Last week in Time to visit the legal sausage factory - Questions for clients to ask their lawyers in 2017 I suggested that it was time law firm clients learned more about how their law firms actually work, because:
- it's probably not as good as what the client thinks; and
- the only way that the much needed changes to the legal profession will occur - and which clients say they want - is if clients demand and require it.
Perhaps a little controversially, I suggested many law firms may be similar to sausage factories - we like the end product, but we wouldn't be that happy if we saw how its actually made relative to standards we are used to seeing in other industries. This may be unfair on some firms who really do work efficiently, but if that's the case, they're keeping pretty quiet about some real competitive advantages they could be marketing on.
In any event, it should be relatively easy to work out if things are as good as they should be - just ask the right questions. Law isn't unique. Clients should be carrying out the type of due diligence they commonly undertake on other suppliers - getting their hands dirty and undertaking site inspections, process analysis, bench marking and regular reviews.
I've come up with 13 questions. To get things started, the first question I suggest asking is can you show us how you actually work?
1 Can you show us how you actually work?
I suggest starting with this very simple and practical question for services that you receive frequently, to establish a base-line for discussion and review.
A lot of law firms talk about how they work efficiently, but does anyone know if it is actually true and what it means in practice? In many cases, I believe the partners themselves do not actually know how their own teams work. In 2015 I was on the board of a software company that specialised in advanced semantic search. Its software could search all of an organisation’s records (whether word documents, emails, etc.), wherever they were stored, and quickly find the most relevant documents based on the meaning of words and concepts. I thought it was really cool and would have real application for law firms who wanted to be able to quickly search all their previous advice to find relevant material that they could reuse to give new advice much more quickly and consistently.
However, in talking to partners in law firms it was apparent that many had no idea how their lawyers currently work. As one summed it up, “I don’t know. I outline the problem, they go away for 6-7 hours and come back with a memo. I don’t know what they looked at, how they searched, or if they could have missed anything. I just assume that they’ve found the right stuff.”
There are a lot of things that are more visible than this though. Even a relatively quick tour could quickly identify how much space the firm was occupying per person relative to other industries, how paperless they really are, whether people are doing their own "two finger" typing or using digital dictation, how securely sensitive information is stored, if they are using laptops for mobile working or two screens for greater productivity, and how they organise their knowledge to make it readily accessible.
Courier companies like UPS go to extraordinary lengths to find efficiency, because they know that saving just 1 minute per driver per day is worth $14.5m in savings per year! The opportunities with law firms are even greater. With processes like document automation, hours of work can be reduced to minutes and quality actually increased.
Instead of just looking at timelines in a bill or carrying out a cursory examination, how interesting would it be to follow some matters really closely and see what people are actually doing, and to think about how it could be done differently. While there would be some time and effort involved, I think it would be illuminating.
If you would like to download all 13 recommended questions now, you can download them here.