Straight Talk from General Counsels on How to Win Their Business

Far too much of corporate law practice marketing is predicated on what the firm wants potential clients to know, rather than what general counsels are actually looking for and how they conduct their searches. I came across a gem of a video on the Corporate Counsel section of Law.com that provides a glimpse of what general counsels actually care about when identifying and vetting outside firms.

  • Strong word-of-mouth is a great equalizer; gets you on the short list.

“Be good at what you do. We tend to interview the people we’ve heard about a lot, and we’ve heard about them a lot because they’ve had success in the past. And it doesn’t mean that we’re the kind of company that defers to the absolutely “blue chip” [or] “name brand” in a certain area because that’s an attorney the board will be comfortable with…If you are good at what you’re doing, whether you’re small, new emerging, well-known, we tend to be able to find you.”

Eric Whitaker, General Counsel, Tesla Motors

 

  • It doesn’t matter how good you are if you’re also an ass.

“Can I get along with this person, will they get along with my [internal] clients? Getting along with me is important, but it’s much more important to get along with the clients, because the clients are going to see you in the long term, every day basis. If the people who have to work with you on a daily basis in that transaction can’t stand you, that’s not going to reflect well on me nor is it going to get you repeat business.”

Robert Shives, Senior Director & Associate General Counsel, Fujitsu

 

  • Forget quirky videos and personal narratives; make website attorney bios more search-friendly.

“I absolutely check out bios, because we are frequently vetting new counsel. I look at representative clients, I look at representative matters. One of the things that makes me crazy is when the sites aren’t easy to maneuver. So how you’ve coded your website to be able to sort. Try and do it yourself, as if you’re an outside counsel trying to get to a person with this expertise in this location.”

Renee Lawson, Associate General Counsel, Zynga

 

  • Think rifle, not shotgun.

“One of the things that’s sort of interesting is that a lot of firms describe [themselves] as the everything to everyone. I’m usually looking for something very specific, so if you are an IP/anti-trust/transactional/product liability/labor and employment/estates and trust lawyer – which I have seen – you’re probably not the attorney I’m going to hire. So think about how you’re portraying yourself to the outside world.”

Renee Lawson, Associate General Counsel, Zynga

 

“It’s a credibility issue as well. When one sees that long list of “you’re an expert in every field,” you just pass. You take a pass on that person.”

Megan Pierson, Senior University Counsel, Stanford University

 

  • You’re competing against in-sourcing.

“I hire a lawyer and expect that they’re going to give me 2,000 hours a year for a $200,000 salary — I’m paying them $100 an hour. In reality, if you’re working with me at a high growth company you’re working 3,000 hours a year, so it’s even less [per hour]. My blended rate from law firms for the most part — big law firms — is still $400-$500 an hour.

“It’s simply a situation where, for the most part, law firms have priced themselves out of a whole bunch of work I used to have them do. It’s that simple. When I started in ’99 I would send contracts to law firms, I’d send license agreements to law firms, I’d send some employment issues to law firms. I just don’t do it anymore.”

“If work is going to repeat at all, I’ll bring the expertise  in-house. My in-house teams have simply gotten much bigger, and my outside counsel use has gone down, and it’s a direct result of the economics of it.”

Eric Whitaker, General Counsel, Tesla Motors

  • Billing reviews can be moments of truth.

“I don’t bring everything up with my outside counsel, but I do bring certain things up because we are early in a relationship and I want to set expectations. If I ask you to look at something on a bill, I expect you to look at it, and I expect you to get back to me promptly. And frankly if it even has the slightest appearance of being inflated, wrong, I expect you to say, “I’ve taken care of it,” and I expect you to do it right away.

“If I have to battle for a write-off with you, after I’ve given you the courtesy to bring it to your attention and reviewed your bills that you should have reviewed, you’re not on my list anymore.”

