The Evolution of Law Firm Compensation

IntersectionLaw firm compensation plans are by and large unsophisticated, hard to administer, too subjective, opaque, and reward the wrong behaviors. As someone wise once said, "If your compensation plan is in conflict with your strategy, your compensation plan is your strategy." To generate maximum financial performance in a law firm, and achieve the highest level of client satisfaction, we need to re-align the incentives. I've said a great deal about the deficiencies of law firm compensation plans (here and here and here). A good plan should further the firm's strategy, be easy to administer, and both drive and reward the desired behaviors. Many miss the mark on one or more of these dimensions. Here are the typical challenges I observe:

No alignment with strategy. Our strategy establishes one set of goals; the compensation plan rewards other, often entirely opposing, activities. We're a full-service law firm for our clients, but we don't track or reward cross-selling. In fact, we create internal competition and ill-will by forcing partners to take a pay cut when they bring others into their relationships. We wish to expand into new practice areas and geographies, but we punish the partners brave enough to lead an expansion because their short-term economic contribution suffers. We want everyone to get out of the office and become a rainmaker, but we pay partners primarily to stay in the office and bill time. We promise clients seamless transitions when partners retire or depart, but we punish partners who introduce younger colleagues into key relationships by requiring them to split credit. We promote our client focus, but we pay for hours, not efficiency.

Limited transparency. Some firms share compensation amounts among all equity partners. Others share nothing. Some firms have lengthy compensation plan documents. Others make all decisions in a closed-door session involving a select few. Some offer helpful scenarios to guide partner behavior in matters such as fee-splitting. Others trust partners to figure it out. What most miss is that transparency is not the same as having an open or closed system (sharing, respectively, all or no compensation details). Transparency is about establishing clear direction as to which behaviors we reward, and in what proportion, and doing so well in advance of the desired behavior. More than one managing partner has been shocked to discover that many, if not most, partners are unclear on the firm's primary compensation drivers. This is management shortcoming, not a result of dim bulb partners.

Poor or insufficient metrics. Some financial metrics are easy to come by, such as billed hours or collected receipts. Others are more elusive, such as timekeeper or client profitability. Still other metrics are more directional in nature, such as cross-selling (we may know the client worked with another practice group, but we don't necessarily know whether the relationship partner drove that). Some behaviors have only subjective metrics: serving as a good mentor? community involvement? acting in the best interests of the firm? A solid plan has specific metrics tied to the desired behaviors, and a clear and sustainable methodology for measuring performance in more subjective areas.

Inconsistent or incomplete reporting. When the compensation drivers are established, they should be published and then periodically the metrics tracking performance should also be published. Why not monthly? It serves little purpose to provide no metrics until year end, or provide vague or incomplete metrics at uncertain intervals during the year. It's hard make a course correction if we have neither a map of our destination nor our current coordinates.

Failure to acknowledge self-interest. We all want to earn a healthy living. But just as partners are loath to discuss budgets with clients, many avoid compensation discussions until required to do so by executive or compensation committee fiat. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know what specifically I can do to increase my compensation -- especially if the management committee has aligned the comp plan to strategy, so maximizing compensation furthers the strategy! Also, far too often top rainmakers or management or comp committee members prevent meaningful discussions of compensation plan changes because they fear losing income. While a revised plan may indeed result in changes to some partners' compensation, if the outcome is improved financial performance for all (and improved client satisfaction), then it's bad form and quite possibly a breach of fiduciary duty for those at the top of the pay scale to refuse to review alternatives.

Pursuing a disruptive implementation. If we identify a better compensation approach that serves the partners' and the clients' interests, it's statistically improbable that everyone will make the same. The change may be good. Some partners who are more comfortable billing time might be quite pleased with a plan that offers more certainty but less potential. Rainmakers may enjoy growing their books of business without being tethered to the billable hour. But some change may be troubling: some may see a compensation decrease commensurate with a declining trend in economic contribution. But we don't have to make these changes all at once. We can establish the end-state and then migrate to it over several years, providing training or transition support to those who might be significantly disrupted by a new plan.

Incomplete modeling. By nature, any forecast is speculative. To change a compensation plan means applying numerous "what if" scenarios to current performance, with no guarantee that we will sustain our current level of performance. We also don't know if, or how quickly, an adjustment to, say, origination credit will grow the pie. We don't know for sure how many partners will defect if their compensation will decrease, because the market dictates whether their economic contribution is more valuable elsewhere than here. They may already have the greenest grass they'll ever see. So we must model numerous factors, using realistic variables, and then create a few versions of the future. Failure to do this may result in significant disruption and unrest, and risk-averse lawyers tend to become flight risks during times of uncertainty.

