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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The size 0 law firm?

26 11 2009

Sitting in an Entrepreneur’s group meeting at accountants Price Bailey on behalf of a client, the conversation (nicely facilitated by Nick Mayhew) turned to the concept of  “lean”, which took me back to the operations management module on the MBA. While at first sight many of the process improvements that have led to successful improvements in manufacturing may not seem applicable to the world of professional services, if we scratch beneath the surface, there is much to ponder.

A good starting point is perhaps that one of the key drivers for operational improvement in manufacturing organisations was the need to do “more for less” ie improve output (quality, volume etc) in return for less (revenue, margin etc). The same dilemma is now facing law firms in the world of deregulation and global competition. One of the ways law firms can compete more successfully in this increasingly competitive market, is to improve their “operational excellence” (to borrow a phrase from the Value Disciplines management model). In my experience, when law firms thinking about improving operations, the objective is often just to strip out cost. Managing cost is of course critical (particularly in the current economic climate), but it is far from the only aspect of operational excellence.

Small cog in a big machine? More importantly, are the cogs turning?

One other key improvement area is looking at the process of actually providing legal advice, and seeing how it can be improved. I think the historic hourly rate pricing structure for legal services has traditionally provided a reason not to focus on improving the process (if the client will pay for the inefficiency, why remove it?). Now pressure is forcing firms to adopt new pricing models, which is in turn squeezing margin. If firms can make their processes more repeatable, more efficient and performed using the right level of resource each time, I believe they have the opportunity to create a more consistent, higher quality product, at a lower cost. Which is where they need to be right now (more for less).

If we look at some of the legal sectors that have faced competition from outside the profession earlier (conveyancing, insurance claims etc), there are examples of this type of process improvement (which of course may include a technology component). Some may protest that high end work is very different (it is), but while the same degree of commoditisation might not follow so quickly, I believe it is very unwise to believe the process for providing that advice cannot be improved. Ignore operational improvements at your peril, embrace them and see what is possible.