Legal marketing and business development professionals are familiar with the language lawyers insert when clients or prospective clients request a description of the firm’s capabilities in project management, process improvement, or alternative (non-hourly) fee arrangements. While marketers can help paint a vivid picture of what could be, they are often less exposed to how, even if, these disciplines are actually being embraced by their lawyers in the delivery of legal services. It’s critical for marketers to know the power of these disciplines to help differentiate the firm in the marketplace, but it’s also critical to know how to apply these same concepts to routine marketing and business development functions. This was the remit for legal marketers who attended a recent Yellow Belt certification course in Legal Lean Sigma®️ and Project Management in New Orleans.
Legal Lean Sigma®️ is a customized approach to process improvement and project management developed by the Legal Lean Sigma®️ Institute. Combining aspects from the Lean and Six Sigma approaches to process improvement, and incorporating the fundamentals of project management, the workshop illustrated for legal marketers how law firms can mirror how more sophisticated businesses pursue a culture of continuous improvement. Here are a few of the key takeaways.
1. Continuous Improvement isn’t about doing more for less
This a common misnomer. While consumers of legal services, like consumers of all goods and services, would prefer to spend less rather than more, continuous improvement isn’t synonymous with becoming a low-cost provider. In a continuous improvement culture, a law firm relies on its deep experience to find efficiencies, to improve budget predictability, and to constantly find new ways to improve quality. This provides a cost advantage that leads to improved profits, particularly when the law firm isn’t tethered to pricing by the billable hour. Some clients, for some work, certainly want a low-cost solution. Process Improvement and Project Management help law firms distinguish between the services they offer that can and should be marketed primarily by price (“commodities”) and those where deep experience allow for greater differentiation, and then staff and deliver these services accordingly.
2. Experience is the truest market differentiator
So many law firms pursue a marketing strategy that’s roughly equivalent to stating over and over: “We’re smart, we’ve done this before, and therefore you should hire us.” Legal marketers are constantly asked to find new and different ways to promote their lawyers’ special talents, deal lists, directory rankings, league tables, education, pedigree, and other honors. But these are proxies for what really matters to clients: actual experience. For clients, the true test of experience is the simple question: “What will this cost?” Lawyers who are unable to distinguish their experience in any meaningful way will give the reply that perpetually confounds and confuses clients: “It depends.” To paraphrase the father of the quality movement, Edward Deming: If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process or predict the cost, you don’t really know what you’re doing. Lawyers who have embraced continuous improvement don’t just talk about their experience, they prove it by using Project Management and Process Improvement to break down the work they do, remove the mystery from it, provide greater budget and timeline certainty, and improve quality by reducing variation in tasks they’ve done a thousand times. Legal marketers have a lot more to work with when they can not only promote their lawyers’ credentials, but provide evidence of deep subject matter experience. To clients, a proposal that includes a budget and project plan and an established methodology for managing scope change is far more compelling than one that repeats the “We’re smart” theme for 100 pages!
3. It’s necessary, not a necessary evil
Most current law firm partners and law firm leaders came of age in an era where the billable hour generated handsome returns. This led to conflating the notion of quality with how (and how long!) the lawyers delivered the legal work. Today, however, clients have assertively established control over the definition of quality. To a client, quality encompasses not just the outcome, but the process, the communication, the cost, and the experience of engaging outside counsel for a legal matter. As a consequence, clients are increasingly refusing to pay high hourly rates for legal work that can be delivered at a lower cost with commensurate quality. Law firms embracing continuous improvement can readily adapt to this model, generating significant profits from demonstrable experience, even as they move away from billing by the hour. Yet many lawyers, erroneously conflating financial success and quality with billable hours, continue to resist change. Experienced practitioners of Project Management and Process Improvement realize that coupling these disciplines with a more strategic approach to pricing will simultaneously improve client satisfaction, quality, and financial success.
4. Collaboration is the killer app
Lawyers, and the marketers who support them, are endlessly engaged in the pursuit of transactional relationships. Few clients can or will declare one law firm to be its sole provider of legal services in all areas for all time. It’s both highly risky for the client, and astoundingly unlikely that one law firm can meet all of a client’s varied needs. So the quest becomes finding a client that will hire us again and again, possibly even achieving preferred provider status to ensure a steady diet of matters. However, clients do, in fact, make long-term business choices. They invest in long-term contracts for key raw materials in their supply chain; they purchase specialized equipment to automate the factory floor; they select enterprise software to manage their back office; and so on. What distinguishes the selection of law firms from these other suppliers is the fleeting nature of the need for legal services. At some point, the acquisition will be integrated, the labor dispute will be resolved, the litigation will be decided or settled.
For a law firm to become invaluable to a client between the delivery of legal services, the lawyers must find a way to become the client’s true business partner. Clients, especially those with a thriving continuous improvement culture elsewhere in the business, are moving ever-faster toward re-engineering the provision of legal services. Savvy law firm leaders who have fostered a continuous improvement culture of their own recognize an upstream opportunity for collaboration: rather than wait for the client to decide it needs a law firm and then vie to win the work, instead help the client manage its business in such a way as to avoid the legal issue. When lawyers can also speak the continuous improvement dialect, they can collaborate with law departments and business management to improve business velocity, not just address legal concerns. Lawyers who are only capable of answering legal questions when asked are forced to wait by the phone for the call that may never come.
5. It’s not just for lawyers
A pleasant realization for legal marketers who participate in Legal Project Management and Process Improvement workshops is that these disciplines are just as valuable when applied to marketing and business development. Numerous marketing tasks can be improved by Process Improvement and Project Management: responding to an RFP, organizing an event, capturing firm experience, updating website bios, tracking pipeline activity, and more. It’s not enough to learn how to promote the lawyers’ adoption of these disciplines to potential clients, it’s important to embrace these approaches within the law firm. After all, there will never be enough time or enough marketing personnel to properly address the deluge of requests submitted by the lawyers. The best way to prioritize the marketing team’s efforts, to maximize productivity, to meet tight deadlines, and to deliver quality work product on budget, is to embrace continuous improvement internally. Otherwise, we perpetuate a “hero culture” where superhuman feats of strength and endurance are regularly needed to do the impossible.
Continuous improvement is the new face of differentiation in today’s legal marketplace. It’s also the easiest way to generate client satisfaction, to improve quality, and to thrive while others flounder. Legal marketers have every opportunity to not only embrace these changes, but to lead the charge.
This article originally appeared in the Prodonovich Advisory Better Practice Blog.
Timothy B. Corcoran is principal of Corcoran Consulting Group, based in New York with a global client base. He’s a Trustee and Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, and was 2014 president of the Legal Marketing Association. A former CEO, Tim guides law firm and law department leaders through the profitable disruption of outdated business models. A sought-after speaker and writer, he also authors Corcoran’s Business of Law blog. Tim can be reached at Tim@BringInTim.com and +1.609.557.7311.