, which can create inefficiency.

Next week, in Part 2, I will talk about two additional things clients should do: increase transparency about client needs, and improve in-house project management.

 

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