The following article is reprinted with permission from the third edition of U.S. News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms.” Kim Ebert, the managing shareholder of Ogletree Deakins, was asked to contribute an article to the third edition of the “Best Law Firms” stand-alone publication on a topic concerning the practice of law. What follows is Mr. Ebert’s article entitled “The Value Proposition,” which underscores the firm’s focus on value.
Being named a Best Lawyer is a significant professional achievement. The honor reflects an acknowledgment by a lawyer’s peers that he or she has consistently demonstrated outstanding skills in representing the interests of clients. This recognition is certainly something of which to be proud.
That being said, in what is often referred to in recent times as the “new normal,” are outstanding skills enough to succeed these days in the practice of law? Experience in recent years suggests that it is not. Sophisticated clients assume that solid skills, experience, and legal knowledge are the baseline—what allows the lawyer even to be considered for an assignment of work. There are many competent lawyers in virtually every practice area from which clients can select counsel. So to truly succeed in client development and retention, today’s lawyers must be more than just skilled technicians.
More than ever before, clients are looking for value in their legal spend. Value does not mean the lowest price in most instances. Rather, each client typically now has a unique definition of value that is aligned with the key drivers associated with their business strategy. Of course, value can be price, but more often it is price certainty, a concrete plan committed to by the lawyer and law firm on which the client can rely, plan, and budget.
Value can also involve cost control and reduction, risk-sharing, performance, creative solutions, and innovation by law firms in handling matters. For instance, while many clients continue to default on the traditional hourly-rate pricing model, many others are adopting fee arrangements that create a partnering and/or success-based approach to value legal services. To work, however, both the client and the law firm must be committed to working through the issues that can arise.
In short, such pricing arrangements need to work for both the client and the law firm—and those companies truly committed to these alternative approaches understand that need.
In addition, value can be as basic as assigning the right lawyer—or non-lawyer—to the right tasks and a corresponding efficiency in the delivery of services. Today, clients expect law firms to abide by the same business principles under which they (and all their other suppliers) operate.
Without question, value is also defined as a clear understanding of the objectives of the client from the outset. Is early case assessment and resolution the objective, or is the matter of sufficient importance to the client such that no stone should go unturned? Communication with respect to client expectation on individual matters is a critical component of a successful relationship—and that often means that the lawyer needs to ask rather than simply assume.
Value can also be recognition of the client’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and fielding a team that reflects a similar commitment by the law firm. Then there is basic blocking and tackling: promptly responding to telephone calls, emails, and texts; following the client’s billing and budgetary guidelines; keeping the client informed; being sensitive to the demands that in-house counsel have on their time; and avoiding surprises. The most skilled lawyer who does not return his client’s telephone calls or who otherwise fails to communicate properly may find that the telephone stops ringing.
In order to really understand a client’s value proposition, it is critical for attorneys to take the time to learn what the key issues are that impact the client’s business and their legal spend. This frequently requires that the lawyer understand the client’s business, their industry, and their challenges. There are also several key questions the lawyers must consider: What are the components of representation and billing that are of most value to the client? What are their pet peeves? How can an attorney add value? This can often be learned through discussions or client assessment surveys focused on the value proposition important to that particular organization.
The fact of the matter is that it is a privilege for a lawyer to have a client ask for legal representation—especially in today’s competitive legal market. This privilege is a fragile one, however, that can be easily lost. The key to long-term professional success both as a lawyer and as a client-relationship manager is to understand each client’s value proposition and to meet or exceed those expectations.