Big dog accommodations. Every firm has one, if not many, partners who are the top of the food chain and who are somewhat blasé or even outright hostile to firm policies. Nothing creates organizational turmoil than when senior leaders or big dogs are allowed to break rules that little people must follow. When a top rainmaker threatens to leave, sometimes the best response is to say goodbye. When new compensation policies are put in place, it may be reasonable to make certain accommodations for those who feed others. But there's a limit. The behavior we desire should be incorporated into the compensation plan, and there's no room for unwritten rules.

A compensation assessment or redesign can be an extraordinarily effective tool to improve financial performance, foster a client-focused and collaborative culture, reduce unnecessary distractions, and provide a roadmap for career success. Expecting smart people to somehow "figure it out" is lazy management. Build the future you want in your law firm. Start today.

 

Timothy B. Corcoran was the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and is an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change. For more information, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

 

Compensation, Billable Hours Limiting Law Firms' Success

Legal Intelligencer reporters Gina Passarella and Hank Grezlak have authored a series of articles on the changing law firm business model and how law firms must adapt to compete. The first article in the series, "Law Firm 3.0: Information Changing Law Firm Models", can be found here. The second, "Compensation, Billable Hours Limiting Firms' Success," can be found here. In this second article I was quoted extensively, so here is some additional context for my comments.

 

"I don't think that the primary determinant for quality in the past, which has been size, is going to be as much of a factor going forward," according to Timothy Corcoran of Corcoran Consulting Group. He was referring to size of revenue, profits, head count and hours billed. "It is so tied up in everything related to Big Law and yet it is a red herring," Corcoran said. "Most businesses would not equate size with success."

Many law firm management committees and equity partners equate success with size. Bigger is better, in large part because the traditional law firm economic model requires additional timekeepers to grow revenues and profits. Want to make more money? Acquire a firm or a practice or recruit laterals. Want to be considered one of the elite attorneys in town? Establish the highest billable hour rate. Want to secure first place in your preferred ranking? Represent the most clients on the most matters in your chosen specialty. Want to secure front page coverage in the American Lawyer magazine? Secure the highest PPP (profits per partner) in the American Lawyer rankings. Yet few clients claim to value law firm size above all else. Experience matters, of course, and with transaction volume comes experience. But it's not the volume itself that delivers value -- it's the efficiency and predictability and comfort that comes with experience that clients seek.

 

Corcoran said he knows of partners who could double their books of business but choose not to do so because their firm compensates them for billing hours. The fastest growing segment of Corcoran's practice is compensation redesign, he said. For several years he has worked with firms on project management and alternative fees, but "sooner or later you run into a brick wall. And it's simply that, when you put a lawyer in a position of choosing between his economic self-interest and what is good for the firm on a long-term basis, they will oftentimes choose what benefits them," Corcoran said. He said he doesn't blame the partners for that. "In any business, if you have a compensation plan that is in conflict with your strategy, the compensation plan becomes your strategy," Corcoran said. He said firms can reward hunters and farmers—rainmakers and service partners. But right now, many firms have compensation strategies that are in conflict with the cross-selling initiatives most firms espouse, particularly the focus on origination without accounting for sharing the credit or without a willingness to move credit to a new partner who has taken over the bulk of the work. Corcoran said having different formulas to compensate different behaviors is where firms should go. "That will very likely result in income disparity and that is not, in and of itself, bad," Corcoran said.

Enduring businesses encounter different economic cycles, sometimes simultaneously. Product A is in a mature market with dominant market share, with high prices and high profits, but looming on the horizon are disruptive entrants offering more benefits at a substantially lower cost. Product B competes with a dozen similar offerings and while sales volume is high it offers very slim margins. Product C is a creative new entrant offered at an introductory price and is taking the market by storm, shifting significant market share from long-entrenched and higher-priced competitors. Product D is a luxury product offered in a market with a down economy in all sectors. Product E is a commodity product offered in a boom economy where consumer demand and discretionary spending as at an all-time high. Product F is a high-end product with a very limited addressable market, say multi-billionaires. Now... which one compensation plan can be imposed on all stakeholders -- salespeople, manufacturing, account managers, executives -- that perfectly aligns and drives appropriate behavior so that each product line secures the optimal balance of revenue, profit, and market share?

