Are you high quality? Really?

17 10 2010

The topic of quality of legal advice seems to come up a lot more frequently these days. Perhaps that’s a sign of a more competitive marketplace. Maybe it’s down to more discerning purchasers of legal services. Either way, the days when law firms could talk in general terms about providing a “quality service”, without any proof, are long gone.

I recall discussing the take over of the mighty Liverpool FC football club, with a U.S. Liverpool fan who is also an attorney. The subject turned to Slaughter & May, the law firm acting the club, and I assured my friend the club was in safe hands, as the name of the firm is synonymous with quality and the (albeit fairly brief) dealings I have had with them in my career had done nothing to change my perception.

The "Servqual" model does a good job in offering a framework to think about the gap between client expectation and management perceptions of client experience.

At first that got me thinking about brand, market perception, and the way firms communicate with clients and prospects, but a chance conversation with another senior lawyer about the nature of quality in law firms meant that this post took a different turn…..

My starting point was whether the word “quality” always has to refer to “high quality”.

In simple terms, I might not want to buy a Rolls Royce, and indeed if I choose to buy a mid-market family estate car (sadly representative of my requirements  at the moment!), then surely I am still entitled to expect a degree of quality.

The key point is that my expectation of quality will be different, but my perception of whether the supplier meets my quality expectations  will go a long way to determining what I communicate about my experience with the product (The “Servqual” model does a good job in offering a framework to think about the gap between client expectation and management perceptions of client experience).

This raises an important point. Taking the car analogy a step further, what if the car passed a number of rigorous production line checks before it left the factory, was subject to further inspection at the dealership, and then goes through a final barrage of tests before it is driven away. If those tests and checks are the right ones, and the product met the manufacturer’s specifications, does that guarantee quality?

The point I’m trying to draw out here, is that quality has both internal and external dimensions for lawyers, whether in private practice or in-house. Quality can mean different things to different people, and indeed can mean different things to a single person at different times.

For example, quality may mean technical excellence. It may mean a piece of drafting that simply can’t be improved. It may mean advice that is delivered with empathy and by a lawyer who genuinely cares about his or her client. It may mean some advice that is extremely commercial, and allows a business client to achieve their objective. Quality might have a compliance angle, in that the advice has complied with all regulatory or process requirements. Quality might mean not just meeting client expectations, but exceeding them?

One way of thinking about this is to start with CTQs, or “critical to quality” factors, which is tool from the six sigma methodology that is used to start an examination of a process by looking at what the client sees as the critical factors in determining the quality of the output (I wrote a bit more about this here:

When it comes to quality, I would argue that clients are not the only stakeholders. Advice is also likely to need to meet certain internal thresholds and pass regulatory hurdles, irrespective of whether the client requires this.

Another angle to consider is the extent to which quality assurance in “hardwired” into your firm’s (or team’s) processes. What checks or audits are made during service delivery to pick up errors before they reach a client (at which point the error would become a “defect”)? Indeed do you know where errors are most likely to arise?

What feedback is taken at the point of, or after delivery, to investigate the client’s experience? While the net promoter score (“NPS”) metric is contraversial in some circles, many client focussed organisations in the corporate world (admittedly often serving consumers rather than business) live or die from their scores, but in my experience similar tools are not widely used in the legal profession.

“How was it for you?” may be a cliché, but understanding client expectations of quality upfront, and then asking directly for feedback as to how you did in meeting them after the event, can give hard data that offers lawyers a real chance to improve quality and to adjust/build processes to make these improvements permanent.

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Law firms and the death ground?

10 10 2010

No, not a commentary on carnage wreaked by the credit crunch, but another return to the world of warfare for some thoughts on law firm change.


The senior partner took staff discipline very seriously


In my last post I mentioned Robert Greene’s excellent book “The 33 Strategies of War”, and was particularly interested in the section on creating a sense of urgency; a phrase which rears its head in many aspects of business life.

In sales and product development, a frequently asked question is “what’s the client’s burning platform?”, meaning why does the client need to solve this problem NOW? In many cases, as I’ve written previously (  the lawyer is in the enviable position of solving an urgent and unavoidable problem – defending big ticket litigation for example. In other cases the client’s need is less pressing (for example the need for a data protection audit) and presents law firms with a sales challenge.

Another area the urgency question arises, and this is where I want to pause for a second, is in creating change. The majority of models I have seen for creating change in an organisation start with the need to create a shared sense of urgency (see the work of Kotter for example; in fact “a sense of urgency” is the title of one of his more recent books).

What interests me, is Greene’s assertion that “the world is ruled by necessity: people change their behaviour only if they have to”. He quotes from Sun-tzu in the Art of War, explaining that the famous Chinese strategist advocated creating a “death ground”: a place where the army was penned in and forced to fight as there is no escape route. Faced with death being “viscerally present” (great phrase!) the army would fight with double or triple the spirit and as a result be many times more effective.

The challenge is of course that in all but the harshest City firms (*joke*), death is fairly unlikely for the average Western lawyer, yet in all seriousness there will undoubtedly be some firms and some careers that will end over the coming months as the profession evolves in rapid and dramatic ways.

