Posted by: johnocunningham | August 31, 2015

Clients Taking Legal Business Elsewhere

After reviewing the “2015 Law Firms in Transition” survey by Altman Weil this weekend, I decided to post some thoughts about what the results mean for lawyers in private practice because the revelations are really surprising.

The survey garnered responses from 320 managing partners and chairpersons at law firms of 50 or more lawyers around the country (more than 2/3 of responses coming from firms of less than 250 lawyers) and it delved into a number of subjects, but most interesting to me was the subject of new sources of competition.

Law firm leaders in the survey revealed that they are definitely facing greater competition from traditional and non-traditional sources, weighing in on the subject as follows:

  • 83 percent of leaders stated that non-traditional competition is part of a permanent change in the market;
  • 67 percent perceived that they are losing business to corporate in-house providers (presumably in-house counsel, risk managers, compliance departments, etc.);
  • 24 percent perceived that they are losing work from shifts to technological solutions (presumably e-discovery providers, automated legal search solutions, etc.);
  • 17 percent perceived that they are losing legal or quasi-legal business to non-law firm providers, such as accounting firms or specialty firms; and
  • 9 percent perceived that they are losing work that is being delegated to new kinds of legal providers (such as temporary in-house counsel and the like).

Incredibly, fewer than half of respondents indicated with respect to any single form of competition that it was a “potential threat going forward.”

In fact, not only are these new forms of competition serious threats, they are growing by double digit percentages each year, according to numerous sources (see some of the statistical marketplace analysis done by Susan Saltonstall Duncan at Rainmaking Oasis for verification).

Also, the percentages in the survey are based solely on the law firm leaders’ perceptions of whether they were losing any business to compeition. The numbers would be much, much higher if these firms actually engaged market-savvy consultants to survey clients about where they are taking their business. I have heard way too often from lawyers that “clients will send us work when they have it, but they just have not had any to dish out lately.” This is more wishful thinking than reality, at best based on something that a few harried clients might have told business-soliciting lawyers to get them off the phone.

It is also stunning that 63 percent of law firm leaders say that they are not reacting to these marketplace forces with any major change initiatives because “clients are not asking for it.”

Well, when your phone doesn’t ring, and your client hires someone else, that is the sound of your clients “asking for it.” Actually, in many cases, it is the sound of your clients telling you they don’t believe you can or will change your approaches to deliver more efficiency, value, creativity, or speed in production, and that is why they did not “ask” for it.

But you don’t have to wait until your clients stop calling to figure out what is on their minds. You can get ahead of the game by working with professionals who make it their business to know how your clients think.

Using my years of experience as a General Counsel, chief legal officer and reporter who has conducted numerous surveys and client panel events, I love helping firms get inside the heads of their clients to improve service, enhance relationships and grow revenue. Feel free to call for more info about my 75-minute program on “CEO and GC preferences for law firm marketing and services.”


Posted by: johnocunningham | August 19, 2015

Top Communication Complaints of Clients

In my experience interviewing both commercial and consumer clients of law firms, the top communication complaints are the same:

  1. “It takes forever to get a call returned (or email replied to) and I end up calling multiple times to get a response.”
  2. “Nobody ever tells me what is going on with my case/audit/probate/permit or license/government filing, etc.”
  3.  “I spent an hour talking to my lawyer and I was more confused when I finished than when I started. Why can’t he/she speak English?”

You might think that these complaints are only in reference to really bad lawyers, but that is not the case. Often, the busiest lawyers in the greatest demand seem to be unable to develop an operational system that keeps clients informed in plain and simple language that they understand. Many also seem to be oblivious to just how annoyed their clients are, perhaps because they are so focused on the heavy demands of daily practice.

Lawyers don’t need to hire expensive consultants to tell them how to fix these problems. They just need to set up a simple process, communicate it and inspect its operational efficiency periodically.

For example, each problem could be prevented from recurring as follows:

  1. Institute a policy in your office that ALL calls are to be returned within 24 hours, NO EXCUSES. The call might be returned by a paralegal or secretary saying that the attorney is at trial, and can call next week, but a call must be returned so that the client is not sitting in the dark wondering what happened (one client I recently interviewed told me her attorney had a stroke and nobody told her about it for several weeks while communications went unanswered). An attorney may provide access to emails and phone messages to responsible associates to insure responsiveness, or the attorney can simply respond to clients after hours via email, but whatever the methodology, the communication must take place with the client within 24 hours. Periodic spot checks with clients, which can be done by secretaries, can determine whether the policy is being followed. It also pays to reward the secretary or assistant for discovering policy violations – that way you know that nobody in the office is part of a “conspiracy of silence” on complaints (this is something top notch service companies figured out a long time ago).
  2. Institute another policy that every client must be updated on every matter at least once per month. It might not be unusual for lawyers to experience months or even years of delays in litigation, in probate, or in government applications for licenses or permits. But it is NOT what the client expects. They expect and deeply appreciate even a one-line letter telling them the reason for any delay, the strategy for fighting it, and what forward progress, if any, was made this month. Make sure that memos to the file or copies of monthly client communications are in the client files. If spot checks show they are not, there must be consequences. Clients get downright angry with lawyers for accepting the complacency of legal or regulatory processes rather than fighting for the client to get things expedited. Believe me, they get so angry they can NOT talk to you about it (and thus you don’t know it is happening).
  3. Test your client communications on a focus group. Pick a few people inside or outside of your office who are not lawyers to review samples of your written communications and provide feedback on them. Try having one of your support staff – one of your trustworthy, courageous and vocal staff members of long tenure- sit in on a client meeting to just listen. Ask them after the meeting how you did and where they got lost listening to you. As lawyers, we talk in jargon, just like any other professional. It is so much a part of our education and our training, that we don’t even know it. We have to remember that our clients do not speak this language. Even lawyer-clients hate it when someone does not explain things to them clearly (a commercial lawyer may know little or nothing about trial practice or IP or other legal disciplines, but they expect their counsel to not just know about it, but explain it simply and quickly.)

There is no reason to lose a client due to a mere communications glitch… and yet, it happens all the time !

Posted by: johnocunningham | August 15, 2015

Discontent: The Key to Growth?

A tweet about the role of dissatisfaction in sales caught my eye this month just because I have never seen anything written on this subject. The tweet linked to an article entitled, “Dissatisfaction Leads to Growth.” In this piece, Author Anthony Iannarino artfully made the case that satisfaction leads to complacency and dissatisfaction to positive change (or at least action in search of positive results).

This called to mind the many times I have interviewed managing partners, CMOs and other change agents who have successfully launched sustainable growth initiatives in their firms. In each case involving significant cultural and institutional change, I recall that discontent with the status quo was the catalyst for change.

For example, I remember Reed Smith’s former managing partner Greg Jordan telling me that his firm launched a number of successful growth initiatives, instituting fundamental operational changes right after the late 90s, when some of the firm’s “Rust Belt” clients were slumping in Pittsburgh and other cities where the firm was located. These clients had suffered economic disruptions related to technology, outsourcing and global competition, and the firm needed an action plan to capture more business in both good times and bad.

Of course, Reed Smith soon went from being a regional firm to an international powerhouse, but the many changes that caused this to happen all began with widespread, though not unanimous discontent with the status quo. (For a look at how this happened, check out “The Reed Smith Rocket Formula.”

Authors, inventors and sports coaches have also recognized the role of dissatisfaction or discontent in making forward progress. Oscar Wilde famously said that “Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation” and Thomas Edison once quipped that “Discontent is the first necessity of progress – show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I’ll show you a failure.”

Closer to home and more contemporarily, legendary football coach Bill Belichik has said “We can’t afford to look back on our record. We always try to work harder on looking at things we’ve done in the past, asking is it still what we want to do, and who can make plays that we haven’t looked as closely at… as soon as you are satisfied with yourself, you’re in trouble.”

So perhaps what legal marketers and business developers first need to cultivate in their firms is a little bit of educated discontent, based on knowledge of the competition, understanding of evolving client concerns and demands, and the inevitable disastrous consequences of being satisfied with the “way we’ve always done it.”

A column earlier this year by Altman Weil’s Eric Seeger, which was entitled “Five Things Associates Tell Me,” touched upon three common associate attorney complaints that are related to communication.

These three issues should not be that hard to fix, and so present a huge opportunity for law firms to ratchet up associate satisfaction and productivity without significant expense (improvements in employee satisfaction are well correlated to improved productivity).

The three communications issues that most commonly need attention are:

  1. Explaining the firm’s mission, vision and direction while telling associates how they fit in (or don’t);
  2. Providing more feedback and training, not on the law (they got the academics in law school) but on the practical side of things – dealing with clients, dealing with the right people at the courthouse, doing whatever it takes to get things done quickly and satisfactorily; and
  3. Explaining what it takes to make partner, what it means to make partner, and doing so consistently among partners (or explaining why 10 different partners give 10 different answers as to what it takes, and acknowledging that you have to please all 10 of them, or 9 or whatever).