Renee Lawson, Associate General Counsel, Zynga

 

Reconceiving Client Surveys, Part 4: Shorter, More Frequent and In Person

As discussed in the first post of this series, conducting client satisfaction surveys is as much marketing as it is client service. The frequency of surveys, their method of delivery, the breadth and depth of topics covered, and even the way the questions are structured all tell clients a story about your firm.

Frequency – In a professional services environment predicated on deep personal connections with clients, fielding a client satisfaction survey only once a year  seems perfunctory. Even if you have informal channels and tools for gathering  client feedback throughout the year, an official outreach on a quarterly or semi-annual basis telegraphs active interest and engagement — that you don’t take them for granted.

Method of Delivery – If someone can make a persuasive argument as to why mailing/e-mailing law firm client satisfaction survey forms constitutes better client service, please do so in the comment section below. A printed form should be hand-delivered to the intended recipient, accompanied by 1) a statement of appreciation for the client’s business and 2) a spoken, personal invitation to complete the survey candidly. In the case of an e-mail survey, make sure the message doesn’t end up in your client’s inbox without a personal heads-up — by phone or in person — to expect it. Steps 1 & 2 above obtain in this scenario as well.

Breadth and Depth of Topics Covered – Typical surveys take a “kitchen sink” approach, with questions ranging from the make-or-break (“How likely are you to recommend our firm to a friend or colleague?”) to the mundane (“Returns phone calls as promptly as I wish”). This approach inevitably results in questionnaires that are too long, which causes respondents to race through later questions. This is a particularly serious shortcoming when you have open-ended questions at the end of a long survey, because respondents are much less likely to provide thoughtful, detailed comments.

Instead of one long annual survey, consider fielding several smaller ones focused on a single client service category (e.g. core capabilities, responsiveness and collaboration, cost management/value, technology utilization, privacy/data security).  In addition to operationalizing client service conversations, you’ll obtain higher quality feedback.

Question Structure – Open-ended questions yield more useful feedback. If, however, you choose a closed-ended format, take special care in how you structure and word the questions and pre-populated response options (if you’re not using some sort of number or letter rating scale). The worst thing you can do is frame responses in such a way that it appears you’re trying to put words in the respondent’s mouth. Like this actual Big Law firm example [firm’s name is redacted]:

Rating Scale:

A – Exceptional Performance, rarely equaled by other law firms.  XYZ LLC  is the firm I hire for my legal needs.

B – Above Average.  Exceeds my expectations frequently.  I usually call XYZ LLC first.

C – Average.  Satisfactorily meets my standards.  XYZ LLC isn’t my first choice.

D – Below Average.  Failed to meet my standards in a material way.  I am seeking other counsel.

F – Unacceptable.  Without a significant and sustained effort by XYZ LLC to improve, I will discontinue using the firm.

As they say on TV lawyer shows, “Objection. Leading the witness.” Also, doesn’t “D” sound worse than “F”? And would clients experiencing “D”- or “F”-level service even bother filling out a survey form?

 

Reconceiving Client Surveys, Part 1: Remind Them Why They Like You

Why do so many client satisfaction survey introductions begin with some variation of “In order to better serve you and improve our overall relationship….”? At best it’s an expression of low self esteem, and at worst it’s an invitation to find fault. Despite their empirical trappings, surveys are as much marketing as they are client service. Wouldn’t the surveys be more valuable to both you and your clients if you used them as the beginning of a discussion about what’s going right in your relationships, and how to leverage those strengths into other areas?

How You and Your Clients Can Get the Most Out of Your Satisfaction Survey

  • Structure your survey as an inverted pyramid — The level of thoughtfulness and detail in responses falls off rapidly in surveys, so pose questions in descending order of importance. For example, don’t start off by asking the respondent to rate you on whether their phone calls are answered as promptly as they’d like. (That comes from an actual Big Law survey form.)
  • Don’t dither. Start with THE question — In a profession where firms live or die by the quantity and quality of referrals they receive, there is only one survey question that matters in determining client satisfaction: “How likely are you to recommend our firm to a friend or colleague?”
  • Use the main body of the survey to elicit context and tease out details behind your “net promoter” score —  Regardless of whether they are fans, neutrals or detractors, there are reasons why the respondents are still clients. Ask them to identify what they value most about working with you. Detractors will have an opportunity to vent later on in the survey. Causing them to consider and identify positive attributes in addition to criticisms will give you more to work with when you start developing your remediation plans.
  • End the survey with a promise — Assure respondents that you will develop and share with them an action plan based on their feedback — then do it.
Part 2: Open-Ended Questions Yield More Useful Feedback

