Focus on Clients: Creating a Law Firm from a Client’s Perspective

Lawyer's Row Historic Marker[This is the sixth and final post in a series of posts featuring a conversation with Susan Hackett of Legal Executive Leadership focused on deepening client relationships in meaningful (and profitable) ways.]

If clients have so many reservations about the way law firms currently work, what form of firm would work better for a client? This is the provocative question I put to Susan Hackett, inviting her to join me in a little blue sky dreaming. If a client could start their dream firm from scratch, what would it look like and how would it work?

Admittedly, it is hard for any law firm to remake itself overnight, but if a lawyer is serious about becoming her client’s dream external counsel, what should she do? Here’s Susan’s advice:

Build a firm that inspires a client to hire the firm, and not just some of its great individual lawyers.

So many clients `hire the lawyer and not the firm’; what kind of negative commentary is that? The firm and the individual lawyer should be equally important (and contributing) to a client.  In my experience, many great lawyers are sometimes left to swim against the stream in their firms: the fact that they want to try a new fee structure, rearrange and retrain the team serving the client, or revise business processes to achieve greater efficiency can put them at odds with the very business models of their firms. They are not compensated for making those changes, they are not supported in delivering services in new ways, they don’t have the backing of their colleagues.  I’d build a firm that rewards lawyers for innovation, creative client service, and proven performance against goals.  That means a firm that is just as fully committed to each client’s total satisfaction as the individual lawyers who work with those clients.

Build a firm that embraces technologies, and deploys both data and experience to rethink the processes and teams focused on client work.

This means conducting business process assessments to better understand the cost and price of work. It means using reliable data to support the firm’s calculations of internal profitability, as well as predictable matter budgets, cost controls, and pricing models for clients. It also means empowering staff and lawyers to examine and change pricing and performance standards in order to connect them more directly to results.

Build a firm that understands that knowledge and experience, applied with great judgment, are the foundation of the firm’s core value to clients.

I would make a huge commitment to establishing knowledge networks, experience pools, and knowledge management systems (with recyclable content) that would allow the great lawyers in my firm to spend more of their time focusing on what is different in each of their matters, rather than re-inventing or replicating that which is the same. I’d want them known for applying their mighty experience and judgment to the most complex and non-repetitive matters. I would not want to focus my firm on performing services that push the firm into a competitive spiral with legal process outsourcers in a race to the bottom. However, to the extent such services are requested by clients, I’d want my firm to have established efficient systems and competitive pricing for the performance of mid-level, `operational’ work that clients value, but only if its performance and pricing are predictable.

Build a firm culture that values that which clients value most in practice and professionalism.

This means building a firm with a strong focus on pro bono and public interest work, a commitment to inclusion and flexibility in work practices, a dynamic environment that thrives on innovation and creativity, and a compensation and promotion system that rewards great performance rather than large stacks of hours.  My ideal firm’s partnership (I recognize that in most US jurisdictions, this is not currently possible in a law firm) would likely include a significant contingent of leaders who are not trained as lawyers, but who bring all kinds of important disciplines to the firm: financial, technical, management, leadership, IT systems, HR, and so on.  In my firm universe, these professionals would be compensated and promoted based on the same scales and standards as their legal peers, for surely their contributions, if empowered, could be just as important to the firm’s success as the actual client services provided by the firm’s lawyers.

So there you have it:  a client’s view of a perfect law firm.  How does your firm stack up?

At the end of the day, while Susan and I have had a great conversation, it’s clear that this series of posts is just the beginning of what needs to be a much wider ongoing conversation among law firms and their clients. We invite you to to participate.

[Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson]

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