Saturday, January 31, 2009

Who are we fooling?

That darn billable hour. Evan Chesler, Cravath’s presiding partner, reiterated his opinion of it this week in the NY Times: “This is the time to get rid of the billable hour.” Cries for its eradication are burning up the blawgosphere. There is even a law blog, The Client Revolution, entirely devoted to "casting aside the legacy systems." 

In case you don’t remember, I defended the billable hour a couple of weeks ago. The hourly billing method certainly is not without drawbacks, but it remains a fairly efficient way to compensate lawyers for their work. Of course there are lawyers who pad their hours, who focus on the doing rather than on the result, who work day and night in the relentless pursuit of 2400 hours/year of client work. 

But do you think those lawyers are going to go away or stop overcharging clients or stop wasting their clients’ money when the profession moves away from the billable hour? That the new billing methods will be completely transparent, that cost will reflect value, that no client will ever again wonder if she got her money’s worth? Who are we trying to fool? Someone will always find a way to exploit the weaknesses of the new system, just as lawyers who provide real value, day in and day out, to their clients -- the clients that aren't complaining -- will always provide value. The way the compensation is calculated changes nothing. If we believe that clients will get better legal advice, make better business decisions and be happier once the billable hour has been eradicated, we’re fooling ourselves. 

The billable hour isn’t the problem. It’s just a smokescreen. The problem is that clients no longer believe they are getting value from their lawyers. How are we going to fix that

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How hard could this be?

It happens a lot. I talk to lawyers and firms about their business and strategic objectives and what they're doing to achieve those goals, particularly their business development and marketing programs. We look at what they've done, what they want to do, what they don't want to do, what they should do. We put together a list of specific things they can start doing tomorrow.  Everyone feels good about the meeting, all jacked up from a good discussion, and we've each got a list of assignments that seem simple enough: research the legal needs of a few clients, make a list of client targets, identify a couple of legal trends impacting their clients' business, etc.  How hard could this be? 

I know it sounds easy. It really isn’t. If it were, you – and all of your peers – would be doing it already. Ideas, plans, strategies, action lists, those are the easy part. The hard part, the part that drives success, is execution: disciplined, focused, relentless execution. It takes time, commitment and hard work to develop new business and market your firm. Sometimes it takes money, to invest in software or training or events. Sometimes it takes new people, or refocusing the efforts of your current team, to manage the execution. Sometimes it takes organizational change, to improve communication and transparency. Every time, though, it takes a lot of effort to initiate and sustain the activity needed to ensure success.

By the way, the best business development and marketing ideas for your practice and your firm are probably not new or different. They’re most likely ideas that you had a long time ago, stuff you’ll find discussed in countless blogs and books and boardrooms. You already know what to do. But knowing what to do is nothing. Doing it is everything. So get to it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Now what are you going to do?

You did everything the experts recommended. You became active on Twitter, developing a healthy set of followers. You started using LinkedIn, put all the right keywords in your profile, got stellar recommendations from clients and colleagues, asked and answered questions brilliantly. You regularly post to your blog, and the analytics tell you that more and more people read your work every day. So why aren’t you getting more business?

Maybe the “getting work” part never really changed because your workflow doesn’t depend on the tools you use. Don’t get me wrong: Twitter, LinkedIn, law blogs, and many other great resources are here to stay, and participation has become a must-do, like having a website or a firm brochure or business cards. But you don’t get business by just being smart, by hanging out at the cool parties, or even by being #1 on Google searches for lawyers in Phoenix. You get business by being responsive, by solving problems, and by helping clients sleep better at night. You get business by providing good service. You get business by listening. You get business by adding value. You get business by doing the same things that people getting business have done for generations, and that’s not going to change. So get on it. Talk to people. Find out what they need. Deliver it. And most importantly, add value. That’s what I’m going to do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Are we asking the right question?

Are we asking the right question about the value of legal blogging? Carolyn Elefant on Legal Blog Watch asks: "Does blogging generate business?" It is a reasonable question, one that has been raised with respect to nearly all forms of lawyer communication -- newsletters, articles, public speaking, PR, to name a few. After all, understanding the return on investment for every type of marketing activity (think advertising, conferences, cocktail receptions, golf outings, etc.) is an important part of developing a meaningful business development and marketing program for lawyers and firms alike. The hard part is linking specific activities with specific results, and while history and experience allow firms to evaluate the ROI on much of their marketing spend, there is little history and no objective experience that allow them to apply the same analysis to legal blogging.

The question that lawyers and law firms should be asking instead is different: "is blogging the right way for us to communicate with our clients and potential clients?" For some clients, it probably isn't. But for an increasing number, legal blogging (and micro-blogging) is a vital way for lawyers and firms to establish strong relationships and communicate significant information, be it about legislative developments, legal analyses, firm news, or anything of relevance to their clients. The process isn't new: firms have been pushing information in myriad forms to their clients for years. What's new is the tool that allows lawyers and firms to establish true two-way communication with their clients, solicit their feedback and incorporate that feedback into future communications. Isn't a blog an important part of a communications program that is truly client-focused?  
Are you still waiting to see if blogging generates business before you start your own?

What's the problem with the billable hour?

As the battle to eradicate the billable hour wages on, I can't help but think that, in spite of all of its warts, it is still a pretty efficient way to compensate lawyers for their work. Yes, it can reward inefficiency. Yes, it emphasizes quantity of work, not quality of work. But isn't frustration with the billable hour a symptom rather than the problem? Does that particular billing method produce a negative impact on the delivery of legal services? Are clients getting bad work because of the billable hour? I cannot imagine a situation in which that were true (but welcome correction). 

Isn't the real problem one of value, trust and service? When clients say they are unhappy with the billable hour method, aren't they saying they feel like they're paying too much for their legal services? That the perceived value of those services does not equal the cost they've been asked to pay? Legal services have to be paid for, and by-the-hour is a reasonable way to do it until you think your lawyer spends unnecessary time on your matter, or charges too much for her time, or isn't telling you the truth when she says it will take 20 hours to resolve your problem. And if that's the case, then the billable hour isn't to blame. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

You say you want a revolution?

I love Twitter. It’s a great tool for all kinds of communication, formal and informal, broad and narrow, business and personal, smart and, well, not so smart. But is it the ne plus ultra of professional communication? Will it revolutionize the world of legal marketing? Kevin O’Keefe thinks so. Scott Greenfield seems to think not. In many ways it already has, if only because it allows me to communicate directly with people who are interested in the things I find important, people I would never have an opportunity to know without Twitter.

But Twitter isn't 'enry 'iggins or Richard Avedon, transforming the ugly duckling into a supermodel with the click of a mouse. Your 140-character witticisms and deep thoughts and pearls of wisdom don't pass through a clever or intelligence filter between your keyboard and the screens of your followers. Behind every tweet you still need substance, you still must have something to say that others find valuable. If you don’t, Twitter isn't going to help. So lawyers (and accountants and PR flacks and sales execs) that didn't have value to share with the rest of the world before Twitter are most likely not going to have much value to share with the Twitosphere. That’s really the bottom line, isn't it? You have to bring something to the table if you want Twitter to change the way you market your services. Twitter is revolutionary because it provides access – to ideas, to people and professionals, to cultures and beliefs, to just about anything that exists.  It's up to you to find the good ones, and to make sure that your tweets add value to the conversation. Like it's always been done.
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