My friend Bruce MacEwen (Adam Smith, Esq.) asked me to join some amazing bloggers on his Savvy Bloggers Panel. He asked us, “Looking out five to ten years, what will the single most significant change be in terms of how sophisticated law firms (think AmLaw 200) are managed, on the ‘business side’?” All of the responses are here. This is what I wrote:
A: I have spent all but two years of my legal career as a solo practitioner or as a member of a two-lawyer firm. Because I’ve never worked for a “sophisticated” AmLaw 200 (or even AmLaw 20,000) firm, I’m afraid I can’t give a meaningful answer to Bruce’s question. Instead, I’ll answer a different question: What is the single most significant change small firm lawyers hope AmLaw 200 firms don’t implement in the next ten years?
The single greatest competitive advantage small firm lawyers have over their big firm counterparts is the ability to quickly adopt and implement innovative practice methods. Though many small firm lawyers have fallen into the billing-by-the-hour business model practiced by most large firms, I would suggest that a significant amount of the alternative pricing of — and value billing for — legal services comes from the small firm lawyers in this country. In my firm, for example, we have completely abandoned the billable hour and have moved to a service-pricing model that gives our business and transactional clients a range of services (including “free” telephone calls) for a monthly fee or a flat per-project cost. In doing so, we’ve managed to make our clients happier, increased our margins, and decreased the time we spend in the office. My greatest fear is that AmLaw 200 firms will adopt and embrace a similar business model.
In contrast to small firms, large firms have an unbelievable amount of institutional knowledge. For any given legal project, large firms have likely completed a similar (or the exact same) task hundreds of times. Their “inventory” of documents, memos, briefs, complaints, and opinion letters dwarfs the resources available to small firm lawyers. My fear is that if a large firm decides to couple that “huge selection” with “everyday low prices,” the WalMartization of the legal business will begin.
In short, if large firms were to apply the “Big Box” retail concept to the delivery of professional services, small firm lawyers would disappear like Main Street retailers when Wal Mart comes to town. Just think, the complex, expensive legal work most big firms seek is only a very small tip of a very large iceberg. Most business and transactional work is of the garden variety. There is no reason a large firm couldn’t set aside a team of associates and partners to do that kind of work for hundreds or thousands of small businesses for a low monthly or annual fee.
Doing quality work is just a small part of the equation. The big firms would have to deliver an improved customer-service experience as well. Instead of locking young associates away in the library for years, have them be the first point of contact for small business customers (even better, hire retired lawyers as “greeters” for new clients). Train these lawyers to answer the basic legal questions on the fly, perhaps by consulting a firm-developed knowledge base, and promise an answer to more complicated questions within a day or so. Guarantee telephone calls returned within 60 minutes – or that month’s service is free. Designate a chief client-service officer, and make that executive’s compensation dependent upon customer satisfaction levels. In short, take a look at what non-legal companies that excel at customer service are doing, and improve upon it.
Finally, to make this model a sustainable one, firms must hire the best and brightest students. Instead of focusing on the top five percent, recruit and hire law students based upon their capacity for creative and innovative thinking, people skills and business acumen. If law firms concentrated on hiring the best lawyers (instead of the best law students) schools may be forced to actually prepare students to practice law, instead of giving them the esoteric theory-based education most law students get now.
Do I think that most big firms will take these suggestions to heart? Not really. And for that I am thankful.