Client-based lawyer ratings

I haven’t written before now about Avvo, the online lawyer rating system that generated so much controversy when it was first launched last year. Most of what you need to know about the site can be found in this collection of articles at Legal Blog Watch, but in a nutshell: Avvo provides a numerical rating for lawyers based on a number of factors drawn from state bar records, court records, peer reviews and lawyers themselves. Avvo can rate lawyers with or without their permission, and does not reveal the nature of the mathematical model used to calculate the ratings.

Avvo got off to a rough start, publishing ratings for dead lawyers and ranking convicted felons above law school deans. These beta-launch problems helped support Avvo’s many critics and formed the basis for a class-action lawsuit. But the lawsuit was dismissed (although the judge was hardly complimentary of the defendant), Avvo continued to expand its reach and work on refining its system, and the company has now apparently made enough progress to start winning over previous skeptics like Robert Ambrogi and Kevin O’Keefe.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Avvo one way or the other. On the one hand, I’m supportive of virtually any initiative that tries to provide more information about lawyers to the legal services consumer — reliable third-party assessments would be much more helpful than narrow, one-way lawyer advertising campaigns. And I instinctively rally to the side of anything that shakes up the profession’s status quo and makes lawyers a little uncomfortable.

That said, there are clear and obvious limitations to how useful a numerical rating system can be for lawyers. I like Amazon reviews and Consumer Reports rankings as much as the next person, and I’m the first to say that lawyers would benefit from more exposure to the pressures of the consumer marketplace. But hiring a lawyer is not the same as buying a car or a plasma TV — you can’t reduce all that a lawyer brings to the table to a simple ten-point rating. Partly that’s because people aren’t objects and shouldn’t be treated as such, but also because every person’s interaction with a lawyer will be different, based on personality mix, the nature of the case, the timing of the relationship, and a host of other factors.

And this leads me to what I think is the most important thing about Avvo ratings: they’re not client-based. Avvo’s mathematical model crunches information only from public records and lawyer submissions; client ratings aren’t poured into the mix, though they are provided as additional data points. But such ratings and reviews are still relatively few and far between at Avvo, so what the site really provides is an undisclosed mathematical model’s estimation of how highly a lawyer should be regarded. That’s better than no information at all, or relying on what the lawyer alone feels like telling you, but not better enough to win me over. Continue Reading

No matter what, manage expectations

Nothing is more critical to the success of your relationship with clients than managing expectations,  because expectations are enormously important to how people feel and behave. Among other things, as three recent articles explain, they relate closely to:

Price: Robert Ambrogi at Legal Blog Watch reports on a study that shows people enjoy wine more when they believe it to be more expensive, and that they find energy drinks less useful when they’re provided at a discount.

Performance: The Economist relates that athletes given morphine two days in a row and a placebo on the third day feel the same painkiller effect all three days.

Information: Guy Kawasaki links to a study that says the more information consumers have about a product, the less they enjoy it, because they’re less able to use their imaginations and engage in wishful thinking about a product’s effect.

Expectations correlate directly with satisfaction — it’s human nature to be happy relative to the degree of happiness anticipated. That’s how significant are your earliest dealings with a client, including numerous encounters before the client actually calls or shows up at your office. Here are just some of the ways clients’ expectations are shaped:

1. Your web profile: Obviously, this includes your web page,  especially your photo, biography, list of achievements, community work and personal data. But more broadly, it includes everything about you that comes up in a Google search, including where you show up on the Net, who’s talking about you, and what they’re saying. Steve Matthews has written a great article on this subject that will appear in the March 2008 issue of National. Continue Reading

Seeing justice through clients’ eyes

At the moment, I’m working on a paper about professionalism in the law, tying it closely to lawyers’ mandate to serve the best interests of others, including clients and the public. I thought you might be interested in this brief excerpt; I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts about it in return:

There is a fundamental disconnect between how lawyers view the justice system and how clients view it. Lawyers are trained, from the first day of law school, to get the right result, no matter what. We are steeped in the idea that justice must always be done and must always be seen to be done, whatever the costs.

The underlying theory of the common-law adversarial system reflects this: two learned advocates, zealously advancing their clients’ cause, will produce for an independent judge the means by which the correct result can be identified and proclaimed. The costs involved in reaching this result, in terms of time, money and impact on people’s lives, are, from the lawyer’s point of view, of secondary importance to the overarching goal of the system: justice must be done.