Readers of this blog are no strangers to my view of the forces changing the market place: globalisation, deregulation, commoditisation and increasing automation, more sophisticated buying behaviours, changing employee priorities and expectations…. the list goes on. These drivers will see firms out of business, industry consolidation, career doors close (and others open of course), yet many, many firms remain slow to change despite the fact that a large proportion of partners both see how different the business landscape is now, even when compared to five years ago.

While I’ve examined some of the barriers to law firm change before, Greene suggests a number of practical strategies to help leaders operate from the “psychological death ground”. I’ve pulled out the main ones below, along with some thoughts on their application to  the profession:

Stake everything on a single throw: given a low tolerance for risk, how many law firms make the bold strategic move? Don’t get me wrong, some do and succeed, some do and fail, but many, many more don’t put their eggs in four or five baskets, let alone a single one!

Enter new waters: with a whole host of new competitors about to enter the legal market place (certainly in the UK as early as next year), how many law firms are themselves thinking of entering new markets? Clearly expansion can be difficult in tough economic times, but entering new waters doesn’t have to mean serious capital expense (like opening an office in another geography) – web based services, strategic partnerships, innovative use of technology can all take a firm to new places without blowing the budget.

Make it “you against the world”: read last week’s post about knowing your enemies. How would your team behave if a key client told you that at the end of the year it would only instruct one law firm (out of you and your closest rival)? How would that shape your behaviour now?

Keep yourself restless and unsatisfied: perhaps with margins falling and cash flows looking more challenging, after a period of unprecedented growth, this might be enough to prompt action now. If not, ask yourself what you would do if partner drawings were scheduled to be halved this financial year (in the current environment, they may well be)? How could you and the team or firm survive? What could you do to fight back?

At the end of the day, I think the disconnect between Greene’s theory and reality is the difficulty translating thought into action. If these scenarios were reality, then people and organisations would act and would act quickly. The challenge for the profession, is where death is not yet quite so visceral, can we change quickly enough?

Do you want to win?

4 10 2010

Last week I started reading what is probably the second most famous text on military strategy (after Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War“); Carl von ClausewitzOn War“. I’ll be honest – it’s not an easy read.

Thawson & Partner's new aggressive strategy made quite a splash in the legal press

My reason for reading was not that I was plotting any sort of immediate show of armed force (although if I was, I promise you’ll read about it here first!), but to look for lessons that could easily be applied to strategy in the law firm arena. While it was a fascinating read, I struggled to apply many of the concepts, and turned instead to Robert Greene‘s “The 33 Strategies Of War“.

Much easier.

In fact the first chapter immediately grabbed my interest, it was titled “declare war on your enemies: the polarity strategy”. There’s quite a lot of depth to the chapter, but one of the key messages is to know your enemy.

Sounds simple?

I’m not so sure. Although the market is ultra-competitive, many firms struggle to know who their competitors really are. When I was undertaking my primary research for my MBA thesis on law firm strategy, one of the questions I asked the CEOs and managing partners was “who are your competitors?”. Answering was much more difficult than I anticipated. A huge number of variables came up: what geography was I talking about? which practice area? in which industry did I mean?

These  are undoubtedly good questions and show a good understanding of the need to segment markets, but it does make me think about the benefits of good, old-fashioned, competitive spirit. It might be that you can find “enemies” that compete in 80% of the firm’s markets, or it might be key teams have their own “public enemy number one”, but I do believe finding a key competitor to focus upon can bring real benefits.

I remember when I was in private practice, there was one firm I absolutely wanted to beat. In the area of law I practised they were generally ranked slightly higher than my firm, they had a slick brand, nicer offices, were reportedly more profitable and they paid better. I had a huge amount of respect for the firm, and on a human level, liked a great many of their lawyers. But boy, did I want to beat them! If we were ever responding to the same request for proposal, I would want to go the extra mile to make sure we were at the top of our game.

Now this response might be unique to me, but I suspect  having a handful, of clearly identified competitors could help galvanise a firm (or team) and focus it on winning? Could a common firm-wide “enemy” help break down silos within the firm?

Could having a clear idea of an “enemy” help the law firm define itself? If you know what you don’t want to be, might that help you identify differences? It might be that this polarisation helps clients identify more clearly what they are looking for in advisors.

As Greene says “see yourself as a fighter, an outsider surrounded by enemies. Constant battle will keep you strong and alert”.

Another benefit to focussing on competitors, which I discovered  in corporate life, was that commercial and sales people can then  think more broadly about the impact of their actions on the market place. For example, “if we hire Mr X, will it hurt company Y?”, “If we launch this new product at a price that undercuts Z co, what will it do to their margins?”. Without a clear idea of competition, it is hard to benefit from this type of thinking.

To me, competition is a key part of strategy. It should be about winning in a market place. A clear view of who your competitors are must help this process. It’s not always easy (I’ve written before about the benefits of collaboration among law firms, so there are undoubtedly multiple perspectives to think about here), but I do believe it’s worth thinking about. The one cautionary note is that it shouldn’t be done at the expense of losing focus on the client.

So, this week’s message? Find an enemy, have a fight. You might feel better for it….