Communication issues don’t require a lot of money to solve, but they do require some time and commitment from the key decision-makers, who may need an outside professional to facilitate a productive group deliberation that will result in clear direction and communication for all.

This is my 32nd 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 July 2015, I have chosen to highlight, first and foremost, a post on the subject of “Lose a Client, Gain Some Perspective” by legal sales and service expert, Silvia Coulter, at LawVision.

This post provides some great questions that lawyers and legal marketers should be asking of clients or prospects when a bid for business fails. In my experience interviewing corporate client representatives, most say that they would be willing to chat with those who failed to get a first assignment or a follow up assignment from the client representative. Most also say they give plus points to lawyers and firms that actually ask why they did not get business and how they can improve on their next assignment or bid for a first or second assignment.

I also enjoyed Sue-ella Prodonovich’s post on “25 Ways Corporate Clients View Law Firm Marketing” because it provided some nice insights directly from coveted corporate clients who appeared at this year’s LSSO RainDance conference.

Those who have read my blog regularly know that I am closely watching the development of IBM’s Watson – the computer system that uses artificial intelligence to scan massive amounts of data online and responds to questions posed by humans with thoughtful and reasoned analysis. Watson is already working at Sloan-Kettering hospital to assist doctors in diagnosis and prescribed treatments based on massive amounts of input related to patient diagnoses, outcomes and treatments across the world.

Now Watson has “graduated” from a Canadian law school enrollment with ROSS Intelligence, which tested and trained Watson to recognize legal issues and provide legal analyses for various fact patterns. As discussed in a recent post at the “Three Geeks and a Law Blog,” Watson is now being tested at certain U.S. firms, but still has a long way to go in development. But as those of you know who watched Watson compete on Jeopardy, the system learns fast, much faster than any human being, and it won’t be long before it becomes a big factor in the speed, quality and cost of legal service delivery.

Finally, I also will mention here a nice practical tip posted on the Clockwork Design Group blog, which offered some tips on using Google’s underpublicized service for photo management storage, sharing and sharing.

Posted by: johnocunningham | July 28, 2015

Worker Use of Social Media Protected by NLRB

As a recent article in Today’s General Counsel illustrates well, employers are stepping into a potential minefield when disciplining employees for inappropriate use of social media.

As the article points out, the National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”) is continually expanding the protective envelope of “concerted activity” by labor, ruling for example that the following may constitute protected communications on social media:

  • Complaints about the types of snacks offered at a company event;
  • Posts about an employer not issuing paychecks promptly enough; and
  • Posts about co-employees related to working conditions.

Employers need carefully crafted social media policies that have been reviewed by counsel in order to provide their managers and staff with clear guideposts of what is permitted and prohibited in the use of social media relating to the company.

Employers also need regular, well-crafted internal communications about all of their management decisions in order to defuse potentially explosive rumors, limit destructive gossip on social media or in other forums, and reinforce the mission, values and immediate objectives of the team as a whole.


A recent Bloomberg BNA article summarized a trend that has been taking place for a while in big firms – more and more investments in technology, particularly to improve financial and practice management.

Thus, firms are doing what their clients have been doing for quite some time now – improving efficiency through better systems and technology.

But we have yet to hear from firms how those investments are translating into better results for clients.

If law firms are cutting document review or document assembly times, if they are speeding up due diligence related to transactions, or if they are measurably improving the speed or cost of any aspect of operations, they have a golden opportunity to tell prospective clients just how that is getting done with technology.

In my experience interviewing clients, I have learned that a significant percentage of them feel that law firms don’t explain “how” they are the best at what they do. Clients hear firms frequently saying the right things about focus on value, efficiency and results, but they still don’t see the proof. Furthermore, a significant percentage say that they would be receptive to hearing a firm explain how it can deliver results better, faster or more cost-effectively through the use of technology.

For instance, clients would like to know if a firm has employed technology to cut its time and costs on document assembly for asset-based lending or document review for litigation discovery,  and they would like to see actual numbers on percentage gains in efficiency.

In most cases, clients say they “hire the lawyer and not the firm,” but a firm-wide investment in technology, as well as process improvement and project management skills related to technology that produces measurable results can cause a client or prospect to upgrade their assessment of a law firm as a whole.

Posted by: johnocunningham | July 23, 2015

Best Business Building Tool? Clients Say “Listening”

I have done a number of General Counsel surveys over the years, asking chief legal officers what they think the best tool is for building client relationships.