To see an illustration of this philosophy, consider the discovery process, a major contributor to the length and cost of trials. (Needed reforms to the process were endorsed by former Ontario Associate Chief Justice of Ontario Coulter Osborne in his recent civil justice report.)

Lawyers are trained to believe that anything that can be construed as potentially evidentiary should be made available for them to sift through. Inclined by both nature and training to be thorough to the point of perfectionism, lawyers want access to every stone for the purpose of turning it over. Similarly inclined towards risk aversion, lawyers fear missing any relevant point, no matter how small, and are accordingly driven to ensure that every box has been checked. The result is a massive overabundance of attention to the trees and too little regard for the forest. Continue Reading

Ten years from now

Eversheds, one of a small handful of really innovative large law firms out there (most of them in London), has released a report predicting the future of the legal profession in 2018. (Hat tip to Legal Blog Watch.) The linked press release provides the highlight: more commoditization of legal work, more fee pressures from clients, another stay of execution for the billable hour, and the continued reality that working in a very large law firm takes up most of your time. (Fill out this form for a copy.)

I tend to agree with Carolyn at LBW that this forecast doesn’t seem to differ a whole lot from the legal world in 2008. And I’m a little amused that the “Law Firm of the 21st Century,” as Eversheds bills it, is located in 2018. If you took a 1918 partnership as the model for 20st-century law firms, you’d find quite a lot of variation from one end of the century to the other. (Although, admittedly, not quite as much as you might like.) Still, it’s interesting that Eversheds took on the trouble and expense of this project — it’s not the kind of thing you do for fun. If, as I expect, it was part of a planning exercise for the firm’s near- and mid-term future, it’s not a bad idea.

I try not to predict the future if I can help it — whenever I’ve done so in the past, I usually wind up looking ridiculous, and so do most people who try to play Nostradamus. As Ron points out in the comments at LBW, there are always completely unforeseeable trends that emerge on a global scale and skew predictions completely off course. Just as an example, check out this video from 1967 that predicts, with remarkable prescience, high-tech shopping in 1999, but assumes gender roles and interior decorating will have changed not an iota.

So I’ll only make one prediction based on the Eversheds report, specifically on the sharp disagreement between lawyers and clients about the sustainability of legal costs (clients think it’s a problem, lawyers don’t). No disconnect between purchasers and vendors on any important matter, especially regarding costs, goes unresolved for very long. Lawyers who don’t take clients’ concerns seriously, especially regarding costs, aren’t going to enjoy 2018 very much.

Marketing is about the client

Late last year, in my column at Slaw, I posited the idea of lawyers adopting a client partnership model based on Amazon.com’s customer relationship approach. One of my suggestions was to track a client’s use of the electronic newsletters that law firms send out and use the data to tailor their services to that client accordingly:

If a client receives a general business and corporate e-newsletter but only clicks on and reads the articles pertaining to entrepreneurship while ignoring the items on competition law, her copy of the e-news can be automatically customized to include more of the former and less of the latter. Not only that, but the client’s browsing interest is added to her profile and could prompt a phone call from the lawyer inviting her to a venture capital seminar.

I was pretty delighted, then, to read this article from Law Firm, Inc. this morning, which led off with an anecdote about a Houston law firm’s marketing director and her innovative use of the firm’s existing but underutilized Customer Relations Management software:

She set the CRM system so that whenever the firm e-mailed clients a newsletter, it tracked which articles were opened by which recipients. This enabled Horn to home in on the topics that were most interesting to specific clients. She then centered her marketing efforts around these hot issues — a client alert devoted to climate change, for instance, or a seminar on intellectual property. The result: The more focused her marketing efforts became, the more phone calls the firm’s partners received. “We’ve sent out more than 500 items this year — newsletters, invitations to conferences and so on,” says Horn. “At least 10 percent have directly produced work.”

But this innovation success story, unfortunately, was one of the few reported in the article’s comprehensive survey of the state of marketing and business development at the 200 largest American law firms by revenue. The overall sense emerging from the article is that most law firm marketing is like a car stuck in deep mud, with the Chief Marketing Officer pressing hard on the gas pedal but unable to make much headway. Here are some of the reasons for (and effects of) all the tire-spinning: Continue Reading

If I had two billion dollars

There is persuasive authority for the proposition that if I had a million dollars, I’d buy your love. So what would I be able to buy with two billion dollars? Apparently, a whole lot of wide-eyed attention and breathless commentary from various legal media outlets. That’s pretty much all I’ve seen over the last few days after Latham & Watkins, DLA Piper and Skadden Arps each announced that it had broken the $2 billion revenue barrier in 2007.

