The crowd in the cloud

2 05 2011

These days, your knowledge is not enough to stand out from the crowd. But before I explain why that’s the case, and what you can do about it, let me quickly explain how this post came to be…

Charlotte, the senior partner in the Family law team spent hours gazing at the clouds trying to guess the weather for the department picnic

One of the benefits of Twitter is connecting with a whole heap of like-minded people, and one of those that I follow most closely is Julian Summerhayes who like me, is a former lawyer who continues to serve the legal profession in a different capacity.

Julian is also a prolific blogger, who posts great content on a daily basis, and (as with my previous mash-up post on law firm sales) I’m delighted to be able to add my thoughts to his recent post “what you know makes all the difference“.

The text in italics is Julian’s.

You know your area of law really, really well – that badge ‘Expert’ suits you nicely. The knowledge, wisdom and expertise that you have gathered would fill a small house (there may even be a best seller lurking somewhere beneath all that baggage).

Your clients, once they find you, are prepared to pay handsomely for your advice, and you have contributed, in your time, to some stellar billing at your firm. You would like to feel that you are one of the best in your field.

But the market doesn’t feel or look right. When you last did a Google search for your area of law, there were, surprisingly, quite a few more lawyers than you anticipated, espousing a degree of knowledge or calling in your specialist area.

Here’s where my take on the problem comes in. Communicating technical quality is pretty tough. In a crowded marketplace, an individual or firm trying to differentiate on quality can have a tough time being heard. For a start, as I’ve written before, the definition of “quality” is not always easy to pin down when we are talking about legal services.  However, putting that issue aside for a second, one of the big problems is that legal services really need to be experienced to be judged, and so simply telling prospective purchasers about quality is often not effective.

If a buyer strippers away all the generic language from the websites and brochures, how can they really assess quality without buying the service? Directories have their place, but having been interviewed by them (both while in private practice and in-house), I don’t think they are sufficiently placed to accurately assess the quality of legal services in any real detail.

What I would be more inclined to rely on, would be a personal recommendation from another in-house lawyer I trusted – perhaps the reason why word of mouth recommendations have long been the gold standard for law firm business development.

The Internet has been both a blessing and curse when it comes to communicating with prospective clients both. It  offers a multitude of ways to communicate cheaply with buyers all over the planet. Messages can be tailored, and a combination of traditional websites, social media and email communication allows the type of dialogue with prospects that even ten years ago would have been unthinkable. On the flip side, if all your competitors are doing the same, it makes standing out from the crowd in the cloud even more difficult.

And to you, what once felt special, now feels like every other area of law – a commodity. Of course, this is no different to the life-cycle of any product. You only have to look at the electronics industry to see a clear correlation. If you are feeling that you area of law is just another run of the mill service then the situation is likely to get a lot worse.

Commoditisation of legal services is another topic I’ve written about before. While working with the legal process outsourcer last year, the extent of this trend was very apparent. While we’ve seen certain areas of law like residential conveyancing move in that direction for years, what’s fascinating is that there are now plenty of  areas of commercial law which are starting to commoditise around the edges – due diligence (corporate work), discovery (litigation) etc.

As legal services become more commoditised, particularly where there is a blend of commodity and bespoke service (for example, consider a piece of commercial litigation where evidence is organised by some cool software from a vendor like Autonomy, the discovery exercise is largely undertaken by an offshore LPO, and the litigation strategy and trial work is run by a top-end commercial law firm), communicating the difference between service providers will become even more challenging.

For the commodity part, the difference may come from speed (faster!), price (cheaper!) or availability (24×7 online access to documents), yet for the bespoke part the competitive advantage may still come from the skill of the individual lawyer (better!). For the commoditised part of the service, there are likely to be hard metrics that can be used to describe the benefits of the service in clear terms, yet for the unique, more complex elements, we return to  the challenge of how to communicate this skill in such a crowded marketplace.

In a moment when more services are driven on line, the client will begin to disassociate the brand solicitor with the delivery of legal services. They will not assume that you know anything more than the legal portal through which they engage. Now is the time to consider how, and in what form, you should leverage those short-cuts and silver bullets that have saved your clients time and money.

Here I think Julian’s post highlights one of the differences between the business and consumer legal markets. In the world of commercial legal services (with which I am most familiar), there are some pretty well established brands which will be recognised and understood by the buying community the world over – Baker & McKenzie and Clifford Chance spring to mind as examples. The consumer market is very different, and much more fragmented. Other than perhaps Eversheds and Irwin Mitchell, I struggle to think of many domestic legal firms that have created a strong brand nationally that helps consumers identify them as a provider of legal services and also communicate the quality of their offering.

Your gut instinct is to keep things locked down: “These are my most prized pearls of [valuable] wisdom” but you are missing a huge trick. In Web 2.0 world, with the plethora of free legal information, you can expect that most clients will be informed to a greater extent than ever before, and what was once locked away amongst a secret cabal, is now out in the open.

As Carl Shapiro wrote in Information Rules (a book that applies economic theory to the information and technology industries – a good read) information (in price terms) tends to free. The combination of technology, globalisation and deregulation is making basic legal information far more widely available than ever before in history. Of course much of the profession’s skill is in how that information is applied and used effectively, but over time much of that knowledge will again become more widely available.

So, as Fat Boy Slim might say, “right here, right now”, what can you do about it?

If you truly want to steal a march on your competitors, and that includes your on-line bedfellows, then you need to consider how you can package your intelligence in such a way that clients feel obliged to stay with you or new clients instruct you. This means going beyond the ubiquitous free download that has become common place, the tired question and answer and understand that information would truly float your clients’ boat. It may be a White Paper, a survey or even some intelligence that repackages a case or two, but you need to consider the idea of giving away for free something that has true value.

My take on this would be to really put yourself in your prospect’s shoes? What is it you can do to help them? Is there a cost effective way you can provide them some benefit and also get them to experience your service? It’s not new, but I’ve certainly seen “free” workshops do this very well – the workshop itself provides some really useful guidance and helps identify and raise awareness of a problem. The remedial work requires support from external lawyers – surely those that ran the workshop are best placed to provide that advice? It’s not a guaranteed sale, but it’s a business model that management consultants have successfully used for years and can be adapted for many different scenarios.

Don’t lose sight of your knowledge and skill – that’s the price of entry to the game these days, but do think hard about how you communicate it in a crowded marketplace, and remember that the best way of communicating it is for the client to experience it for themselves!





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.

Related Articles