The rise of the responsible client

At its recent annual meeting in Boston, the Association of Corporate Counsel dropped a minor bombshell by announcing it had created a law firm rating system. In-house lawyers can now rate their outside law firms on six criteria: understanding of objectives/expectations, legal expertise, efficiency/process management, responsiveness/communication, predictable cost/budgeting skills, and results delivered/execution. Even if these weren’t excellent criteria, which they are, it’s refreshing to see firms ranked on terms that signify value to clients, rather than by how much money they make or how well they score on the latest “Best Employer” survey.

But there are a couple of twists to this system. Larry Bodine points out the first: the ratings are only accessible by ACC members, not by the law firms themselves. That strikes me as counter-productive: a law firm can hardly be expected to improve upon ratings it never sees, so this doesn’t seem like a useful tool to motivate change. But I’m actually more interested in a second aspect of the ratings: they can be made anonymously.  It’s up to the reviewing in-house lawyer whether to divulge his or her identity when delivering the law firm critique. To me, this is more problematic, and it illustrates a flaw in the growing client-rating movement.

We supposedly live in an age of internet-enabled consumer empowerment. Instead of relying solely on what a company tells us about its product or service, we can seek out the collective wisdom of other users. And if the matter at hand is a low-value proposition like whether a pizza place or iPhone App is worth trying, then great: you can afford to look just at the average number of stars out of five bestowed by unidentifiable computer users. But if the purchase has anything more than fleeting value, then you want some weight attached to the review in question — you need to know something about the reviewer. A lawyer review submitted anonymously, whether positive or negative, doesn’t have nearly enough weight to be meaningful. I raised the same objection to anonymous client reviews when Avvo debuted a while back.

Proponents of anonymous reviews could point to wildly successful peer-review systems like Amazon, where users don’t have to use their real names when reviewing products. But even if you post as your cat on Amazon, the system still links to all your other reviews, from which a reader can build a sense of your history, knowledge and biases and decide whether your assessment is worth any attention. Reviews by themselves are just opinions — they only become useful when you know something about the reviewer, when you can critique the critic. That’s the real benefit bestowed by widespread online access: not the power to evaluate, but the power to evaluate those doing the evaluating, to go behind the judgment to the judges. If you can’t do that —  if you don’t know who’s saying great or terrible things about a given lawyer — then you can’t derive much value from what’s being said. People tend to be a lot more circumspect when their opinions are accompanied by their identity.

But the question of anonymous lawyer ratings points up an even larger issue — the fact that clients’ growing power needs to be matched by an equivalent acceptance of responsibility. Clients stand at the threshold of unprecedented choice and power in legal representation — they can hire a lawyer from anywhere they want, order a legal task to be completed by any of a growing number of innovative methods,  demand to be billed in certain ways and up to certain financial limits, and so forth. And it’s all great fun and very empowering for the client, until the ramifications sink in: now they have to work a lot harder to choose their legal services providers and manage their legal affairs more closely.

Clients need to develop sophisticated and defensible systems for selecting and commissioning legal services providers — they can’t just outsource the whole thing to an outside law firm and dust their hands of the details. They need to demonstrate why a particular law firm was chosen over others, or why a law firm is doing a given task at all. They need to understand how legal tasks are unbundled, assigned and workflowed at least as well as their law firms do, and they need to come up with systems to monitor the progress of these tasks and how well they’re proceeding against various time, budget and effectiveness milestones — the process revolution in legal services is underway, but as Rees Morrison points out, many in-house counsel are no better trained at project management than their outside counsel are. Clients will discover that the price of having more choice is the requirement that the choice be exercised justifiably and managed systematically, and that neither will be a picnic.

It’s not so easy to rate a lawyer when your name is attached to the rating, and it’s not so easy to complain about intransigent outside counsel when the question of your own transigence is brought into play. So while it’s true that it’s becoming a lot harder to be a lawyer, I’d also argue that it’s about to become a lot harder to be a client.



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