Legal Marketing: You Are What You Bill (Hourly)

The relationship between lawyers and hourly billing rates might best be characterized with that over-used quote from the movie “Brokeback Mountain”: “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

For all the client-centric talk about alternative fee arrangements and value billing, hourly rates retain a firm grip on law firms and lawyers for both practical and psychological reasons. As a practical matter, it’s hard to beat elapsed time as the basic unit of measurement for professional services work, and hourly rates are the easiest — if not necessarily the best — ways to charge for service. But lawyers also cleave to the belief that hourly billing rate is the primary expression of  ability and status.

In the discussion thread of a recent post by Carolyn Elefant on high-end legal temp agency Axiom, one commenter noted: “Why would a good lawyer work for Axiom? Clients must understand that they’re getting junk for $150 per hour.” Really? What if a lawyer previously had been a successful solo charging $250 per hour? Is she less competent now that she’s billing at a lower rate?

As Elefant replied, “I’m not so sure they are getting junk. I mean, the lawyers have large firm and in house GC experience – but my impression is that they are not rainmakers and prefer the certainty of ongoing work and steady pay to a higher rate.”

Toby Brown opens his recent post 3 Geeks and a Law Blog on billing rate increases with a zero-sum rhetorical question:  “As a lawyer are you highly valuable (justifying a higher rate) or are you low value?”  Again,  hourly billing rates are erroneously linked directly to the quality of professional skills. Lawyers who bill at a higher rate are intrinsically better than those who bill at a lower rate.

Brown then goes on to inadvertently demonstrate how billing rates unnecessarily complicate fee discussions with clients. On one hand, Brown notes that “Rate increases are a relationship building opportunity,” yet he goes on to counsel that “Rates are merely the starting point for rate and fee conversations” and  “Have conversations with clients about pricing, versus rates. At the end of the year, or end of a case, what really matters to a client is the fee.”

Then why dwell on hourly rates at all? If the client ultimate cares most about the total fee and you make a compelling argument based on that, how you get to the final nut rate-wise becomes less relevant and less contentious. You could put rates into an appendix without reference to whether they’re going up or down, and only discuss them if the client asks.

One of the clearest examples of the pernicious hold hourly billing rates have on the lawyer psyche is a presentation by Victor Medina at the 2011 Ignite Law event. Though you’d be hard pressed to find a client to agree with his thesis, Medina posits that “Legal services are expensive, and they ought to be…Clients are really not in a position to judge your legal competence.” His solution: “Be better tea.”

“There’s $9 tea and there’s 40 cents [sic] tea, and the only way we know whether or not one’s better is by the packaging and the price.”

Gosh, if we only had a superfluity of ratings and reviews content on some sort of global interconnected web of computer networks…

Six Sigma for Law Firms: Move Over Client Surveys, Make Way for Net Promoter Scores

As I’ve written about previously, I am proud of my GE pedigree, particularly the invaluable Six Sigma and “Lean” training in operational rigor, analysis, continuous improvement, measurement and repeatable processes. So I was interested and encouraged to see Lisa Damon of Seyfarth Shaw honored as one of the ABA’s 2011 Legal Rebels for her work championing SeyfarthLean, the firm’s Six Sigma-inflected initiative to drive strategy and operational effectiveness that delivers both cost reduction for clients and revenue growth for the firm.

And earlier this week I came across a post by Darryl Mountain on the SLAW blog that discussed how to apply a standard Six Sigma DMAIC tool — the fishbone diagram — to analyze legal problems.

