Most law firms are specialist retailers: they sell only one service. No matter how excellent the quality, any reduction in demand leaves them potentially vulnerable. The most successful deliver not only the best quality service to their clients, but they also understand how their business operates. This helps to maintain existing clients and to win new ones.
As a comparator, the delivery of legal services is like the food offered by a fine restaurant. If you choose a Michelin-starred establishment, you expect to pay a high price. But you also expect every aspect of your dining experience to be of the highest quality. If those prerequisites are satisfied, then you will probably feel that it is good value when presented with the bill and go back to the same restaurant again.
Then imagine two head waiters at equivalent restaurants, each of which provides excellent food. Both are equally attentive and polite. But one remembers your name, your favourite wine and whether you prefer your filet mignon rare or medium rare. The other does not. Which would you choose?
CLIENT DEMAND HAS CHANGED
Restaurants come and go, sometimes failing to keep pace with changes in taste. Client demand for law firms is also changing. The inexorable rise of in house legal departments has led to selective reduction in their use of external law firms. The increased revenue of some firms in recent years masks a harsh reality: they have been driven more by increased hourly rates than by increased billable hours.
There is an added dimension – reduced demand for law firms does not directly equate to reduced client demand. As their needs continue to increase, clients are spending more money on legal services, just not all of it on law firms. The main beneficiaries are alternative service providers, and increasingly, the Big Four accounting firms.
Some firms have responded by launching their own low cost alternative, diversifying to satisfy the broader demands of clients, and by reducing their cost base. Others clearly have a way to go in delivering better value: charging higher fees to a rapidly evolving client base is unsustainable, long term.
QUALITY IS KING
Beyond keeping up with the impact of technology, four things are pivotal to the successful law firm of the future: quality, value, understanding and relationships. To justify premium rates, firms must offer premium advice and deliver premium service. In a word, quality. That high quality exists is beyond question. That it exists in every practice area in every office of every firm is very questionable. Inconsistent levels of advice and service exist, even in the best firms.
Many firms have raised their game – not by giant leaps, but through a series of small incremental steps, each of which is designed to improve quality and to keep standards high.
Attention to detail matters. Clients notice. They will not stay unless you keep delivering quality. Become complacent, let standards slip, and they move on.
For the most successful law firms like Kirkland & Ellis, now the world’s highest grossing firm, quality and value are the twin engines of success. Quality should be easy, provided you can attract and retain the right lawyers. Offering better value requires a more acute focus on what clients want, how that is best delivered and at what cost – always seeing things through the prism of the client.
For economists, value is intrinsic: it can be objectively identified. But for clients, value is subjective. Of course, in some commoditised advisory work, value can be determined by the number of billable hours and the hourly rate charged. However, the value of most legal advice is still judged by the importance that general counsel place on the quality of advice and service delivered, set against the price paid.
In formulating their value proposition, the perennial law firm challenge is how to differentiate themselves from the competition. Providing better value requires close analysis of three interdependent factors: what clients and potential clients want, what is being delivered, and critically, what competitors deliver.
Many partners could do more to evaluate why other firms win more business. Some suffer from tunnel vision: seeing things only through the prism of their firm, they do little competitor analysis. This is less apparent in New York. Local partners in Manhattan are more vocal in articulating critiques of their competitors, whereas in London, feigned indifference about close rivals is more commonplace.
Perhaps that is one reason why US firms in London are doing notably better than London firms are in New York: as strong local competitors, they have understood that to create better value, you must first know your competition and the market in which you both operate.
KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER
So what does the customer want? In pitching potential clients, many firms still focus on what they can offer: cataloguing their lawyers, offices, existing clients and past deals as evidence of their capability. This proves that they have the relevant experience and expertise, but it does not answer the question. Using the word ‘customer’ rather than client is deliberate: it changes how the relationship is defined. General counsel want lawyers who understand their business and its challenges – really understand them – and who keep working hard to do so.
By way of example, one of London’s most prominent corporate lawyers only wears suits made by one of his customers, attends football matches of another customer, and buys his petrol only at the garages of a third customer. Not only is he fiercely loyal to his customers, he also really understands them.
Such tangible dedication is not usually possible. But the mindset is. Find out what makes the customer tick, what keeps them awake at night, which markets and jurisdictions are critical – and why. Ask questions. Be curious. Be interested. Do your homework. Find out as much as you can. In short, to anticipate what they want: know your customer.
WORK AT RELATIONSHIPS
Anyone doing business in China understands the importance of guanxi, or relationship building. To develop a mutually beneficial relationship, you need to spend considerable time getting to know your Chinese counterparts – and for them to know you – often outside the office. In return for this investment of time, through which trust is established, strong business relationships can be forged. Such relationships in the west tend to be more superficial. But law firms might learn something from emulating the Chinese by investing more in the relationship.
Building and maintaining relationships should be easy, yet many lawyers find it hard.
So how do you manage relationships? There are over 70,000 books listed on Amazon offering advice. Their message can perhaps be summarised in a sentence: communicate proactively and respond reactively. Work at it. Clients do not like or expect to be ignored, although failure to answer calls or emails is surprisingly common, according to general counsel.
Such Indifference and neglect inflicts damage. You may have the best qualified, most experienced lawyers in your jurisdiction, but clients also want law firms and lawyers with whom they can also have a relationship, built on trust and reliability.
What about that well-worn cliché of lawyers putting themselves in the clients’ shoes? Consider this: you can go to a restaurant 19 times and have good food. If, when you go for the 20th time, and the standards have slipped, you may never return. That is what dissatisfied clients do. To keep the customer satisfied, successful lawyers know that you need to deliver quality and value. Every. Single. Time.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.