Optimizing your law firm for trust

Journalism, my former profession, is undergoing two related crises simultaneously. One of them, playing out in your news cycle right now, concerns the ways in which journalists should analyze and present important information to the public at a time when unhelpful terms like “fake news” and “post-truth” are in wide circulation. There’s a great deal riding on journalism’s ability to solve this crisis, especially starting nine days from now.

A trusted 5-time winner of the Buckeye Newshawk Award

The other crisis, one that will be a little more familiar to lawyers these days, is how news organizations can stay profitable or even stay afloat when the traditional platforms and business models that have previously sustained journalism are falling away, and there’s no obvious replacement ready at hand.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who’s interested in both these crises, was attending a Newsgeist conference last month and tweeted this thought-provoking observation by speaker Aron Pilhofer, the former digital executive editor for The Guardian:

By “trust,” Rosen is referring to a news organization’s credibility with readers, the degree to which readers feel confident they can rely on the organization’s accuracy and good faith. Among the suggestions offered in reply to the tweet were: ranking your sources, moving more slowly before publishing, thinking from the reader’s perspective, diversifying your staff, using more citations, “showing your work,” and of course, developing useful metrics to measure your trustworthiness. If this interests you as much as it does me, you can read more on the subject here.

The subtext of Rosen’s question, however, is that most news organizations are not currently optimized for building trust with their users. They are optimized for speed (beat everyone else to a story), attention (improve ratings and ad dollars), and journalists’ personal interests (scoops, fame, ambition, access to the corridors of power). It should be evident that these interests do not overlap neatly with the interests of the news organization’s consumers, let alone with the larger public interest that journalism has always served.

So I’d like to ask a similar question in the context of the legal market: What would a law firm look like if it were optimized for trust? That is to say, if a law firm reordered its priorities and re-engineered its processes so that its activities were bent towards increasing the degree to which its clients completely and implicitly trusted the firm, what would that look like?

There’s obviously a subtext to this question, too, and it’s that most law firms are not currently optimized for trust. I personally think that’s pretty self-evident. Most law firms, in my experience, are optimized for the following three outcomes:

  1. Revenue generation
  2. Equity owner profitability
  3. Lawyer prestige

That is to say, the law firm’s business practices, operational infrastructure, and everyday culture are all geared towards maximizing the amount of money the firm brings in, the amount of profit that money generates for the firm’s equity partners, and more distantly, the personal gratification lawyers experience from being associated with the firm. Lower down the list, although far from irrelevant, you’ll also find lawyer convenience, lawyer risk aversion, and law firm stability. These are the interests that law firms are structured to advance and the outcomes they are designed to produce, and historically, they’ve done a terrific job of it.

The reason I can say these are the interests and outcomes for which law firms are optimized is simple: these are the only things that law firms measure and track. Law firms care deeply about the number of billable hours their lawyers generate, the profitability levels of their partners (relative to other firms and to last year’s results), and the positions their lawyers and the firms themselves achieve in various industry rankings and league tables. These are almost the only performance targets for which firms develop and track metrics, and for which consequences will ensue for failure to meet them.

Some metrics are simpler than others.

Law firms do not tend to measure client satisfaction. Many do not, as a general rule, even measure the degree to which they have achieved the goals their clients hired them to achieve. Lawyers will say that these are the firm’s true goals, and they will be sincere. But it’s hard for me to believe that something is an organization’s goal when the organization doesn’t measure it, and when the organization’s culture and incentives optimize it to generate other outcomes.

You’ll notice, by the way, that most of the foregoing goals and priorities are not even directed to the enterprise itself, but to its lawyers. As I explore in more detail in my forthcoming book, Law Is A Buyer’s Market (available here later next month), this is part of the long-standing battle between a law firm and its individual lawyers for command of the firm, a battle whose tide is in the process of turning against the lawyers.

That’s the subtext; what about the text? What would a law firm look like if, instead of optimizing to advance its lawyers’ financial position and self-esteem, the firm arranged itself so as to maximize the amount of trust that its clients were willing to invest? Here are suggestions for some steps such a firm would take:

  1. Transparently track its outcomes. A law firm would create spreadsheets for every single task for which clients have retained the firm, listing what the client has asked for, what the firm promised to do, what the firm delivered, and the client’s assessment of its satisfaction with the result in terms of outcome, budget, timeline, and responsiveness. These spreadsheets would be posted in a secure online location accessible by the client 24/7. Nothing matters more to the client than the result of the retainer; a trust-optimizing firm would give the client full access and ability to assess those results.
  2. Reliably price its services. Negotiating a predictable price or price range for a law firm’s services requires extensive conversations about the client’s goals, the importance of the task to those goals, and the value of the outcome, all of which both require and enhance trust. Moreover, a firm that guarantees a price risks a shortfall — but the willingness to take that risk will impress clients and show them that the firm is committed to the relationship. Defaulting to the billable hour achieves the opposite of these outcomes.
  3. Continuously improve its client experience. How a law firm interacts with its clients is almost as important to them as the quality and effectiveness of the outcome the firm achieves. A firm that paid close attention to its “user experience,” measuring its effectiveness and striving to achieve a better experience every time out, would redirect resources to monitor its performance in this area client by client. And every time out, the client would receive direct evidence that the firm can be trusted to put the client’s interests ahead of its own. That is not a universal sentiment among law firm clients at this time.
  4. Openly demonstrate its quality control. Clients rely on a law firm for a lot of things, but above all, they trust that the firm is really good at what it does. Top rankings in industry surveys can help build client confidence in this regard. But what would really move the yardsticks would be a transparent quality control system that showed clients how the firm vets its personnel, trains them to the highest skill levels, develops and implements processes to reduce errors and amplify effectiveness, and double-checks all work product and lawyer recommendations. You would deeply trust a law firm that took those steps. So would your clients.

The fact is, you can optimize your law firm for any number of different outcomes and priorities. But simply because the traditional law firm has long optimized itself for its lawyers’ financial well-being doesn’t mean that’s the only way to go about it. What would your firm start doing if it decided, tomorrow, to optimize itself to maximize the trust its clients place in it? What would your firm stop doing tomorrow to achieve the same end? The beginning of a new year would be an excellent time to reach out to your clients and invite them to join you in answering those questions.



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