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The Lawyers as a Product: Increasing Productivity in 3 Easy Steps

Lawyers need to be regarded as the “product”, something that can be both supported and challenged in a way that will lead to great productivity.

In Inside Counsel, Kevin Long looks at the three key attributes that can lead to great productivity for lawyers:  a proper, business awareness of their services, differentiating their expertise and building client relationships.

Frm Inside Counsel:  Clients routinely rate “knowledge of my business” as among the top, if not the top, attribute they cite in lawyers they enjoy working with.

It is an attribute that is not covered in law schools, and many young lawyers (especially those who did not work before law school) are fairly oblivious to their clients’ existence outside the lawsuit or transaction on their plate. Transactional groups are historically better attuned than litigators in this regard, but most fall far short.

Business awareness includes of course industry knowledge, such as where the client’s market share is heading, the latest quarterly reports, new products from client and the like. However, it also includes knowledge of how business is conducted within the client. Most lawyers who go in-house after leaving firms comment about how different the culture is at clients and how little outside counsel understand about that culture.

Outside counsel often do not understand reporting-lines, budgets, titles and the most effective way to communicate inside an organization. For example, litigators naturally tend to have a focus on the court system. This is entirely appropriate. They are focused on how to communicate with that judge or jury to get the best result.

Often, however, they are not aware enough about the communications within the client. This is not just outside counsel’s communication with his or her contact, but how that contact needs to communicate within the client organization. Disregarding what seem like bureaucratic reporting requirements because “we’re doing well in the case and will get a good result,” can cause significant headaches for clients. Outside counsel need to understand the needs of their clients.

Differentiable expertise

I recently heard a general counsel for one of the top ten banks in the U.S. asked what he looked for when selecting outside counsel. His response was immediate and unqualified. He said “specific expertise in the issue that the bank is facing.” In 2014, clients demand that, and they want verifiable answers.

Clients rarely conclude “all litigation is the same,” or “all deals are the same.” This does not necessarily mean that the same lawyer cannot help clients repeatedly with varying matters, but it does mean that the lawyers’ expertise must be differentiable.

One of three conclusions often lead to selection of the appropriate counsel: They know us (know the client, how to efficient extract information we will need for the matter and work within client’s system); they know the subject matter (have had hundreds of matters just like this one); or they know the tribunal or regulatory body (they practice heavily in jurisdiction at issue, they served as a regulator).

Providing our most talented young lawyers with experiences that increase their skills in each of the areas above should be the focal point of lawyer development. It takes consistent and meticulous planning to achieve the correct balance, and it isn’t over when the lawyer becomes a partner.

It needs to be a career-long effort. All too often, the reality of meeting short-term financial metrics is not aligned with these key development goals.

The hours-heavy engagements early in an associate’s career can establish the lawyer’s work ethic, reliability and responsiveness.

However, if they are not helping the lawyer understand a key client or industry, become an expert on a subject matter with lasting value, or earn a reputation within a court system or regulatory body, there is a limit to how valuable the experiences are.

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