Now, if this is the sort of thing you like, then the foregoing links will give you more than enough to pass the weekend, what with the debates over total firm revenue versus profit per partner versus profit per equity partner, each metric relatively able or unable to determine the richest and/or most profitable large law firm in the world. For myself, I’d like to step back here and suggest that the more we obsess over law firms’ enormous revenue or profit figures, the farther away we travel from why we’re in this gig in the first place.

It bears repeating that lawyers, like the laws that enable their businesses, exist for the purposes of clients, not the other way around. I constantly see lawyers get that formula backwards, viewing clients primarily as a means to their own ends rather than as ends in themselves. Our profession is deeply immersed in the concept of clients as sources of work, suppliers of problems, lifelines of status, fonts of revenue — as entities from whom we receive, rather than to whom we give. A lot of lawyers, subconsciously or otherwise, regard clients as holding value only insofar as they provide us with the raw material of lawyering.

Kant could have told you how categorically important it is to treat people as ends in themselves, that striving to enable another’s dignity and happiness is the overriding purpose of human relationships. That, fundamentally, is why law remains an important calling and (done right) an immensely fulfilling vocation. It’s no coincidence that law, medicine and ministry — each centered on alleviating unhappiness and enhancing the human condition — were the first three lines of work to be considered “professions.” If we want to understand what we mean by professionalism, we need to remember where the word came from. Continue Reading

The trust factor in online networks

Three separate items about social networking for lawyers hit my feed reader today, each of which deserves a read. At SLAW, Steve Matthews of Stem Legal says Facebook is not a viable marketing tool for lawyers, in part because its closed-door nature prevents a lawyer’s marketing efforts from reaching a wider audience. In the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, Denise Howell and Ernest Svenson compare Facebook, LinkedIn and other online tools for lawyers and talk about the power of online profile. Finally, LegalWeek looks at the utility of social network platforms for in-house counsel, with a particular focus on Legal OnRamp, and sees a generally bright future.

As I’ve written before, it’s important that we don’t conflate the online networks of the future with the present Facebook model. Not trying to diss Facebook too hard here — I like Scrabulous as much as the next English major — but the term “social networking” is now all but synonymous with Facebook, and has imported all of Facebook’s benefits and limitations (it’s similar to how “blog” has hard a hard time escaping the gravitational pull of millions of bloggers grinding political axes or writing about their cats.)

To my mind, Facebook’s greatest limitation is its artificiality, or perhaps its spinnability: you can control your page and paint the picture of yourself that you want the world to see. You can choose your friends, tell only the stories you want told, and vary the level of access people can have to those stories. No wonder marketers love Facebook — it’s the ultimate PR platform. Incautious Facebook users (of which there are several million) don’t think or bother to be so calculating, and reveal more of themselves to the world at large than they should. You can tell them from their drunken shirtless photo albums, for a start.

But more sophisticated Facebook users craft their page carefully, using it as a gallery on which to hang their commissioned and closely supervised self-portraits. They list the books they want you to think they read, rather than the books they actually have read, controlling the message of their identity as firmly and cynically as any political spin doctor. The results are far more impressive to the casual reader, but the real person behind the facade never shows up, except by accident. You can’t count on authenticity from Facebook, because we can’t trust that a person is who he portrays himself to be. Continue Reading

The real risk of offshoring

This article from The Recorder about in-house counsel who send legal work offshore includes a line that goes straight on to my list of favourite quotes. Scott Rickman, associate general counsel at Del Monte Foods, has this to say regarding law firms’ standard warnings about offshoring:

“In these articles, there’s always a quote from a partner at a large law firm about the risk of sending work to India. Yes, there’s a risk — there’s a risk to law firm profits.”

Yeah, you got served!*

Obviously there are risks involved with offshoring work to India, but the risk is pretty much the same as it would be when beginning a new relationship with any legal service provider, whether in Mumbai or Montreal. Law firms are the ones with more at stake here — as a consultant in the article puts it, it’s not just about falling profits, it’s also about the law firms’ loss of control. And there’s more of that to come.

Read the comments made in the article by the in-house counsel. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of offshoring aren’t sending bet-the-company work overseas. But they’re not worried about the quality of offshore work per se; they’re concerned that they don’t have longstanding relationships of trust and confidence with these offshore firms, and that Indian firms don’t have the expertise to do higher-end work. Mona Sabet of Cadence, explaining why she doesn’t offshore IP work, says:

“As with any complex activity, it takes years before an organization can develop the depth of proficiency necessary to compete with others who have been in the industry for decades.”

