“Clients aren’t asking for it.” When surveyed, law firms’ response as to why they are not doing more to change the way they deliver legal services is that “clients aren’t asking for it.” Given that clients are already voting with their wallets and their feet, “clients aren’t asking for it” might not be the best guide to action. But there is some merit to the argument that while law firms know they need to change, they don’t know how to change in visible ways that will satisfy their clients. You should be asking for more and be more specific in what you ask for.
You should be asking your external providers to get demonstrably better. Stripped to its most basic, you should always be able to identify how your primary providers are measurably improving their delivery of legal services to you. You should have credible evidence— descriptions and metrics—of their process improvements and innovation.
While this compilation will go deep into potential methodologies for starting and structuring such data-driven conversations, do not get distracted by the details or paralyzed by a compulsion to develop a comprehensive approach. If you can’t answer the question, “What evidence do I have that my primary providers are measurably improving their delivery of legal services to us?” ask them for some. Then ask again in six months. Repeat.
Don’t detour into discounts. Discounts are fine, as far as they go. But they do not go very far in actually modifying behavior. Your relationships with your primary providers most likely resemble long-term supplier commitments with high switching costs and intermittent price renegotiation. With people and price in place, it is process that offers the most levers to drive continuous improvement.
You are the urgency driver. If you ask, your external providers will find new ways to add value. If you ask, your external providers will improve the processes by which they deliver legal services to you. This volume will provide you with a menu of potential asks that go directly to process.
At its core, Unless You Ask is about conversations. How to start them and what you can get out of them. You may not get everything you ask for. But unless you ask, you are almost guaranteed to get none of it.
A bit more theatrically, what follows (not in the book) is a hypothetical conversation between me (Q) and a caricature of an inside counsel (A) who has a familiar flair with the English language [Forgive me. I am compelled to be a bit goofy after a long stint of serious writing.]:
Q: Do you select quality outside counsel?
A: Oh, the best. They are really, really smart. The smartest. From the most famous firms. They went to the classiest schools. They know the best words. Really, really fabulous words. Luxurious words.
Q: Fantastic. Are you happy with the rates or fees that you have negotiated?
A: Absolutely. We win every negotiation. We win on rates. We win on AFAs. We win on invoice reductions. We win all the time. We win so often that my firms ask me, “Aren’t you tired of winning?” We have negotiated the very best deals. Huge deals. Ask anybody.
Q: Outstanding. So you’ve got the people and the price in place. You must be satisfied with your firms.
A: No. It’s terrible. Really, really awful. These people, they are not innovative or cost conscious. Transparency? Forget about it. Cycle times are way, way too long. Sad!
Q: That’s not good. How do you address those kind of service delivery issues?
A: I’ll tell you what we do. We do it better than anyone. We cut their invoices. Bam! Every month. And then when they come around begging for a rate increase, we are so very, very good at negotiating new discounts. Huge discounts. And then if they don’t get better, if they don’t meet our high, really high standards, we stop sending them work. Like that! [snaps fingers] It happens so fast your head would spin. You know, we don’t even tell them “You’re fired!” We just stop calling them.
Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: Doing what?
Q: Addressing service delivery issues through people and price rather than addressing process directly.
A: That. We’ve always done that.
Q: How is that working out for you?
A: [Puzzled look]
Q: How do you know your approach is actually modifying behavior? Can your law department point to ways in which your primary providers have measurably improved the delivery of legal services?
A: Frankly, I have no idea what you are getting at. Are you suggesting that we are not really, really terrific at what we do? Because, let me tell you, we are terrific.
Q: No. No offense intended. Let me try to switch to language that is more appealing. I’m sure you are great. The best. Fabulous. Truly fabulous. It’s just that I’ve written a little book. Really, the smallest book. In this book, I have distilled some uncommon practices from some great law departments. Some of the best, most famous law departments. Abbott Labs, Abbvie, AIG, Flex, Marsh McLennan, Shell, Voya. Really, really innovative stuff for getting additional value from your external relationships. The most value, really. And it is presented as a menu, a luxurious menu, very posh. I think it would be huge if you read the book. It would be even huger if you adopted some of the practices and told me about your amazing implementation so I could add a case study to a subsequent iteration. And if you don’t like what’s on the menu—if you think it’s all terrible—tell me that too. It’s a living document. It’s adaptable. So very adaptable. I would really appreciate feedback from someone as successful as yourself.
