The Heart and Soul of Your Law Firm | What Vendor Relationships Reveal

Today a package of materials from a new client of mine arrived overnight, first AM delivery. The delivery surprised me and exceeded my expectation as our scheduled meeting is weeks away. There was nothing urgent about me receiving the materials, but it sure was nice to have them in hand so far in advance. Then I recalled how earlier communications with the managing partner and his staff had clued me in that I was dealing with a first class organization with great respect and value for everyone they do business with, even those outside the direct revenue stream. Their treatment of others goes beneath the surface and is the heart and soul of their success.

They are successful not only because the firm has excellent, experienced lawyers, though they do. Not because they discount services or offer alternate fee arrangements, they don’t. They are successful because they have a law firm culture that operates on mutual respect, consideration, and honesty. CLIENTS like that. A successful firm will not take for granted the impact their internal culture has upon its success.

Culture is a law firm’s DNA.

Truth be told, you can actually tell A LOT about a law firm’s culture by the way they treat their vendors. When someone told me this, years ago, I thought it was absurd. Now, after 15 years in the legal profession, both as an employee and a vendor, I can tell you its true. [Too bad more prospects don’t know this or they’d be interviewing a firm’s vendors, not their lawyers, to uncover what they might expect from the client/attorney/law firm relationship.]

I can now predict, with accuracy, client satisfaction levels in almost 100% of cases simply by my dealings with the firm as a vendor. I have found that there is a direct correlation between the degree to which I am treated respectfully and the degree of the law firm’s success.  Weird, I know….well, maybe not.

In a new book by Barry Libert of Mzinga, “Social Nation. How to harness the power of Social Media to attract customers, motivate employees and grow your business,” (Wiley, 2010), Libert posits that the power of culture is not to be underestimated where business and community intersect. (Yes, your clients are a community!) Among many golden nuggets the book has to offer (full review to follow shortly*), Libert proposes that clients can sense when your culture is a healthy one, and a healthy culture is a healthy company.

“If the DNA is healthy, the company is healthy. If it is not, the company, just like your family, will falter and eventually fail. In business, it means your customers will leave in pursuit of a competitor that will care more about them and better meet their needs.”

I couldn’t agree with Libert more. To wit, I’ve worked inside law firms that had a DNA of respect, honesty and action. They respected their employees and their vendors, i.e., valued their expertise, engaged in fair contracts, didn’t haggle, returned calls, and paid invoices promptly. Not surprisingly, they also had a lot of loyal and happy clients and are still going strong today. Conversely, I’ve also worked where it was exactly the opposite. Ironically, in once such instance, the law firm no longer exists!

Observations from the vendor trenches. [ Or, what shoppers can learn from vendors.]

It starts in the evaluation stage. When a prospective client law firm and I are getting to know one another I’ve noticed that the best firms have taken the time to prepare good questions. They might also have an idea for how they want to proceed, and they have determined a range of fees they’re willing to pay.  Some even have an idea of the specific results they are seeking. (They’ve done some homework or they tell me up front that they are clueless. Honesty is always a good start.) Though this often evolves as we talk, their preparedness is a sign that they take the project, my services, and me seriously. Following the logic, these law firms would also be those that are not afraid to tell one of their prospective clients the truth about the prospects for their case. They would reasonably estimate fees and, if necessary, refer them to another attorney or law firm that is better suited for the matter. In essence, they are prepared and preparation is a hallmark of great law firms and great cultures.

Alternately, I can immediately tell when an evaluation call is a fishing expedition for FREE expertise. In these cases I can fairly accurately assess that the firm is not successful enough to pay for expertise or that they believe their own expertise is the only kind worth paying for; both are bad. Avoid these firms and you avoid disappointment.

After the evaluation stage, I learn a lot about the firm by the length of time it takes to return phone calls or respond to emails. It is illuminating.

For example I am often asked to submit a proposal TOMORROW, i.e., “This is an urgent project for the firm. Can you get that to me tomorrow?  Our committee is meeting on Friday.” “Sure,” I say and work through the evening hours to deliver on my word only to hear silence for weeks. Now, I know that my proposal is not always at the top of the list, but is it too much to ask for a quick email response to say; got the proposal, the committee did not have time to discuss it on Friday, but it’s on the agenda for next month? Non-responsive behavior from a firm that has an URGENT need is likely to be a firm that communicates poorly (or even dishonestly) with their clients. (Note: a distinction should be made between lawyer and law firm, i.e. the law firm may be unresponsive but an individual lawyer can be very responsive. However, when you hire a lawyer you essentially hire their law firm. It’s a 360-degree relationship, and it takes both to make it work.)

The pricing stage is also often a very telling sequence. Being the Pollyanna that I am, I assume that once past the evaluation and the proposal there is sufficient understanding of the value of my services and respect for me as a business owner; that I’ve priced my services competitively and that I intend to deliver value along with the price tag. If I say my day rate is X, it is X. If there is variation in what you’re asking me to provide there may be room for a discount, but if the project is as quoted you can be sure that is what I believe the project will cost—and for me to remain in business to help you in the future. The law firm that doesn’t understand this equation distrusts me. And, not in all cases of course, but such a law firm could actually be over charging or under-delivering their services and they are projecting their behavior on me. [Note to shoppers: There are some firms that just can’t help themselves from negotiating everything! While that’s fair, beware; they will likely be tough negotiators when it comes to writing down your legal bill too!]

Finally, much can be read from the payment process. As a responsible contractor I always include terms of payment in my letter of agreement.  When a client signs that agreement I believe they, in good faith, intend to conform to the terms. (Lawyers must understand this, right?) But to my surprise, even when the situation is black and white, i.e. product or service delivered and approved, there are some law firms that purposely sit on the payment for months, ignoring the terms of our agreement. How this reflects a firm’s culture is crystal clear. In one example, I waited over a year to get paid! It was no surprise to me when I learned that the named partner of that firm was found guilty of fraud and his license suspended.

If clients aren’t raining from the sky…

Word of mouth marketing can be the life-blood of a law firm, i.e. referrals. It can also be what’s standing between success and failure. In today’s social marketplace,  people are talking. The insight we receive from social interactions and communications that take place among and between our clients, employees, vendors, and partners reveal a lot. Decisions about purchasing products and services are more frequently based on how the outside sees our “inside” culture. If clients aren’t raining from the sky for you or your law firm, you may want to step away from the sunshine and look inside at your culture.

“Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”Mark Twain

Perhaps I could have saved a lot of words and simply said “actions speak louder than words.” Or, perhaps corporate culture, like the weather, is impossible to change for anyone but the Heavens. So, our only recourse is to talk about it and make us feel a little bit better-though totally not in control.

Whatever the case, weather happens. So does culture. Only difference is you can influence your law firm’s culture. Like it or not, how you do business with others outside your revenue stream will impact how you do business with your revenue stream, i.e. clients. And, as Libert suggests….”take good care of your personal values and you will energize your customers, partners and employees.”


*Disclosure: I was given a complimentary copy of this book to review.

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