My favorite moniker for today’s changing legal environment was coined by my colleague David Curle when he dubbed it “The Betty Crocker Era in Legal Services”.
His analogy identifies three ways to get a cake today: 1) bake it from scratch, which is labor intensive but cheap; 2) bake it from a mix, which is convenient and a bit more expensive, but there is no need to keep ingredients on hand; or 3) buy it from a baker, which is expensive but offers personalization and convenience.
Using this as a framework to view the legal industry, most consumers of legal services could traditionally appear pro se (baking it from scratch) or hire a lawyer (the bakery option). But today, market disruptors like legal process outsourcers (LPOs), non-traditional firm models, and alternative online legal service providers are creating that “from a mix” option.
And consumers (i.e., potential law firm clients) are using it. So how does a law firm compete with these off-the shelf-options?
The biggest advantage a law firm has is it can provide quality, personalization, and most importantly value that make options one and two look less appealing. Indeed, truly impactful client engagement is something that only a law firm can offer.
At various client events and in any number of written resources, we hear time and again that clients want their counsel to know them and know their business. They want counsel that isn’t just reactive, but proactive in identifying their needs and proposing solutions to problems that haven’t yet arisen.
BTI Consulting recently highlighted a few examples of firms that are doing a great, not-so-good, and pretty bad job of this.
BTI’s “A-Team” is a list of firms that corporate counsel have identified as “delivering superior client service.” In a nod to the biggest firms out there, most of the Top 7 firms highlighted are major AmLaw players.
For example, Skadden was singled out as the top firm in the survey with clients reporting particular satisfaction with “more attention from senior-level partners and having in-depth discussions around business (not legal) strategy and impact.”
Sidley was commended for engaging clients with a stronger emphasis on “better business understanding and increased client focus.”
Even non-AmLaw firms can impress clients with their client-centric focus. Faegre Baker Daniels came in at #7 by leveraging industry-focused teams that “[impress] corporate counsel with depth of knowledge and business understanding.”
What each of these firms have in common is a focus on not just the client’s current pending matters, but also on the client’s business. This is something corporate counsel have repeatedly said they’re looking for.
In her article “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth—GCs Say What They Want from Outside Firms,” Pam Woldow, a principal at law firm consultant Edge International, highlights exactly this thought from GCs. She provides the following quotes (among others):
- “We want to work with firms that really understand our business.”
- “Treat clients as partners, not as customers.”
- “Make the effort to get to know our Legal Department: our goals, priorities, our constraints and pressures, our initiatives, and yes, our lawyers and our culture. Work harder at learning to work with us.”
And while the firms that are succeeding at client engagement all share things in common, the examples BTI highlights of poor service all share a common attribute as well: failure to put the client first.
“From the mix” options trying to compete with law firms don’t have the resources to devote to the client commitment that is making the A-Team successful.
Law firms also have the advantage in that there is nothing stopping a firm from leveraging outside resources themselves, including LPOs, to manage a project and its costs on a client’s behalf. The client gets the benefits of the pre-mix solution—with the added convenience of having a trusted legal advisor overseeing the whole operation so the client doesn’t have to.
There is a small mom-and-pop bakery a few blocks from my house. We buy every birthday cake there, and I’m there nearly every weekend with my kids picking up treats. The food is always top quality, the people behind the counter know what we like, and they have even made sprinkle donuts for my kids on the spot when they were out. We value that they value us. And the same can be true for a law firm and its clients.