The corollary to law firms is that most firms rely on one compensation plan that applies equally to all equity partners, regardless of the economic cycle facing individual practices, the varying tenure and experience level of individual partners, or the particular business objectives of the firm this year. Absent a strategic plan and a compensation plan that are inextricably linked, particularly in an organization which retains no earnings, partners are likely to take actions that maximize their short-term income. And who can blame them? Issuing vague platitudes regarding the "firm as a family" culture but only rewarding individual billable hours isn't an indictment of self-serving partners; it's a management failing.

 

The law firm business model is maturing, with some help from the recession, but is really just facing the same business questions that other industries have already had to answer, Corcoran said. When demand was high, law firms would have a staff that looked like a grocery store with 37 checkout lines open at 2 a.m. even though there were only four shoppers in the store. The idea was firms would be ready for anything, Corcoran said. Law firms can't go to the opposite extreme of a [just-in-time] manufacturing business in which it would take an order and promise delivery in six weeks once it got the proper parts and people in place, he said. But they can rely on a flexible workforce of contract lawyers, legal process outsourcing and other alternative models. The "grocery store" can look like it has 37 lines open at 2 a.m., but the law firm is only paying for five of those cashiers as salaried employees, Corcoran said. "Downsizing isn't a big, traumatic affair," Corcoran said. "Every business on the planet ramps up for an initiative and then moves on [when it's over]. It's perfectly OK to rely on a flexible workforce." That means the number of lawyers on the stable payroll might be smaller, but the size of the overall workforce could fluctuate based on need, he said.

Corporations eschew the carrying cost of under-utilized resources. The reason law departments aren't huge -- and why many that are staffing up today will outsource those jobs under the next leadership regime -- is that the cost of recruiting and maintaining non-core assets presents an opportunity cost to the business. The local grocery store doesn't own apple orchards or cows because it can more efficiently purchase these items wholesale and resell them at a profit. And apple orchards don't rely solely on their own storefronts because they can earn greater profits selling produce to grocery stores. Businesses can hire law firms periodically at a far lower cost than employing a full staff of lawyers in all specialties who stand around waiting to be called. Law firms in turn, are expected to mobilize quickly. Traditionally this meant hiring a large staff of lawyers who scramble to look productive by billing time whenever they answer the phone or review a memo, some of which adds little value to a client matter. So law firms struggle to balance utilization (or how to keep lawyers busy without over-billing clients) and realization (what clients are willing to pay vs. what they've been billed). The most obvious lesson is lost on many law firm leaders: many law firms exist because they represent a good outsourcing opportunity for clients, so a sensible law firm staffing strategy should also rely on outsourcing to minimize carrying costs and provide maximum flexibility. There are many excellent lawyers available!

 

The fastest way to developing a new law firm model, Corcoran said, is to change compensation plans and not rely so heavily on the billable hour. Corcoran said the billable hour devalues the law firm's contribution far more than it impairs the buyer's ability to buy services. He described it as a "self-imposed [con]straint on revenues and profits. Once firms realize this, they will run from the billable hour," Corcoran said.

I'm surprised this is still a debate. And it is, even by those who should know better. Look, if you want to bill by the hour, go for it. If the services a law firm renders are priced within a range the client has established as tolerable, and the quality is measurably acceptable, then it may not be productive to quibble over the mechanics of the invoice.  But don't be surprised if the client recognizes the inherent conflict of interest, particularly when linked to a compensation system rewarding billable hours, and questions everything. If changing because the clients want you to isn't enough incentive, why not do it because it's a stupid economic model? If my daughter announced an interest in launching a lemonade stand in the front yard and came to me for capital infusion, the first caveat in her business case would likely not be "And I've imposed an absolute ceiling on the revenue I can earn." Yet this is what law firms do by adhering to the billable hour: "We have determined, on January 1st, that our number of timekeepers, multiplied by their respective billing rates, multiplied by the finite number of hours in each workday, will be our absolute cap on revenue. Hopefully we can continually find ways to reduce overhead costs if we wish to pocket more profits, otherwise we're forced to add more timekeepers to bill more hours... even though those timekeepers also come at a high cost."

