Posted by: johnocunningham | April 24, 2015

Do Law Firms Need Help Communicating?

According to Bloomberg BNA, Aric Press, the long-time publisher and editor-in-chief for American Lawyer Media, has opened a new chapter in his career and he is betting on the belief that law firms need and are willing to purchase a lot more help with their communications.

In particular, Press is reportedly aiming to help law firms to have more and better conversations with clients and journalists while improving the authenticity, accuracy and effectiveness of their branding efforts.

What is striking to me about this report is the following: Aric Press spent a long time covering all of the news affecting all of the biggest law firms in America, and he is firmly convinced that one of the things law firms need most is help with understanding press communications, client communications and go-to-market messaging. This is quite a statement when you consider that law firms are full of brilliant people trained in the art of legally parsing words and, at least in theory, communicating with juries and judges.

Some of Press’s career insights, as reported to Bloomberg, are particularly poignant to me and should be to law firms, including:

  • Law firms that are unprepared for a crisis just circle the wagons and start firing at reporters who call them about something they prefer not to talk about;
  • The future belongs to law firms who understand their clients, stay close to them, and obsess over where they are headed and what they need to get there;
  • Clients buy value and not billable hours, and law firms need to focus on understanding what clients value (and value is not just discounts);
  • Law firms too often have not aligned their actions with the promise of their brand;
  • In an age of intense competition, more lawyers should be “paranoid” in a good way, not taking client relationships for granted and working harder to nurture them, protect them and get more out of them.

In my own experience, I see among lawyers an extraordinarily wide range of sophistication levels in understanding and communicating with clients and the outside world in general. Some lawyers have already identified the major challenges facing them with respect to communication, and some have even pushed for plans and strategies to improve those communications. But others remain mired in the archaic notion that lawyers need to focus 100 percent exclusively on the study and practice of law without involvement in other disciplines, such as marketing, PR, finance, technology, or cyber-security, all of which can make or break their competitiveness.

The art of professional communication is a discipline in itself, and lawyers can greatly improve their standing in the marketplace, as well as their relations with clients, press people, employees and others by engaging professional assistance with important communications.

Posted by: johnocunningham | April 20, 2015

Communication: Good Questions Pave the Way for Better Leadership

Some law firms have been improving their management and leadership skills by bringing guest lecturers or tutors in to speak with practice group leaders and other key partners. Some have even enrolled their leaders and future leaders in executive training courses to improve their leadership skills. But others still languish, assuming that leadership is more of a mantle and title than a skill which must be cultivated and learned.

But as every prized corporate client of every law firm knows, leadership and management skills do not come from “pedigree” or billing records. They involve focused efforts, serious communications and training that must be directed by organizational leaders. I have not seen any short publications or guides on the subject of how law firms can develop their leaders, but now Eric Seeger of Altman Weil, a reputable firm that provides management consulting services for legal organizations, has published a good and very brief piece about practice group leadership and communication. It is entitled “For Managing Partners: A Questionnaire for Your Practice Leaders.

While this leadership “starter kit” is clearly not intended to be an comprehensive program for improving management and leadership communication, it does pose a series of excellent power questions for engaging leaders in serious thought about what their objectives are and how they can accomplish them. If a firm’s leadership is struggling with “where to begin” on leadership discussions, I would recommend reading this piece.

There are plenty of other more in-depth resources out there for improving leadership and management skills, but it is most important to take that first step toward better management by simply developing conscious discussion and communication about organizational goals, strategies and use of resources. The framing of good questions, a lawyerly skill, can be put to good use in sharpening organizational communication and focus in productive ways.

Posted by: johnocunningham | April 16, 2015

Grading Autonomy Of “Non-lawyer” Professionals In Law Firms

Whether your firm has less than 100 lawyers or more than 500, it likely gives its professional administrators the same level of autonomy. That is what the data suggests in a recent survey conducted by professional service consulting firm Altman Weil (based on 5o responses from administrators and fewer than 10 participating management level lawyers).

Perhaps the most interesting result of this survey is found in the nearly 10 percent of administrators (from IT, marketing and other functions) who reported that they have complete autonomy to make decisions in their area of expertise when zero law firm partners agreed with that conclusion.