The most common and frequent answer I get boils down to: “Listening.”

Those who have not practiced in-house may not understand that in-house counsel has to build trust with internal constituents and has to persuade them to entrust matters to the legal department, not unlike the way in which outside counsel must build trust with prospective clients. Trust is not awarded based on someone’s title or credentials, but based on demonstrations of personal care, commitment and mutual trust. In-house providers work especially hard at building trust with their legal clients in other departments (operations, marketing, finance, real estate, etc.) to be invited into their world and see what is really going on there.

Far and away the most common way that General Counsel build trust is by listening to their in-house business peers. GCs similarly recommend that outside counsel “just listen” sometimes without a meter running if they want to get more business.

GCs have provided to me examples of how this works in practice.

In-house lawyers say they often go into a meeting not with pre-conceived recommendations, but open ears. They don’t try to spot issues right away and offer solutions (though they must be prepared to do that). Instead, they generally make sure that the client has had a chance to express everything on their mind before jumping into action. That draws the client out, and often results in them talking about much more than was on the original agenda.

Often, say GCs, a client wants to vent, they want someone to recognize their frustrations, and they want to know that the legal professional is listening empathetically and asking follow-up questions that draw out everything the client wants to express (which may or may not be related to a legal problem and solution). Very often it is only after this has been accomplished that a client is ready to listen to what the lawyer has to say.

One parallel that some have offered is that of a doctor. When you go to see your doctor, you want them to listen to all of your symptoms and concerns, whether or not all of them are related or are relevant to a diagnosis. A doctor who listens at length before making a diagnosis and prescription is always preferred over one who jumps right in and says “you need to do XYZ” before listening to everything the patient says. Even if the quick-tongued doctor is right, he or she will lose points with the patient, who wonders whether the doctor really cares or really came up with the right prescription (leading the patient possibly to ignore the doctor’s advice).

In my own experience as a GC, I also found that just sitting down with clients over lunch and coffee with no real agenda at all was the best way to build trust and ultimately get more business. The more time I spent with someone, the more matters they called me about and the more chances they gave me to proactively counsel them instead of fixing a bag of problems they brought to me only after they could not be swept under a rug.

Posted by: johnocunningham | July 15, 2015

GC Panel: Super Lawyer Rankings Just “Expensive Click-bait”

For the fourth time in the history of the LSSO RainDance Conference, a panel of Chief Legal Officers overwhelmingly agreed that Super Lawyer rankings are meaningless, and one described them as nothing more than “expensive click-bait.”

Panelists also generally agreed that lawyer profiles could use more humanizing (as in sharing hobbies or interests), that effective content marketing has led them to hire a lawyer or firm, and that pitching corporate executives directly for legal work is “not cool” with them.

For a complete RainDance round-up of GC panel feedback on a host of recurring legal sales and service issues, check out Sue-Ella Prodonovich’s post on Larry Bodine’s LawMarketing site.

The panelists’ responses were similar but not identical to GC feedback at the 2014 RainDance conference, and to GC feedback at the 2013 conference.

The sum total of responses provides a good lens into the minds of chief legal officers, who are generally looking for practical advice, as well as legal scholarship, industry knowledge and advice pertinent to industry context, along with good value added to their business for the dollars invested in legal counsel.

This is my 31st 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 June 2015, I have chosen to highlight, first and foremost, a post entitled, “I See Dead People – In My CRM” by Christina Fritsch at Clients First Consulting. Christina uses humor and common sense to describe the need for a procedure for combing dead people out of CRM data, which can save a number of repeated embarrassments when invitations and updates are sent out to deceased clients, prospects or referral sources.

I also loved the post by Deb McMurray on her Law Firm 4.0 blog entitled, “What Lawyers Can Learn From a Focus Group of One.” Again, Deb also uses humor (and even a comic strip) to illustrate the all-too common danger of service providers believing they know what their clients are thinking simply by projecting their own thinking on to them. She does a great job of showing how client interview and feedback programs are essential to avoid the doomed strategy of following the “gut” of an Alpha-level professional service partner.

Another post worth reading is Nancy Myrland’s post about coping with and adapting to rapidly evolving changes in the professional services industry.  She does a nice job of explaining the importance of sharing content, yes, FREE content with clients and prospects in a way that is helpful and authentic while creating goodwill that leads to more business.

Finally, I would like to direct people to the Clockwork Design Group blog post on “How and Why to Create a Brand Standards Manual.” This post does a terrific job of laying out the importance of and methods for controlling your brand presentation and messaging.

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