In business we learn how to make money while we sleep. In many law firms, however, the sleeping is happening behind the wheel. The beauty of AFAs is that once the client agrees to a price, the law firm has every incentive to boost profits by finding lower-cost ways to deliver the same quality outcome, and the client doesn't need to meddle in the production or the invoicing or the staffing or the hours. This is why legal project management and process improvement are, and have always been, far more beneficial to law firms than to the clients.

 

"Sooner or later, everyone will catch up," Corcoran said. "But right now, those that are really changing, what an opportunity to grow market share."

This, in a nutshell, is the challenge and the opportunity. Clients and laggard competitors are providing the economic catalyst for change, and lessons from other business sectors provide the roadmap for thriving, not just surviving. Yet so many law firm leaders are reluctant to take action. Eventually, the ability for law firm  leaders and individual partners to control their own destiny will diminish. Why not act today?

 

Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

Infighting on Compensation Costs Law Firms Time and Money

Lately I've been spending a substantial amount of time working with law firm leaders on evaluating and redesigning -- yes, substantially rewriting -- partner compensation plans. As with many other categories of the law firm business, for far too long law firms have operated as if practicing law relies on, and generates, human behavior that is not subject to ordinary rewards and incentives found elsewhere. Incentive compensation is an area of significant study in businesses everywhere, yet most law firms have ignored the available research and developed plans that are simultaneously simplistic (focusing on billable hours as the primary objective), complex (requiring significant manual compilation and exhausting negotiations), and ineffective (too few are specifically linked to the firm's strategic plan). I'll be writing much more on this topic in the days ahead as we unwind and reinvent law firm compensation. I'm interested in your views on law firm compensation plans, so feel free to share insights and observations below or connect with me offline. Your insights, whether I agree or not, may be included in future articles. For now, enjoy the recent conversation I had with Lee Pacchia of Mimesis Law WebTV as we discuss how self-generated distractions of poor compensation plans can impair law firm productivity.

 

 

Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

Linking Business Development to Partner Compensation

In recent years, as client fee pressure has increased and client loyalty has decreased, law firms are investing significant time and money in business development programs. Some partners receive training to dust off selling skills that were largely unnecessary during a time of plenty. Other partners receive training, then individualized coaching, then more training, then more coaching, in an often-futile attempt to turn everyone into a capable rainmaker. Mathematically, if every equity and income partner generates just a little bit more, this is far more impactful than demanding even more production from our handful of true rainmakers. Trouble is, this rarely works out as planned. There are logistical, financial and psychological barriers to this plan of turning every partner into a rainmaker, and it's time law firm leaders recognized its ineffectiveness, and instead adopt a more productive approach. It's time to touch the third rail of law firm management: partner compensation. Conventional wisdom suggests that law firm partners are motivated by financial incentives, Partner Compensationand therefore many compensation plans are designed to encourage behavior that generates financial success. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. Many compensation plans overemphasize origination and in so doing fail to recognize the critical contributions of many partners. Furthermore, the plans often fail spectacularly in addressing and rewarding origination. But this is a problem that can be solved.

Different Strokes

The first mistake with most law firm compensation plans is the expectation that partners are, or can become, what baseball enthusiasts call "five-tool players." As noted business development coach Mike O'Horo says, "While there are certainly some superstars who are equally adept at a variety of things, the reality is that most players are exceptional at just a few skills." Compensation plans often fall into this trap by expecting numerous exceptional behaviors such as new matter origination, high leverage, high utilization of billable hours, inbound and outbound cross-selling, mentoring of young lawyers, firm or practice group management, pro bono activities, matter profitability, high billing and collection realization, expense management, marketing and business development activities, and more. In reality, successful teams are composed of players with different and complementary skill sets and a good compensation plan should recognize and reward different contributions. In a well-designed plan, partners are able to maximize compensation by maximizing their particular and unique skill sets.

To be clear, generating new business is challenging in any industry. There's a certain tenacity required to doggedly pursue new opportunities, to network and meet new prospective clients, to understand their business challenges, to devise custom solutions to these challenges, and to overcome objections and negotiate prices to win the business. Done well, it involves significant rejection, and significant time—time that quite obviously cannot be billed or recaptured. So, origination should be a key driver of compensation.