By contrast, ALL of the responding lawyers said that administrative professionals had less than the full confidence of the partnership, suggesting that individual partners could over-ride their decisions to some extent (giving admins an average rating of 6.5 on the autonomy scale, where 1 represents very little autonomy to make decisions and 10 represents total autonomy) so some admins are blissfully unaware of their relative lack of authority.

On the other hand, some admins said they have absolutely no autonomy and no confidence placed in them to make decisions, and nearly one-third see themselves as having a 4 or less on the autonomy scale. More than 40 percent scored their own autonomy as 6 or less, suggesting that admins see most law firm partners holding very tightly to the reins and not letting go.

The sample size was admittedly small, but the results seem to resonate with numerous anecdotal reports among “non-lawyer” professionals, who commonly say that they are paid well, and treated respectfully, but too often second-guessed or just disregarded when it comes to their professional opinions. The obvious question arising from these observations is: Why pay so much money to these marketing, finance and technical pros if you are going to ignore or not even seek their professional advice?

As an outside consultant, I also see a varying degree to which firms look to me for strategic advice or just “made to order” finished products. In my experience, the firms that know how to collaborate with their in-house and outside professionals reap the benefits of doing so. These are the firms who are claiming market share and growing their revenues (other than through mere acquisitions). The firms that don’t collaborate, but issue orders from the ivory legal tower are much more likely to be struggling with or oblivious to unfamiliar customer demands in a fast-changing world, writhing in fear and wondering what happened to “the good old days” when services rendered bills were paid without question and competition was not so keen.

Posted by: johnocunningham | April 7, 2015

Best Blogs of March: Business Development Tips

This is my 28th post in a series of monthly features that I have dubbed “Best of My Blog Roll.” The concept is simple – at the end of a month I peruse my own blog roll (see that column on the right) for material created by other bloggers that I think is most worthy of sharing with others, and then I report on it here.

For the month of March 2015, I have chosen to highlight some posts from different blogs on the topic of business development.

First, I am calling attention to a nice summary by Craig Brown of the “Least Effective Ways to Bring New Business Into Your Law Firm” posted on the Law Vision INSIGHTS blog.

I like the idea of summarizing the common mistakes in business development because lots of those mistakes are sort of default behaviors for busy lawyers who see marketing and business development as a little something you do without much forethought when you have “extra” time. Just by doing the opposite of what is reflexive and bad, lawyers can greatly improve their client development – sort of a George Costanza “do the opposite” of what is instinctive approach.

Second, I would like to call attention to a nice post entitled “Identify a Problem: Offer a Solution” by Cordell Parvin on his blog.

In my own experience as a General Counsel, I never declined to meet with a total stranger who informed me that he had a solution for a problem that commonly plagued my industry or specifically plagued my business. I was always impressed when someone took the time to figure out what the problems in my world likely were, and even brought me a ready-made solution.

My favorite example of this involves a lawyer who identified how my multi-state company could save millions of dollars per year by opting out of the workers compensation in two states with rapidly rising comp costs that allowed opt-outs. We opted out, forced questionable plaintiffs with questionable doctors to sue us, and purchased a very reasonably priced “catastrophic” layer of insurance coverage for those cases of genuine harm with significant damages. In the first few years after we opted out, we saved the millions of dollars projected (and then some) and I was not only happy to pay a legal bill in the tens of thousands of dollars related to the opt-out, I also referred my counsel to others who could benefit from his services.

Third, I am calling attention to a blog post on “Pricing Power” at Adam Smith, Esq. because, as the post demonstrates, firms that pay attention to “right-pricing” for the market can make more clients happy while earning more dollars.

In the honorable mention category, I would like to share two other posts on unrelated topics.

In “Five Tips for a Successful Photo Shoot” on the Clockwork Design Group blog, you can find some great simple, practical pointers for getting better photos for your website, blog, paid advertisements, brochures or other publications. I think this is particularly valuable to law firms because so many have photo-art that demonstrates insufficient attention to detail and objectives. See, for example, my post entitled, “Why Do Most Super Lawyers Look Super Dull?

Finally, I want to share a link to a string of posts by Steven J. Harper, author of the “Belly of the Beast.” Harper was a big-firm partner for years, and has written some compelling material about what it is like to practice “inside the belly of the beast.” But this year, his posts have focused on something much more personal and gripping – his own battle with pancreatic cancer. He describes what it is like to be a cancer patient in the “system” and makes some interesting observations on the similarities between the problems affecting legal practice and medical practice, which are leaving clients and patients feeling like products in a mechanized assembly line.

