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.

Posted by: johnocunningham | June 30, 2015

Law Firm Communications: The Greatest Danger May Come From Within

A recent article published by Bloomberg BNA, entitled “The Data Threat Within Law Firms,” points out that law firms are increasingly the targets of hackers, who want to access sensitive and valuable information related to mergers, patents, finance and other matters.

Coincidentally, multiple published surveys have shown that cybercrime and cyber-theft are among the top 3 concerns of most board members on corporate boards of directors, as well as Chief Legal Officers.

Thus, you would think that any law firm with state-of-the-art security systems and processes would make that fact known to their clients, and make their prospects aware of it as evidence of the firm’s proactive sensitivity to client concerns.

Nonetheless, I have yet to notice any law firm that has advertised the taking of these steps, and I have yet to hear of any firm addressing this concern, even cursorily in RFPs or other pitch proposals.

That could prove to be an opportunity for any firm that actually has instituted security systems, processes and screening that exceeds current standards.

Posted by: johnocunningham | June 25, 2015

PR Leader to Law Firms: “Talk Amongst Yourselves”

An article caught my attention this past week on Bloomberg BNA, which was entitled “Law Firms Must Spend More Time Talking to Themselves.”

This piece by Kathy Cripps, the president of a trade association for public relations firms, hit on a few key points about the need for better internal communication within law firms:

  1. Poor internal communication – about culture, mission, values, strategy and people – leads to poor lateral integration, which may explain why so many lateral hires at law firms are failures.
  2. Poor internal communication often results in botched mergers with and acquisitions of other firms for similar reasons.
  3. To improve internal communications, you need a strategy that includes communication via firm meetings, department meetings, publications and social events.

I would add that internal communications, properly done, can enhance the productivity and the job satisfaction of every single person in the firm. Studies have shown that an employee who is told to perform a series of tasks without being told why is less productive than one who has a sense of how his or her task fits into a broader mission and purpose. As one of my former CEO bosses once said: “A stone cutter who is told to cut stones every day all day soon gets tired. But a stone cutter who is told that he is creating the building blocks for a glorious new church works with energy and purpose.”

When employees know the mission, purpose and strategy of the organization, they are generally more eager to contribute and more energized around the shared objectives of the larger team. When they are left in the dark, or told only what their task is for the day, they are disengaged from the start.

No sports team would dream of telling every player only his piece of a given play without sharing the roles of the other players, as well as the anticipated response of the competition, and the possible strategies of dealing with the opposition. In sports, in business and in law firms too, everyone has a role in team communication, and the larger organization must have a well-formulated set of communication objectives, methodologies and feedback loops.

Posted by: johnocunningham | June 22, 2015

Routine Client Interaction Is NOT Client Feedback

A recent edition of Today’s General Counsel magazine dealt with the subject of client feedback used by corporate law departments, and it highlighted a few key points that outside counsel would be wise to heed.

The key point, as made by General Counsel, is that routine interaction and client feedback are two different things. As the article suggests, “developing a structured process forces the gathering of real information about whether individual service providers are efficient, responsive and able to communicate.” Corporate law departments doing more formal assessments of outside counsel sometimes also measure “effectiveness, predictive accuracy, knowledge base… and how accurate the attorney’s judgment was” at the conclusion of a matter.

A key takeaway for outside counsel is this: Even if you are not taking serious steps to measure your output and your client satisfaction, your corporate client is likely doing it anyway. So don’t you want to be proactive and invite them to share their assessment of you?

High-performing commercial enterprises are generally obsessed with customer/client perceptions, preferences and feedback, and perpetual improvement to meet evolving customer/client preferences and demands. The “best in breed” law firms must do the same if they are to survive.

Posted by: johnocunningham | June 18, 2015

Can Lawyers Use Email for Confidential Communication?

Some legal communications are so important that they are covered in the Rules of Professional Responsibility by applicable state bar authorities, such as communications of confidential and privileged information.

Most rules of professional responsibility were sculpted prior to the digital age, and thus, digital forms of communication present interesting quandaries about how some rules apply to legal communications in the modern age.

The Texas State Bar was recently asked to give an ethics opinion on whether a lawyer can responsibly communicate confidential information by email.

The analysis they conducted to answer the query was focused primarily on the longstanding prohibition against knowingly revealing confidential information. But other state bars might also focus on newer rules (adopted only in some states) that require lawyers to be familiar with technology “to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of confidential information” (e.g., see prior post on this blog: “New ABA Ethics Rules on Lawyers’ Use of Technology“).

By focusing solely on the well established but narrow rule prohibiting knowing disclosure of confidential information, the Texas Bar concluded that “a lawyer may generally communicate confidential information by email.” However, the state bar also noted that “some circumstances may cause a lawyer to have a duty to advise a client regarding risks incident to sending or receiving emails… and to consider whether it is prudent to use encrypted email or another form of communication.” The decision can be found in Texas Opinion no. 648 issued on April 15, 2015.

This query is a good illustration of the ways in which lawyers must reassess not only what they are communicating to clients, but the means of communication they are using.

Posted by: johnocunningham | June 16, 2015

What Influences Hiring of Counsel

A recent survey of more than 500 Canadian companies, which can be accessed at CanadianLegalDigitalSurvey.com , has revealed some interesting facts about what influences those who hire outside counsel for commercial matters. A majority of responding companies had annual revenues in excess of $1 billion.

Some of the interesting tidbits from the survey include the following statistics about the most effective influences on hiring:

  • 100 percent of respondents have considered “personal recommendations” to be important in hiring decisions;
  • 78 percent have looked at lawyer bios on the web;
  • articles and speeches by lawyers have influenced hiring decisions of 74 percent of respondents; and
  • relevant lawyer blogs have influenced more than half of all respondents.

Respondents also complained that very few lawyers seek feedback on their service, and only about two-thirds of them said that outside counsel have heard AND acted on their feedback.

Two of the big takeaways for me are as follows:

  1. shared content – on blogs or websites or in traditional publications – can be very effective; and
  2. paying attention to client concerns about service by developing a process to seek and act on client feedback can be a market differentiator.
Posted by: johnocunningham | June 12, 2015

Best Blogs in May: Pricing, Compensation and Other Hot Topics

This is my 30th 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 May 2015, I have chosen to highlight, first and foremost, a post at the “Patrick on Pricing” blog about ALM’s 2015 Law Firm Pricing Report.

The most useful takeaways I got from this were:

  1. 82 percent of firms with more than 1,000 lawyers and 77 percent of firms with more than 500 lawyers now have full-time pricing professionals to help them with fixed fee pricing, competitive bidding, client fee discussions, budgeting, process improvement, project management and right-pricing of projects;
  2. 69 percent of firms report that their pricing professionals have improved their profitability; and
  3. more than half of firms intend to grow their pricing teams this year.

These stats and other report data clearly indicate that law firms are no longer pricing their services based on what they want to earn, but are attempting to price themselves competitively but profitably in a scientific way.

It is also interesting to note that many firms have focused on process improvement and project management training as a part of the “right pricing” movement. These firms are doing what their most prized commercial clients have done for a long time – improving efficiencies to lower costs while maintaining profitability.

Two other blog posts I liked in May were:

  1. A post on Tim Corcoran’s “Business of Law” blog, which delved into the tricky business of setting up lawyer compensation structures that reward efficient client service, responsible client development and collaborative behaviors that help firms grow; and
  2. A post by Steven J. Harper on his “Belly of the Beast” blog, which looked at the case of one well-known lateral hire as an illustration of what can go wrong in lateral hiring.

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