Eschewing the time-honored maxim of "location, location, location," The Wired GC continues his analysis of the importance (or lack thereof) of office location in a world where most client interaction occurs in the client's office, or at least somewhere other than the lawyer's office. The post, bearing the sublime title "What Face Means For Place," addresses the question "why do most firms in large cities persist in putting all their people in pricey high-rise space under long-term leases?" None of the common answers survive The Wired GC's pithy commentary. The post goes on to suggest some alternatives that no doubt will be the subject of much conversation.
Here's a statement in the post that every managing partner should memorize:
I’m sure I don’t understand all the intricacies of space selection and design of the modern law firm. But when I see firms jockeying for a new “signature” building, and later submitting their interior design to magazines for their annual awards, I know one thing: I’ve never retained a firm on the basis of its offices. And I have to think that the overhead costs inherent in the current space model are a big driver of higher rates and higher billable hour quotas. And I have decided against retaining more than one firm because of these factors.
Perhaps the driving factors on space should be minimizing cost, maximizing operating efficiency and teamwork and creating a desire to leave the office and go visit clients.
I want to relate one true observation. The most effective office design I every saw was an open room, where the CEO and Chief Acquisition Officer had the desks in the center of the room, facing each other. Other desks encircled this power center, with the most junior people being the ones closest to the windows but farthest away from the CEO. There wasn't much time spent on personal calls or mindlessly surfing the internet. There was, by contrast, a lot of time spent bouncing ideas off colleagues. And when meetings needed to be in private, the many conference rooms were utilized.
But to get back to the topic at hand, The Wired GC's point that the price of the law firm's office (location, location, location) becomes a substantial factor in high hourly rates is a truth that cannot be escaped. I ask this of discerning inside counsel: Do you ever hold a firm's toney location and expensive offices against them?
And to underscore the point I made yesterday, the right place for meeting your client is your client's office. Her convenience, not yours. Your nickel, not his. Your investment in the relationship. Your chance to learn more about her business and the demands on her time. Your chance to figure out more ways to help. Its all about the client, not your trendy offices with the expensive artwork.
Great post by The Wired GC on the importance of face time with your clients. He sums up an article from the New York Times about the role of telecommuting during the recent transit strike. The article took the approach of talking about the importance of face-to-face meetings, which prompted The Wired GC to make this important observation:
In the law firm environment, it is common for some partners and very common for some associates to have never personally met a long-term client. I feel that if a lawyer ever wants to move up the trust food chain with a client, you have to supplement good service and high value with a personal relationship. With a personal relationship, you are less likely to be thrown into this year’s beauty contest with other commodity-type service providers.
And it may go without saying–visit your client on their home turf. I have heard some lawyers complain that they are “too busy to travel” or “can’t bill for client relations time”. My answers: (a) you will have plenty of time to travel when your clients drift away and (b) you can’t bill for any time when you don’t have a client in the first place.
To this I can only add two things. First, this observation is consistent with my own personal experience: the more time I spend with my clients, the better and the more work I seem to get. Second, the observation is consistent with feedback we get from clients when we do client satisfaction surveys--clients want face time with their lawyers.
Dan Hull has an interesting addition to his rules of good client service. The post is entitled "Over-Communicate": Bombard, Copy and Confirm." The gist of Dan's message is not at as far-reaching as the statement of the rule. Noting that the rule has "obvious exceptions," Dan articulates what I think is the core of the rule: know what your client wants and provide it to him or her.
There is a danger of "bombarding" clients with communications. Frequently, clients are paying you to be exercise judgment about what they need to hear or read and what they don't need to hear or read. The more important the issue, the more your client needs to know. My formulation of this "rule": No surprises. And they best way to avoid surprises is to have an on-going dialogue with your clients where you ask if he or she wants to be involved with an issue, kept apprised to simply advised at its conclusion.
Bear in mind that sometimes the rules change. For example, if your client, the General Counsel, is involved in a major acquisition, she may not want to be advised at the same level of detail simply because she doesn't have the time to read everything she otherwise would. Talk about it from time to time. Its the best way.
Good writing is good writing. Or is it. Dan Hull had a terrific post on how we write for our clients. I posted a comment, suggesting good writing knew no venue, and it shouldn't matter whether the writing was a pleading or a letter. Or, as I just posted, an invoice. Communications are effective when they are clear, concise and direct.
Dan has just responded to my comment with another very thoughtful post. In this post, he notes that the norm in many courts is to use enough legalese to fill a truck. After considering the value of piecemeal change, he issues this challenge to himself and the rest of us:
"Doesn't changing legal writing to just clear and simple writing come down to to leadership? Maybe I should start setting a better example. Why not buck the traditions 100%--whether it's writing to courts, to clients or to other lawyers--and never use those expressions again? Ever."
That sound you hear coming from my office is loud clapping. A standing ovation for Dan. Hooray! I will be with you every step of the way.
Actually, a confession. I practice in a lot of different states. I can't remember all the terms some courts get their kicks from. I don't know what a demurrer is, but I do know what a motion to dismiss is. So I use words I know. A simple mind yields simple writing. I'm lucky in that respect.
Dan Hull recently had a nice post about writing for clients in his What About Clients blawg. As I sit here reviewing several bills (I am national counsel and review local counsel invoices), I see entries like "analytical review of of plaintiff's threshold information". What does that mean? Should we contrast this review from a "non-analytical review"? What is threshold information? With entries like this, how can I advise our client that these bills are meaningful and reasonable? It drives me crazy. And if it drives me crazy, I'm sure it would be driving the client crazy.
Invoices are a communication device. They market you and your firm to the client. Prepare time entries as if you really give a damn what the client thinks about you and what you are doing. Even if you don't care, pretend.
My December American Lawyer arrived today. As I always do, I turned to Aric Press' column. Aric is the Editor-in-Chief of American Lawyer. If there is anyone more attuned to the state of the profession, I would be surprised. Aric's column is about the results the survey of the Am Law 200. One of the questions asked this year was about the number of firms that lamented their loss of associates. Aric writes:
The days when associates would hang around confident that they would snare a partnership are long gone -- and are not coming back. Now may who linger stay only until their student loans are under control, and then they map a quick exit. Firms complain bitterly that these young lawyers are leaving before the firms can fully recoup their investments in them. They have no one to blame but themselves. The profitability model is built on churn, and even the cream resent getting battered into butter.
Great prose (a hallmark of Aric's column) but very insightful as well (another hallmark). Large firms losing associates need to look in a mirror. Otherwise, its like the rancher opening the barn door and then complaining that the horses are running out the door.
But my mission here is not to tell large firms how to run themselves--its to talk about client service. There is no mistaking the significant role associates play on most matters. Clients need to ask themselves whether they want to create teams where integral players are looking for the exit. At what cost to the client is the associate's departure?
I’ve written about listening before. But it is of fundamental importance that every good post on the topic needs to be highlighted. Tom Kane over The Legal Marketing Blog has just such a post. Some great thoughts on how to handle face to face client meetings:
• Tell your staff person to hold all calls (if there are exceptions, let client know up front), • Let client know they have your full, uninterrupted attention (except as noted), • Look at the client while they talk, • Take notes, and frequently summarize your understanding of what client said, and • At the conclusion of meeting, ask client if there is anything they want to say or ask – then pause for a period of time to give them a chance to respond.
I especially liked this advice, about something said by Jay Foonberg: “As his father told him, with two ears and one mouth, you should listen twice as much as you speak. Good advice.”
My question for law firms is this: When a skill is so demonstrably important to your business, why do you fail to provide training on how to do it better?