But too many plans stop there. First of all, the partner who excels at networking may lack the deep subject-matter expertise necessary to craft a custom legal solution. He or she may lack the financial acumen necessary to devise a creative fee arrangement that both meets the client's budget and generates profits for the firm. And so begins the arduous negotiating process of determining the relative contribution of other partners who helped advance an opportunity to a close. Treating this as a solo effort fails to acknowledge the contributions of others, and relying on the largesse of partners to divvy up their spoils fairly, or even consistently, is a recipe for unrest. This is why most other businesses provide some sort of team compensation when multiple parties are routinely involved in closing a sale. In fact, many companies willingly "double pay" commissions, or, in law firm parlance, award greater than 100 percent origination credit, when it's demonstrated that doing so nets more wins and higher revenue. Companies, and law firms, that do this poorly incentivize the hoarding of opportunities: "I would likely win more engagements if I collaborated with others, but it's not in my economic self-interest to do so, so I'll act alone."

And let's not overdo origination credit. Too many plans treat origination of a single matter as a perpetual annuity, crowding out any incentive to cross-sell, or for older partners to transition key client relationships to up-and-coming younger partners. Other plans allow partners to stake a claim on all future business from clients they initially generate, whether or not that partner is ever again involved in winning another engagement.

Most businesses recognize that "hunters" are best deployed at hunting, whereas "farming" involves cultivating relationships to yield more results over time. Generating new business from existing clients is far more likely to involve other lawyers, particularly those billing time to a matter. There is a clear link between the quality of the work product and client retention, but the definition of quality has evolved to include the manner in which the legal services are delivered, not merely the outcome, and certainly not merely the cost. A partner could put forth significant effort to win a matter, and then poor communication, poor budgeting and poor project management can impair the client's satisfaction, even when the matter's outcome is favorable. Accordingly, retention is a common factor in corporate compensation plans but is glaringly missing from most law firm partner compensation plans. The short-term thinking that leads law firm leaders to view business in one-year increments, tidying up financials at year-end and distributing profits to shareholders, creates the illusion that financial performance can be effectively measured one matter at a time rather than by measuring a myriad of variables over an extended period.

Retention is a powerful financial driver. Incorporating a retention incentive moves client satisfaction from a subjective aspiration to a concrete goal. A focus on retention solidifies client relationships and insulates the firm from the potential financial devastation caused by lateral departures. Retention incentives recognize multiple contributors, from those who generate the work, to those who deliver the work, to those who manage the relationship. Retention is also a significant factor in measuring profitability. In a typical law firm compensation scheme, a matter that earns premium fees and generates significant hours may produce significant revenue and therefore significant compensation to the originating partners and/or billing timekeepers even as it generates minimal profits. However, a matter that is priced strategically, thereby lowering the cost of sales, that maximizes leverage by pushing the work down to the lowest-cost resource capable of delivering quality work product, that generates high client satisfaction and therefore repeat work across numerous practice areas, and that results in significantly higher profits, might generate minimal financial rewards for the partners involved. Profit cannot be fully measured in the short term, and retention is a key factor in measuring profitability over the long term.

Change Management

A successful compensation plan meets three primary requirements:

  • It furthers the firm's strategic objectives
  • It's easy to understand and therefore helps manage partner expectations
  • It's easy to administer

It's a rare law firm compensation plan that meets these requirements.

In many cases, law firms have no strategic objectives beyond growth, or perhaps profitable growth. There is no stated retention target, or cross-selling target, or a bottom-up financial forecast reflecting the realistic growth trajectory of each practice and sub-practice and the timekeepers associated with each. Vaguely aspiring to "grow the business" year-in and year-out isn't a strategy so much as an aspiration. When law firms delineate specific objectives, the actions required to achieve the objectives become more obvious. And just as importantly, the actions inconsistent with achieving the objectives become more obvious.

A compensation plan that is readily understood and clearly defines which actions will generate what income is much more effective and less distracting than a vague plan that places a premium on origination or billing credit, and then incorporates a mystical subjective analysis to address all other behaviors and outcomes. Despite the many shortcomings of today's plans, there are two primary reasons partners resist change: it may be a terrible plan, but they've grown comfortable with it and change begets uncertainty; and everyone fears that a new formula will lead to decreased compensation.

It is true that new formulas will lead to changed compensation for some. But that partner whose compensation varies significantly from year to year is likely to embrace more certainty, even if the new target is lower than an earlier high point. The partner who dreads networking on the cocktail circuit but does it out of a sense of obligation might serve everyone's needs better if she participated in—and helps win—far more pitches at her colleagues' invitation than trying to drum up a new matter or two on her own. And the rainmakers today will remain the rainmakers tomorrow, and are more adept than most at adjusting their selling parameters to incorporate new compensation measures. And, yes, there may be a partner here or there who's found a way to game the system—hoarding origination credit, minimizing leverage, keeping key clients close to the vest, periodically threatening to leave—who will refuse to change, and for good reason. Under a more effective plan, these behaviors will be recognized for the profit-dilutive actions they are, and a partner adhering to such models will need to accept that doing so comes at a price.