It seems like the time might be right for innovative firms to consider importing another quality and customer engagement tool from the business sector into law practice management: the Net Promoter Score, a customer/client loyalty metric and a operational discipline for using customer feedback to fuel profitable growth. Adopted by companies like GE, P&G, Intuit and American Express, the NPS is derived from a single question posed to customers/clients: “How likely are you to recommend [Company X] to a friend or colleague?”

Survey participants respond on a 0-to-10 point rating scale divided into three groupings:

  • Promoters (score 9-10) are loyal enthusiasts who will continue buying and
    will refer others, fueling growth.
  • Passives (score 7-8) are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who
    might be receptive to competitive offerings.
  • Detractors (score 0-6) are unhappy customers who can damage your
    brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.

To calculate the Net Promoter Score (NPS), subtract the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters. In concert with the survey, NPS companies develop an operational model to drive improvements in customer loyalty and enable profitable growth. Key elements of the model include leadership commitment, effective business processes, and systems to deliver real-time information to employees so they can respond to customer feedback.

Studies examining the NPS “loyalty effect” have shown that companies with the highest customer loyalty typically increase revenues at more than twice the rate of competitors.

Know of any law firms that have tried NPS or a similar methodology with clients?

How Yelp Is Upending Lawyer Ratings and Reviews

If it gives you peace of mind to continue investing time and money in “pay-to-play” and “claim your profile”  lawyer ratings and reviews websites, then god bless and best wishes. But the mind share these vestigial marketing tools– “basic boxes” to check — continues to command could be distracting lawyers — particularly small and solo general practice firms — from leveraging local word-of-mouth communities, Yelp in particular.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_yohVlVbEA&w=420&h=315]

Consider this quick-and-dirty case study.

As of this writing, a general search for “lawyers” on Yelp’s San Francisco community site turned up 5,557 profiles.  General litigation and estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg showed up near the top of the results page. His 63 reviews yielded a 5-out-of-5 stars rating. In a “Michael Blacksburg San Francisco lawyer” Google search, his Yelp profile was the first listing after links to his own website. A Super Lawyers link turned up down the page, but notably absent from the first page of results were links to “basic boxes”Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell.

Interestingly, a basic Google search for San Francisco immigration law firm Van Der Hout Brigagliano & Nightingale LLP — which had a 5-star overall rating based on two Yelp reviews — produced similar results. The top search result was the firm’s own website, followed by the firm’s Yelp profile.

Why Yelp Deserves More Attention from Lawyers

  • Yelp is the online ratings and reviews destination of first resort for service businesses – While it’s not necessarily a household name, Yelp has higher top of mind awareness with the general public than lawyer review sites. Ask an average person on the street whether they’ve heard of Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell or Super Lawyers and you’ll get blank stares. Heck, ask the average lawyer and you’ll likely get the same response.
  • Yelp has monster SEO clout – As discussed above, even a modest Yelp profile is easily found through a basic name search on Google. As of June 2011, more than 53 million people had visited Yelp in the previous  30 days. That compares with Avvo’s claim of 2 million unique visitors per month. Because Yelp is a multi-category site and Avvo is limited to lawyers and physicians, the sheer volume of visitors and the resulting flow of fresh content makes Yelp’s search benefits for members practically insurmountable.
  • Positive experiences in one service category means higher propensity among Yelpers to consult the site for other, unrelated service providers – In other words, finding a plumber or HVAC guy they like increases the probabilty that a Yelper will look for a dentist or lawyer there, too.
  • Yelpers trust other Yelpers – Every Yelp reviewer has his/her own ratings — even followers and fans — which factors into the perceived authority of their opinions. It’s also important to note that Yelp’s filtering and page rank algorithms favor the contributions of established users.

Have you established a Yelp business profile? What’s your experience been so far? Any advice?

Online Ratings and Reviews: Don’t Ask for Positive Comments

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard and read well-intentioned legal marketers recommend asking clients, legal colleagues and other referral sources for favorable comments on ratings and review websites like Yelp and Avvo.

