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: https://intelligentchallenge.wordpress.com/2010/04/13/delighted-by-a-lawyer/).

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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Team player or liability?

9 02 2010

After watching the mighty Liverpool FC destroy their Mersyside rivals at football on Saturday (ok, it was an edgy 1-0 win, but let’s not get hung up on the details), my mind drifted to the importance of teamwork. From there it was a small, sideways step to pondering teamwork in law firms.

What role does the heavyweight partner play in the team?

The increasing size and scale of business deals these days means  that more and more areas of commercial law requires law firms to field teams. While once teams were the preserve of M&A and corporate departments, now technology, employment, property, commercial and compliance lawyers (among others) regularly work in teams, and more often than not, cross functional teams. This raises a number of challenges, the first being that confronted by many temporary teams that are pulled together for a specific deal or project, which is that team members are thrown together on an ad hoc basis, and expected to form a high performing unit. In the heat of a deal, team dynamics are often not considered and as a result the roles people play in teams are often not clear.

This can have the effect of having the right technical skills in the team (pensions lawyer? check, TUPE specialist? check) but not the right balance of personalities and working styles. For example, having a team full of great “ideas” people, but no detail-orientated “completer finishers” is likely to challenge a project timetable, whereas too many driven, leader types can lead to fireworks and conflict resolution getting in the way of client needs.  On top of this sub-optimal mix of lawyer ingredients, matters can be further complicated by different reporting lines, and competing time demands from other client (for example a large public sector deal may be the top priority for the commercial partner leading the deal, but just an annoyance to an employment associate who is pushing for partnership on the back of his retail sector employment expertise).

With added pressure to keep costs low, the temptation for many law firms might be to staff up project teams with the cheapest resource that could do the job, to help preserve margins. Aside from the risk of damaging client satisfaction (and many firms are now starting to think about client lifetime value), this approach may ultimately end up racking up higher costs than a carefully picked project team with optimal resourcing.

So what can be done? Much as it would be nice to do a Myers-Briggs team assessment, or a Belbin analysis on team candidates before each deal, and supplement the psychometric testing with an investigation into learning styles and feedback agility, I think we all know that’s not going to happen. What I think is important is that lawyers have the awareness of their team-working characteristics, and also seek to understand that of their peers. This does require some investment both by the firm and the lawyers involved. This type of profiling could for example be carried out on more permanent teams (for example sector teams or practice groups, where lawyers work regularly together), which would get people thinking about team dynamics as well as giving them an awareness of their own tendencies.

As part of the fundamental change that the legal profession is undergoing, this may seem a minor point, but when you consider that these team dynamics are becoming further stretched by cross-cultural and multi-organisation teams, I think effective team working is a crucial transferable skill that lawyers need for the future.