Designing the new compensation scheme is only half the battle. As great a challenge as it is to define a firm's strategic objectives and design incentives that drive and reward behavior consistent with these objectives, it's just as challenging to migrate from where we are today. This is why compensation plan changes need to take place over time, in phases. An abrupt shift, even to a plan that everyone agrees has the potential to be more effective, can be just as disruptive and distracting as a poorly designed plan. Rolling out a new plan has as much to do with strategic planning and financial analysis as it does with organizational psychology. Success comes from staging changes in increments, accompanied by detailed financial analysis and a comprehensive communication plan.

Law firm partners want to be rewarded for their efforts, they want certainty in a time of great unrest. Law firm leaders want profitable growth. Clients want quality legal services at market rates delivered in innovative new ways. We can't afford to wait until all of this takes place and then design new compensation plans. By designing the compensation plans first, we can design the future we want and need.

 

Timothy B. Corcoran is the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

 

A version of this article first appeared in The Legal Intelligencer, an ALM publication, and is reprinted with permission.

Bar Associations: Protecting Consumers or the Status Quo?

Status QuoSome Bar Associations are behind the times. And some are challenged by the dual and potentially conflicting roles they play: one, to self-regulate the practice of law in order to protect consumers; and two, to protect the guild of lawyers from competition. A recent Texas State Bar ethics ruling demands a reaction because not only does it fail to protect consumers, it creates additional barriers for advancing the profession. The ruling states that a Texas law firm may not use "officer" or "principal" in job titles for non-lawyer employees in the firm, as doing so may suggest that these employees exert control or influence over the work of the lawyers, which is a violation of the rules of professional conduct. Additionally, the ruling states that bonus compensation for such non-lawyers can't be formulaically based on the firm's financial performance, as this would constitute unauthorized fee-sharing with non-lawyers. The ruling purports to protect the consumers of legal services, presumably under the premise that non-lawyers are simply not qualified to influence the delivery of legal services and any such interference constitutes a prima facie case of wrongdoing. (See what I did there, pretending to speak like a lawyer?!)

In my role as sitting President of the Legal Marketing Association, and on behalf of our 3,600+ members, I collaborated with the leaders of other legal associations to draft a response urging the Texas Bar to reconsider its stance. These association leaders are well-credentialed professionals who are dedicated to improving the operations of law firms, big and small, and yes, improving the delivery of legal services. And one could argue that by specifically excluding such voices, the legal profession is holding itself back. You should read our letter. It's reasonable and articulate and provides good food for thought.

But speaking individually as a former CEO, I'll be a bit bolder. The Texas ethics commission ruling is ridiculous and unsound. It reflects the worst of the closed-minded lawyer mindset: a belief that lawyers alone can define "quality" in the delivery of legal services. I can assure you, most CEOs spend very little time ruminating about the state of their suppliers' industries or professions, unless some impending disruption in these fields will impair our business performance. And lawyers are doing just that. So, wearing my CEO hat, here's my reaction:

Business clients are unhappy. Lawyers in the mid-size and big firms that serve us often do a terrible job of communicating. They fail to properly manage expectations by limiting the client's surprise. They tend to treat each matter as if it's unique and infinitely variable, yet at the same time expect us to believe their experience in a given field is meaningful. They believe in charging higher fees based on the length of time they've practiced, even when they are unable or unwilling to demonstrate this experience by using matter budgets or project plans. And their fees are typically established irrespective of the value I place on the services rendered, and what alternatives exist for me obtain these same services elsewhere, assuming that the seniority of the lawyer and the time necessary to deliver the work are the primary drivers of value.  They claim that non-lawyers in a law firm, or worse, non-lawyers providing legal services outside the structure of a law firm, e.g., an LPO, must be incapable of providing quality legal services, even when these alternative providers can unassailably demonstrate higher quality at a lower cost.