Hats off to all of the posters who shared something worth reading in March.

Posted by: johnocunningham | March 29, 2015

Following Your Clients on Twitter

If I were preparing for a meeting with a client or prospect, I would want to be “inside of their head” before that meeting, and I can think of no easier way to accomplish that than through social media, checking out their postings on LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media platforms.

For Twitter in particular, there is an easy tool you can use on CEO.com to check:

  • Fortune 500 CEOs with the most frequent tweets;
  • Fortune 500 CEOs with the most followers; and
  • Fortune 500 CEOs who are most active on Twitter.

Of course, you can always research on Google who it is that occupies the other C-suites of your client or prospect before meeting with them, and similarly, check out their tweets and their other social media posts to see what occupies their thoughts.

You can also check out who they follow to get a good idea of what interests them, an effective tool even if they do not tweet or post to social media very often themselves.

Frankly, I am amazed to see that more than a dozen Fortune 500 CEOs have fewer than 1,000 followers. Just a glimpse inside of their minds – for free – is worth the time it takes to see what they have to say.

 

Posted by: johnocunningham | March 14, 2015

Adaptation of IBM’s Watson Now Answers Legal Questions

A Canadian company has announced that it will introduce a “digital legal advisor” to the world’s law firms. Its name is ROSS (which actually doesn’t stand for anything) and it was derived from a commercially available Watson API (“application programming interface”).

Watson, of course, is the name of the IBM cognitive system that learns from its own programming, and it is best known for beating the all-time scoring champions in “Jeopardy” and defeating legendary chess masters around the world.

You just ask ROSS a question, as you would ask another human being, and it responds with relevant legal information after analyzing all the legal data and reasoning found in whatever court cases, agency rulings, legislation and administrative rules are in its programming.

The developers of the system say it is not designed to replace lawyers, but to facilitate their work by rapidly locating and recalling relevant legal data.

It will be interesting to see how law firms and lawyers react. I suspect that one or more state bars will consider filing suit against Watson for the unauthorized practice of law, a silly and futile attempt to block technological progress that could make the law more affordable for everyone.

But there will also be forward-thinking law firms eager to provide more “value” to their clients, who will seize upon ROSS and other future adaptations of Watson to provide faster, cheaper and more thorough legal analysis while relieving their associates of the drudge work of sifting through Shepherd citations and volumes of statutes, regulations and case reporters for countless hours in the legal library.

Those firms that integrate successful adaptations of Watson and other emerging technologies into their work process will claim more market share from clients who grow to love rapid, complete and inexpensive legal analysis, and clients will start sending them more and more work.

Of course, some well-capitalized corporate clients with their own legal departments will start to bring Watson-like technologies in-house, but law firms who serve those clients will still be needed to navigate agency processes and local courts while shedding light on anything that might be missing from relevant artificial intelligence databases or systems used by the clients.

For more on this story, check out “Watson Takes the Stand” at TheAtlantic.com.

 

Posted by: johnocunningham | March 13, 2015

The Client’s Rules

A recent post on the BTI Consulting Group’s “Mad Clientist” blog articulated “13 Unspoken Rules of Client Relationships.”

BTI is well-known for its work on the study of client relationships and marketplace choices in the professional services industry, and has produced a wonderful list that is consistent with my own experience with client surveys.

A few of the articulated rules ring particularly true for me, including the following:

  • Clients don’t generally fire firms – they just stop working with them. A majority of General Counsel have told me that they do not have time to provide extensive counseling and “second chances” to firms that are not working out. Some will take time to advise a firm that falls short of expectations, but usually you will know they don’t like your work or your service when the phone stops ringing.
  • Clients always have a budget in mind. Sophisticated corporate clients that work with many counsel know what a matter should cost. Even when you don’t put together a budget for them, or when you put one together with a wild low to high range, the client knows where you should fall in that range. They have an expectation even if it is not written down.
  • Clients pride themselves on hiring really smart people, not really cheap people. Over and over again I hear from outside counsel that GCs are “just looking for discounts.” In my experience as a GC and a person who surveys GCs, this is a misunderstanding of what the GC wants. He or she wants “value” for the dollars invested in legal advice or work product. Most GCs report that the more expensive and more experienced lawyer is more often the better “value” (especially when compared to young associates) because the more experienced lawyer in greater demand will take one right step for every 10 missteps of a lesser lawyer.