While it might seem counterintuitive, asking for favorable reviews generally is unproductive and could actually discourage positive comments.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WjTaMZyS70&w=560&h=315]

Unlike asking for a referral, where the referer can act on the request privately and selectively, asking for a public, permanent online recommendation puts your professional contacts and clients on the spot. Implicitly you’re saying “I’ll be watching, and I’m expecting it to be great.” It’s a no-win situation insofar as you risk alienating your supporters and stifling positive word of mouth, and even if they do post a recommendation it likely will be a generic expression of approval rather than a helpful precis of your capabilities and character.

But don’t take my word, here’s what Yelp’s blog has to say:

Why would an online review site discourage review solicitation?

Two big reasons:

1. Would-be customers might not trust you. Let’s face it, most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers (read: yelpers) can smell from a mile away. No business is perfect, and it’s impossible to please 100% of your customers 100% of the time.

2. The solicited reviews may get filtered, and that will drive you crazy. Solicited reviews often get filtered by our automated review filter. Why do these reviews sometimes get filtered? Well, we have the unfortunate task of trying to help our users distinguish between real and fake reviews, and while we think we do a pretty good job at it with our fancy computer algorithms, the harsh reality is that solicited reviews often fall somewhere in between. Imagine, for example, the business owner who “solicits” a review by sticking a laptop in front of a customer and smilingly invites her to write a review while he looks over her shoulder. We don’t need these kinds of reviews, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when solicited reviews get filtered.

Yelp exists to connect people with great local businesses. We do this by providing people with as much trustworthy information as we can. If consumers don’t trust our content, people stop using Yelp, and everyone loses: consumers don’t have a resource they can trust to make spending decisions, would-be customers stop visiting your business listing.

How to Leverage Your Review Site Profiles and Encourage Reviews Without Directly Asking

A better way to derive value from your online ratings and reviews AND to motivate professional contacts and clients to recommend you is to let them know where to find your profiles. Display badges on your blog and website homepages, email signature and social media pages that link directly to your profile on Yelp, Avvo and other ratings and reviews websites.

Again, from the Yelp blog:

The power of word-of-mouth is that folks generally trust recommendations when they occur as part of an organic process.  There is an important distinction between “Hey, write a review about me on Yelp,” [BAD] and “Hey, check us out on Yelp!” [GOOD]. It’s the difference between actively pursuing testimonials and simply creating awareness of your business through social media outlets.

The latter allows consumers to vet your online reputation without feeling like they’re being solicited. To an established Yelp community member, a reminder of your Yelp presence can act like a dog-whistle prompting them to share their feedback about your business with fellow Yelpers.

How do you monitor and manage your online reputation via ratings and reviews sites?

It’s Not About Returning Calls: Satisfying Clients Through Online Information Access

In his Ignite Law 2011 presentation “A Failure to Communicate,” Jim Calloway addressed the issue of how to manage client expectations for returning phone calls [around the 3:25 mark on the YouTube version].

  • Discuss with each new client the challenges of returning calls — “Tell them it’s hard.”
  • Set an office policy
  • Empower staff to help you follow it
  • Discuss the client’s preferred methods of communication (e.g. e-mail, paper systems)
  • Provide regular status reports
  • “Make sure they understand how this is going to work.”

The problem with that approach is that it can’t work, and it won’t work as long as lawyers stand between clients and information. Chronic client frustration with the prompt return of phone calls isn’t really about courtesy or responsiveness; it’s about the clients’ sense that they lack personal agency and control.

A better solution to alleviate the need for and urgency around calls (and emails, for that matter) is to give clients direct access to some of their case information through online collaboration tools.

By necessity, lawyers are strict information gatekeepers, and until recently there were no practical or secure options for providing clients direct access to their own case information. But offering clients online content sharing and project management platforms like Dropbox and Basecamp has the psychological and practical benefit of offering clients an alternative to calls and e-mails.