A: What are you trying to sell me? I’ve been in this business a long time. I know this business better than anyone. I’m big league.
Q: I’m trying to sell you on some ideas. Classy ideas. Proven ideas. Ideas about taking what’s already terrific and making it better by creating deep supplier bonds through structured dialogue that weaves continuous improvement into the fabric of your external relationships. Trust me, it is all very tastefully done. Really elegant. And the book itself is free.
A: Free? Kid, you are terrible at business. A real moron. I could teach you many, many things. Too many things. But I can’t resist a deal. Even I can’t say no to free. Send me the link.
The basic themes of the book should be familiar to regular readers. Unless You Ask is a practical guide to structured dialogue. It provides specific guidance on the kinds of data-driven conversations that law firms and law departments should be having and how to go about them. The menu is divided into three sections.
Value-Plus. The book comes from a place of respect for legal expertise and appreciation for the contribution of outside counsel. The value-plus section of the volume is focused on finding alternative ways to take advantage of that expertise. Beyond discrete legal matters, primary providers, and their competitors, can provide value via:
- Legal Training (CLE)
- Company Training
- Support Training
- Allied Professionals
- Advice Hotlines
- Pro Bono
Value-Enablement. Because legal expertise is so valuable, whether that expertise is being properly leveraged through process and technology is worthy of sustained (though not constant) attention. If in-house counsel ask for discounts, they will get discounts. If in-house counsel ask for measurable, continuous improvement in the delivery of legal services, that is what they will get. The book provides guidance on how to ask with respect to:
- Knowledge Management
- Process and Project Management
- Billing Hygiene
- Paper Lite
- Expert Systems
- Technology Training
- Firm Defined (i.e., letting firms present their own innovations)
- Shouldn’t we be focused on finding great lawyers?
- You keep referring to “strategic sourcing” and “deep supplier relationships.” What do those terms even mean? How do they relate to law?
- Should we really have to ask our firms to do things they should already be doing?
- How will our firms respond to these kinds of additional requests?
- Don’t we need to get our own house in order before asking our firms to do so?
- Aren’t we too busy to run someone else’s business for them?
- Doesn’t this only speak to incremental improvement?
- Shouldn’t we use our leverage to ask our firms for deeper discounts on billable rates?
- Wouldn’t much of this be addressed by a transition to AFAs?
- How does all of this apply to working with alternative service providers?
- Why is this suddenly so important?
Finally, this is Version 1.0 of the book. We worked hard to get it out before last week’s stellar ACC Legal Ops Conference. It isn’t complete. It won’t ever be complete. If the book ends up being read and the ideas get implemented (two big ifs), then we will continue to update the volume with new ideas and upgrades of existing ideas. Towards that end, I look forward to comments, criticisms, and suggestions to improve on what we’ve got so far.
D. Casey Flaherty is a consultant who worked as both outside and inside counsel. Find more of his writing here. Connect with Casey on Twitter and LinkedIn. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Praise for Unless You Ask
“It’s a great read – recommend all in-house to embrace, all outside to get ahead of the curve.” –Jeff Carr
“This is an incredibly valuable roadmap for in-house legal dept management of outside counsel. I mean turn by turn.” –Liam Brown
“A report I think qualifies for gold standard treatment by both corporate law firms and the in-house law departments they serve. So many good ideas—a tour de force in my book. Ignore at your peril” –Betsy Munnell
“A terrific (and free) vade mecum for general counsel – to use a good old-fashioned expression with a contemporary flavour….Whether you are a GC or a BigLaw practitioner, read why Casey titled his book Unless You Ask – and learn from a pathfinder.” –George Beaton
“Must-Read: Unless You Ask or ‘Open your mouth or open your wallet'”–Silvia Hodges Silverstein
“Great read and reference for firms and law departments. Terrific ideas for all.” –Lisa Damon
“Terrific and mandatory summer reading for all lawyers, in-house and outside. I mean really…read it!” –Martin Salomon
“I can’t do UYA justice in this space – you need to download it and binge-read it.” –John Calve
“Read this.” –Jordan Furlong
“Read this. That is all.” –Toby Brown