Clients have become as concerned about the consistency of work produced by law firms they use as any other quality issue. And consistency involves more than the work product produced by attorneys; it also includes a consistent effort on client service, marketing, and business development issues.
According to a new report in Global Legal Post, “decision makers are reluctant to give work in new areas to inconsistent law firms because they do not know what they will get.” Moreover, approximately 60% of companies say inconsistency is one of the biggest trouble areas they see in the law firms they use.
The issue reaches across firms of all sizes, regardless of whether it is a single office, niche boutique or a global behemoth with dozens of offices stretching across multiple continents. It should be easier in smaller and midsized firms to maintain consistency but clients claim the issue stretches across firms of all sizes.
Fortunately, for smaller and midsized firms, the consistency issue creates an opening to capture work from larger law firms.
“It doesn’t matter to me if a firm has just a dozen lawyers or several dozen offices,” the general counsel of a fast-growing telecom company told me not long ago, “as long as the work product is consistent from attorney to attorney, and from office to office.”
She adds that when she finds a firm producing consistent work, she is more likely to be willing to overlook things such as higher fees “because I know what I am getting is going to be exactly what I expect, regardless of who drafted the documents or handled a filing.”
Size Doesn’t Matter. Really.
As the chief executive of a manufacturer of high-tech components explained over breakfast one morning earlier this year, “I’ve started picking and choosing attorneys the same way I used to pick and choose firms. I don’t care so much about the name on the door or how many attorneys there are in the firm as I do that the work done for me is at the same level time after time.”
It would seem that a smaller firm could deliver consistent work across all of its attorneys more easily than could a large multi-office, multinational firms. And clients report that size could be a contributing factor to maintaining consistency.
“I’ve had great results from relatively small firms with, say, a dozen or so lawyers as I’ve had with a 50-office firm employing a thousand lawyers,” claims the lone in-house lawyer of a Midwestern food processing company.
“I guess it’s true what they say,” he adds with a twinge of irony in his voice. “Size really doesn’t matter.”
Clients and managing partners alike indicate that the fastest way to bring consistency across a firm is to make partners accountable for the work of each other as well as that of associates.
According to the Global Legal Post account, also contributing to consistency are regular client team meetings to review and discuss work-in-progress as well as making a partner responsible for bringing new lawyers onto a client team and not letting them simply jump in with both feet, hoping they can swim rather than sink.
This would seem to be obvious. Yet in surveys and client satisfaction audits we’ve conducted in recent years for law firms of various sizes, there is remarkably little accountability for the consistency of client work.
“We know who’s not carrying their weight,” is the somewhat defensive response of a partner when I asked him about how attorneys in his firm were held accountable. “We don’t need some kind of ‘Marine Corps platoon system’ to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction.”
In fact, the issue isn’t so much pulling in the same direction as to whether or not partners and associates are pulling at the same speed. Many firms seem reluctant to address the issue, even if clients expect them to be monitoring this matrix.
But consistency goes beyond turning out a work product that is of uniformly high quality. For firms that want to grow and prosper, it also means having a consistent and formal client service, marketing and business development effort.
“I cannot think of a single business in any industry – including other professional services – where there is so little attention paid to having consistent marketing, client service and business development than in law firms,” the marketing director of a 50-attorney firm complained in an open-ended question that was part of a research study in early 2017.
“We pay great lip service to notice these things,” she wrote at the time, “but when it comes to actually running projects on an ongoing, consistent basis, the business of law is terrible.”
A client agrees.
“For a business totally dependent upon the happiness of specific clients,” the vice president of a transportation company stated not long ago, “lawyers seem to have a good deal of difficulty running their business the way their clients run their businesses. It’s puzzling to me as a buyer of legal services how so many firms can be so blind to the real world.”
Jim Bliwas works in Strategic Communications for PSM. He’s spent most of his career working in and with the law and other professional service firms on management, marketing, business development, client service and coaching issues.