Some clients will want to take advantage of these platforms; others will not. Either way, both you and your clients win. Instead of asking clients for forbearance, you’re offering them peace of mind.

An upcoming post will detail how a solo practitioner in Arizona is using a mobile online collaboration application to satisfy and empower his clients, and to differentiate his practice.

Law Practice Management: Legal Work vs. Work Lawyers Do

Last Friday Rachel Zahorsky at the ABA Journal filed a story from the ABA Annual Meeting headlined “As Nonlawyer Vendors, Would-Be Clients Take on More Legal Tasks, How Can Practitioners Get Ahead?”

Wait a minute…since the unauthorized practice of law is illegal, how can these brazen scofflaws get away with it? Because the work that is shifting is not intrinsically legal work, but rather non-legal work historically performed by lawyers. Granted, lawyers might be better at those tasks than non-lawyers, but economic, sociopolitical and technological factors are successfully breaking up those unofficial franchises nonetheless.

“It’s getting to be so hard to define what the practice of law is,” said Thomas C. Grella, chair of the management committee at the Asheville, N.C., firm McGuire, Wood & Bissette. “So it’s going to be even harder for state bars to regulate in the future.”

Grella was a participant on a panel entitled “The Once and Future Firm: Fact v. Fiction,” sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. According to Zahorsky’s post, the panel concluded that:

“For firms to succeed and flourish in the future, there needs to be strong leadership among law firm management, a willingness to innovate with regard to technology and billing methods, and concise plans of succession that address the compensation squabbles that plague many firms when it comes time for senior partners near retirement to transition high-revenue generating clients to junior lawyers.”

Mind-blowing, provocative stuff, right?

It might not have made it into the panel wrap-up, but at least one panelist clearly gets it:

“Lawyers need to ask: ‘Why are [clients] hiring me?’ said Mark Robertson of Robertson & Williams in Oklahoma City. ‘Can they hire someone else and not have a law firm do it? What is involved in putting together the paperwork of an M&A transaction that requires a lawyer, other than an opinion?'”

Ask not what the guild can do for you, but what you can do for your client.

Bar Associations: Most Trusted Brands for Lawyer Searches?

I’m a HUGE fan of Lifehacker, probably the most followed blog on tips and downloads for getting things done. A post this week on “How to Find a Reputable Lawyer” got my attention both for what it said and what it didn’t say.

Consulting with ABA and state/local bar associations and using their lawyer referral services was clearly the main recommendation:

“Both the American Bar Association and various state and local Bar Associations offer search and referral tools to help you find legal representation based on the type of lawyer you’re looking for. Bar Associations aren’t able to help you directly, but they can give you wholesale listings of practicing and certified lawyers who specialize in your subject area. They won’t help you make the subjective decision of whether or not a lawyer has a track record of successful litigation or charges fairly, but they’re a great place to start narrowing down your search if you don’t have anywhere else to start.

“Additionally, look for lawyer’s groups and legal aid groups that specialize in the type of issue you’re facing. Some of this involves web searching, but you can find a lot of this information by calling your state Bar Association. Even if they can’t make specific recommendations, they can direct you to professional groups of lawyers who specialize in different areas, like health care law, employment law, and more….

“Don’t hesitate to check your local bar for more information on the specific lawyers you plan to speak with, and don’t hesitate to ask for and then check on those lawyers’ references before making a decision.”

The only other online resources suggested had a distinct access to justice/legal aid bent– LawHelp.org, ProBono.net and Nolo.

Conspicuously absent from this how-to guide were references to lawyer search stalwarts like Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo, Super Lawyers and Lawyers.com. They’re free, too, and certainly would be likelier than LawHelp.org to show up in a Google search when researching such an article. So it looks like an intentional omission.

Why?

My sense is that the cost of legal representation — real and perceived — has transformed access to justice into a mainstream consumer issue, and bloggers/journalists writing for a mass audience sense that. In that dynamic, the traditional role of bar associations as impartial brokers comes into higher relief — and creates a great marketing opportunity to promote member services and increase participation in bar programs.