Ah, bar association Christmas parties… such fun. No, really, I do enjoy them.
Last month, over a glass of heavily spiked eggnog, a friend introduced me to a senior partner from a big firm that happens to be one of my clients. An excellent client, actually, so I thanked him for the firm’s business and told him that I really appreciated the chance to support such a great outfit.
“How do you mean, we’re a client?” he asked.
Oh, I’m what you’d call a consulting attorney. I handle cross-border procedural issues, and your litigators call me when they need to serve process or compel evidence production in a different country.
“What?! They’re supposed to use internal resources to do that—they aren’t supposed to look outside.” He seemed a tad incredulous. I couldn’t shake the mental playback of Wilford Brimley subtly admonishing Tom Cruise to do what’s right for The Firm.
Which in turn made me a tad incredulous. This is not Bendini Lambert & Locke. It’s a real and highly successful law firm that has gotten that way precisely because they project an innovative image. In hindsight, I’m guessing (hoping?) he merely thought that I meant his litigators called me before even talking to each other. Surely, if the folks down the hall don’t know, it’s okay to call me, right?
So I told him, y’see, the stuff I do is in an awfully tight niche. It ends up being much less costly for your clients if I handle something, rather than billing ten hours for an associate to research how to serve a subpoena in Germany, just to get it wrong. (Spoiler: you can’t. Das ist verboten.)
Mr. Incredulous Big Firm Partner (IBFP) walked away grumbling, and I couldn’t chalk up his incredulity to drinking too much eggnog. He probably just hadn’t read my prior post on why law firms should outsource this kind of stuff. (Spoiler: because clients.)
My point here is this: harnessing efficiency is the great challenge before the practicing bar in this new year—and likely will be for many more. Really, it’s a matter of changing mindsets more than anything. Lindsay Griffiths’ excellent piece in Zen and the Art of Legal Networking came up on my radar last week by way of our mutual blogging platform, Lexblog. She highlighted the 2016 Altman Weil Law Firms in Transition report and, more pertinent to my conversation with Mr. IBFP, AW’s latest Chief Legal Officer Survey.
The recurring theme in both (not to boil everything down too much): law firms are still not efficient, and their clients (especially corporate clients) want them to be. CLOs take their business elsewhere or they move it back in-house because the old cost model (read: billable hours) just ain’t working for them anymore.
But back to Mr. IBFP, who is not that stodgy old grouch who could’ve clerked for Clarence Darrow, who regards the billable hour as sacrosanct, and who still can’t cotton to women in the profession.
This fellow is comparatively young, still very much in the game, and very much aware of the pressures all firms are facing. I’m pretty confident that he meant he wants his litigators to handle things internally if they can. That would make perfect sense, really.
But here’s my sales pitch, which extends beyond just what I do…
When you need to serve process or compel evidence production in a different country, you’ve got to call me. Or call one of my competitors. Just call somebody. When you have an issue on your desk that will require a massive amount of new learning to get it right, call somebody. When you are completely out of your element, call somebody.
Of course, the first somebody is the wise old sage down the hall (not the misogynistic Harumpf guy up there^^^). Use internal resources first—Mr. IBFP was absolutely correct about that. But the sage may not know, and might just tell you to call somebody like me.
To be sure, much of what I do is billed hourly—my gripe here is not with the billable hour. In fact, I still think it’s as fair a way to gauge legal work than any. My gripe is with the persistent belief that bills, rather than client benefit, must be maximized. Client dissatisfaction shouldn’t strike fear in the hearts of the IBFPs of the world. It should, however, spark a new way of looking at client service, and create a golden opportunity to forge lasting relationships. By harnessing the efficiency offered by technology, outsourcing, AFAs… those clients will stick around, and over time will be worth far more than that ten-hour bill.
So here’s hoping Mr. IBFP calls me for a consult. I’d really like to show that guy what I can do.