The key element here is time, and the key word is “yet” — this is an industry still in its infancy. If you really believe that an Indian legal service provider won’t establish both excellent working relationships with clients and top-grade expertise in key areas for another 25 or 30 years, or ever, then I think you’ll be uncomfortably surprised, and soon. The North American legal marketplace is extremely vulnerable to hungry competitors, and in India, they’ve only just started the appetizers.

* I apologize for the sorry attempt at hipness. As the saying goes, I wouldn’t be street if you covered me in asphalt.

Something’s actually happening

There’s a lot of buzz building about an article in today’s New York Times with the rather odd title “Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms.” It summarizes a recent rash of new business models in American law firms, from flextime for lawyers to flat-fee bills for clients to alternative billable-hour schemes and more. It’s the second article the Times has run recently about lawyers seeking satisfaction, and it prompted its rivals at the WSJ’s Law Blog to ask: is there really something happening here?

The WSJ blog’s readers are providing their usual snarky responses: “This new ‘movement’ will dovetail nicely into the massive layoffs that will be coming in the coming months,” says one. “So, you want more time with your family or to pursue your passion for flamenco guitar? Here is 3 months severance.” Nice. So, here’s my answer to the blog’s question: yes. As Judith shouted at Reg in The Life of Brian, “Something’s actually happening!”

I can refer to you any number of articles and links about law firms that are making changes to the way they manage their employees and their work — see the Financial Times‘ law firm innovation report and the Innovaction Awards, for starters. In addition to the firms identified in the Times article, there are others making changes to how they operate in terms of compensation, of partnership, of billable hours, of women in law firms, and even of the entire firm itself. And these are just a few of the ones we hear about — other changes are occurring, quietly and beneath the radar, in areas such as recruitment, retention, training, parental leave, and evaluation.

Law firms are under pressure. They’ve gotten used to a comfortable world where they could set the tone and pace of operations. That comfort zone is evaporating from two directions: externally from clients and internally from lawyers. Clients really are more sophisticated and more demanding, and they’re looking for more than their firms have traditionally been willing to give them. And lawyers really are more inclined to walk away from (or try to change) work conditions that don’t satisfy a wide range of personal needs.

But even that’s not really new — both clients and lawyers are longstanding complainers, and pressure has been brought before, which law firms have ignored. And keep in mind that many, many law firms are continuing to ignore these pressures. What’s really new this time, I think, is not just that law firms are changing the way they do business, but why. I think they’re doing it, voluntarily, to gain a competitive advantage. Continue Reading

The good times rolled

A noteworthy item in the National Law Journal today, interesting for a bunch of reasons. The thrust of the article is that with a recession likely to arrive in 2008, associates at many top US firms are likely to see an end to the salary and bonus frenzy that has obsessed the legal press for the last year or so. (Starting first-year salaries of $180,000 and year-end bonuses approaching $55,000, in case you’re wondering.)

First of all, I had to smile at this explanatory sentence in the article: “Top firms, for the purposes of this article, compose a group of large New York-based law firms that, generally, copy one another in bonus structures.” That’s odd, because I thought top firms were the ones with lawyers who were, you know, extremely good at what they do and had the respect and loyalty of their clients. But apparently, top firms are the ones that are very big and do whatever the other very big firms do. This is the kind of muddled thinking that permeates too much legal journalism in the US and Canada both: mistaking the small fraction of huge firms retained by wealthy multinationals for the profession at large. The last time I checked the CBA database, lawyers in firms of 100 or more represented about a tenth of the legal population.

Secondly, the article talks up the coming recession, as has become widely fashionable lately and will, no doubt, soon become a refrain in presidential campaigns in the US and possible election calls in Canada. I don’t follow this topic especially closely, but it has seemed to me for a while that the booming economy we hear so much about has boomed for only a small percentage of the population, while real wages for a lot of working North Americans (including lawyers) have been stagnant or worse for awhile now. Banks may be hemorrhaging money in the wake of the subprime mortgage fiasco (and the imminent subprime credit card fiasco), but you could argue what we’re seeing is the financial sector coming down to earth and joining the rest of us. Of course, it’s the white-hot financial sector that has been driving “top firm” profits recently, so you can see how some white collars in those firms are now getting a little tight. (Gerry Riskin was on top of this months ago, at any rate.) Continue Reading