Does the Texas ruling really protect the consumer? There are different consumers of legal services. As a seasoned corporate executive, mindful of my corporation's risk tolerance and business objectives, and well-trained as a steward of my corporation's hard-earned capital, I don't need as much hand holding. I have long experience managing complex M&A transactions, launching new products requiring IP protection, managing layoffs and plant closures, negotiating labor contracts, and being deposed in contracts disputes. I want the Bar to protect me by ensuring my lawyers are competent in business issues. I can find a thousand lawyers who can conduct legal research, identify precedents, and draft a memo telling why taking some action carries risk. I find far fewer lawyers who think like me and understand the business impact of my legal issues.

And if these so-called protections are not, in fact, in the interests of consumers, might they instead serve to protect the interests of lawyers? It's a curious industry that establishes its own operating rules, self-regulates its members' conduct, decides for itself what competition it will allow, and purposely addresses these issues without the input (or interference?) of anyone outside the profession.  I'm not suggesting that there's a vast conspiracy with nefarious purposes, but I am suggesting that human nature operating within such a closed system is bound to create confusion between "what's right" and "what's right for us." From my perspective, the Texas Bar ruling has a lot to do with protecting lawyers from adopting modern, sound business practices, as if somehow doing so is inconsistent with practicing law.

If a senior business person in a law firm can help the lawyer-leaders understand how to budget, how to profit from efficiency, how to embrace continuous improvement, how to lower fees while improving quality, how to better communicate with unhappy clients, and more, then not only should that businessperson be given a title befitting that knowledge, he or she should be given a compensation package commensurate with that experience, experience that is highly prized in the business arena. And if growing the firm's profits is a consequence of improving client satisfaction, then reward that businessperson in some way commensurate with his or her impact on business performance. If you're unable to distinguish between a non-lawyer who improves firm operations and client-focus, and one who is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, I question your competence as a lawyer.

If I can't trust you to understand simple business mechanics -- the issues I deal with all day, every day -- and if I can't trust you to recognize your own deficiencies and fill these gaps with competent professionals -- and instead you harangue those who speak truth to power and sit smugly in an alternate reality where partners cannot be wrong -- and if I can't trust your pals in the Bar to protect me from your deficiencies -- and instead they issue rulings designed to forbid competent professionals from meeting my needs -- then I can't possibly trust you to give me sound legal advice. THIS is why law firms are suffering, not because demand for legal services is down, or because bean counters value price over quality.

Suppliers non-strategic legal

By the way, let's banish the "non-lawyer" label as unnecessarily non-descriptive and non-productive, prone to nonsense. Defining something by what it's not isn't all that helpful, is it? Or keep it, if it makes lawyers feel better. No one really cares. But understand that corporate executives don't spend much time drawing such distinctions of pedigree and titles within their vendor organizations, so partners should feel free to proudly carry the label of "vendor" or "supplier." We care mostly about rising legal costs and declining value, not labels.

If the Bar wants to focus on truth-in-labeling, can we look into :

  • Firm leaders who haven't received a single day of formal management training yet carry the label of practice group leader, or managing partner?
  • Non-equity partners who are merely highly-compensated employees, not equity shareholders in a partnership?
  • Can we look into Marketing Partners who have never taken a marketing course, Technology Partners who have no technology training, Finance Partners with no finance or accounting degree?
  • Can we look into pitches and proposals that compile disparate experience in creative ways, purporting to reflect deep subject matter experience but instead reflect the common but misguided notion that "We're smart lawyers. If we win the work we can figure out how to do it later?"
  • Can we look into lawyers' over-reliance on hourly billing rate cards to convey the price of legal services, when in fact rates are but one element of the formula for the overall cost?
  • Can we look into published billing rates that reflect an inflated price as compared to actual receivables that perpetually reflect a much lower realized price?
  • Can we look at inconsistent discounting and write-down policies in use in firms that bear no relation to "key client" programs?

There's a lot wrong with the modern law firm business. It takes smart people with relevant experience to solve these problems. Forbidding competent professionals to lend their experience isn't productive. Insisting that a law degree is the only distinction necessary to decide what is and what is not "good" for clients is myopic. I call on the Texas Bar to review and revise its ruling to reflect the cold truth that protecting the status quo is not what clients want. Progress waits for no one, and the Bar Associations and incumbent leaders of the profession can wring their hands and lament the intrusion of economic forces, or they can collectively step up to reshape the profession. Relevance is recoverable. Roles as trusted strategic advisors are there for the taking. Your move, lawyers.

Update: View my interview here with Lee Pacchia on the Business of Law webcast at Mimesis Law TV. 

 

Timothy B. Corcoran is the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.