In addition to the general rules noted by BTI, there are always unspoken rules peculiar to the individual client with whom you are working. It is a good idea to get to know that client as well as possible if you want to comply with his or her rules of satisfaction.

 

Posted by: johnocunningham | March 11, 2015

Clients Want to Know About Your Cybersecurity

Those providing legal and professional services to corporate clients can improve their visibility by offering saleable experience in preventing, detecting, and remedying cybersecurity hazards.

A variety of surveys have shown that cybersecurity is a growing priority for GCs and corporate officers in general, and an increasing number of news stories have highlighted the fact that law firms are hacking targets (see, e.g., “Most Big Firms Have Had Some Form of Hacking” at Bloomberg Business site).

I have yet to see any law firms that tout the special measures they take to safeguard the proprietary data of clients, both technologically and systemically, but I am certain that sophisticated business clients would like to know.

Clients understand that you can’t give away the combination to the vault, and they don’t want that, but they do express an interest in knowing that their lawyers have taken some kind of safeguards to protect proprietary information relating to patents, contract bids, acquisitions and other sensitive matters.

Those firms that do invest in state-of-the-art security and obtain reputable security certifications (such as SSAE 16 examinations, and SOC 1, 2 and 3 reports) should communicate that forward-looking step to clients, publicizing the level of care they have taken to insure that client communications are truly privileged and confidential in every way.

Posted by: johnocunningham | March 9, 2015

Should Lawyers Disclose Their Actual Jury Trial Experience?

For some time now, I have pointed out that most sophisticated corporate clients report that they are very interested in knowing how many trials a lawyer has conducted when hiring an advocate for litigation.

Now, a pair of Texas lawyers has reported that jury trial experience is not only of interest, it is assumed to be part of a litigator’s skill set. They interviewed institutional clients and asked them to estimate the jury trial experience of a five-year litigator at a respectable law firm, and the respondents gave a median estimate of eight trials with the biggest cluster of responses being five trials.

But according to Tracy Walters McCormack and Christopher Bodnar, authors of “Honesty Is the Best Policy” in the March issue of the Texas Bar Journal, only 30 percent of five-year litigators they surveyed had even tried ONE case to a jury. Furthermore, only 8 percent had tried as many as two cases to a jury!

Thus, there is clearly a disconnect between assumed levels of experience and actual experience (perhaps because so many web profiles make every lawyer look like a “super” lawyer).

The Texas authors who did the study called for ethical disclosure of actual jury trial experience, noting that such experience is critical to effective trial preparation, efficient discovery tailored to what is really needed at trial, and the making of accurate jury-value predictions for purposes of settlement and advice to the client.

I believe that legal advocates with significant trial and jury trial experience should also be touting that experience to their clients and prospects. Clearly, with so many litigators at big firms doing nothing more than battling over discovery and settlement, actual trial experience is a marketing differentiator, as well as a critical part of the lawyer’s skill set.

Given the potentially damaging impact of having a lawyer with no trial experience, perhaps the Texas Bar would do well to focus more of its time on ethical rules that require disclosure of relevant experience to clients rather than passing rules about whether a “non-lawyer” can have a chief officer title in a law firm.

 

This is my 27th post in a series of monthly features that I have dubbed “Best of My Blog Roll.” The concept is simple – at the end of a month I peruse my own blog roll (see that column on the right) for material created by other bloggers that I think is most worthy of sharing with others, and then I report on it here.

For the month of February 2015, I have chosen to highlight first and foremost a post on the Rainmaker Blog by Stephen Fairley entitled: “Does Every Attorney Need a Law Firm Website?”

I chose this post for its nice info-graphics about websites, pointing out among other things that:

  • Roughly 40 percent of small firms don’t have websites;
  • Nearly 97 percent of law firm sites have no personalized content; and
  • More than 2/3 of law firms do not list an email contact on their home page.

I also very much liked these three posts from the month of January’s blogosphere:

A tip of the hat to all of these bloggers for crafting some thought-provoking and useful ideas on topics about website marketing, rainmaking, marketing management and the diminishing deference courts will give to “self-regulating” professions.

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