(Note—This is the eighth in a series of posts taken from my recent presentation to attorneys and legal professionals at the DRI conference in New York.)

My previous post focused on the productization of legal services, which is driven by the growing sense that the traditional billable hour doesn’t always provide the most efficient delivery of service. Corporate clients increasingly are demanding more for their money.

In addition to more value for the dollar, the other three attributes identified by the BTI Consulting Group as most important to buyers of outside legal services are:

  • Client focus
  • Understanding the client’s business; and
  • A commitment to help. 

Any of them, I suppose, could occupy an entire post.  But, to save time, let me provide an anecdote that I think reflects the quest of inside counsel to acquire these attributes from outside law firms. 

Those in law firms whose job includes responding to the increasing number of Requests for Proposal and Requests for Information know that RFP/RFI issuers liberally borrow questions from one another, with just enough differences to render the exercise a bit maddening.  Many of them evidence the significant entry of professional procurement, or sourcing, professionals into the legal scene. 

A recent RFI from a Fortune 50 systems integrator/government contractor, however, was a breath of fresh air, with an assemblage of thought-provoking questions obviously aimed at moving beyond the mind-numbing collection of data and into a new frontier of ferreting out the DNA and ethos of the law firms electing to respond.  The RFI revealed a company seeking “partners” that possess an advanced understanding of the new legal-services terrain and proof that they are implementing new technologies and business models to directly address the new terrain. 

Thus, a question about law firm profiles asked not just for a description of the “key values of your firm,” but also an explanation of how firms’ organizational structures are designed to drive those values.  Another question sought not simply an explanation of firms’ business models, but also how “your firm’s business model is designed to enhance your client value proposition.”  The first halves of those two questions are routine, but the second halves of the questions require respondents to think much more deeply and to “get real.”

This client’s RFI aligned almost perfectly with the four values that the BTI survey identified as being vital to corporate clients: value for the dollar, client service, understanding the client’s business, and a commitment to help. In order to win this corporate client’s business, a responding law firm would have to demonstrate, in practical, specific terms, how it meets each of these functions.

For example, value for the dollar – the RFI asked respondents to describe their firm’s approach to alternative fee arrangements, including the percentage of firm revenues based on such arrangements. Another question asked point blank, “How does your firm deal with instances where it exceeds an agreed budget amount?” There was no room for creative wordsmithing here, as the client wanted substance, not puffery.

Other value-focused questions included asking firms about their recent investments in technology and process improvements, and how those investments have benefitted their clients, particularly by reducing costs. The message was clear – this company has observed that law firms are not as focused on “the new normal” and new technological solutions as they should be. 

The RFI questions also demonstrated a keen focus on the importance of client service and being committed to help, two other critical areas identified by the BTI survey. One question asked, “Describe examples of ways in which your firm has partnered with clients.” Note the term “partnered with” not “served.” Another question asked how the responding firm could partner with other law firms to better serve the client.

In terms of understanding the client’s business, one question from this particular RFI asked respondents to identify the avenues in which they receive feedback from their clients. Another asked, “How would your firm propose to learn about the business sectors in which the company operates?” The company also wished to know details about how the law firm intended to communicate with them, including in-person meetings, topic briefings, staff training, etc. Once again, the company asked for measurable specifics, not vague promises.

One question, in particular, represented, at least for me, a turning point in RFIs:  “What is your firm’s view of Richard Susskind’s predictions in his 2008 book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, and what impact, if any, have those predictions had on your business model?”  The question presupposed an in-depth knowledge of the concepts in Susskind’s 2008 book, plus the ability to demonstrate with specifics how firms have responded to developments in the evolution of legal services.  Another pair of questions in the RFI asked for similar deep thought and the ability to ascertain relationships between external events and law firm models:  “How has your firm dealt with the effects of the 2008 economic crisis and the challenges of the current global economy?  What, if any, resulting changes in your business model will your firm carry forward as permanent changes?”  Both questions dripped with nuance.

Those of us who respond to many RFPs/RFIs each year recognize the philosophical transformation that this RFI represented.  To me, it asked:  Do you truly believe that the legal-services firmament has shifted?  And, what actions and investments are you taking to demonstrate this belief?  Remarkable!

Obviously, my colleagues and I responded to this innovative RFI with the hope that there would be a fit between what this buyer seeks and what we have to offer.  The decision process is still underway, but in any event, it was a pleasure confronting questions that tested our understanding of the world of law as it is, and as it could be, as we continue our journey into the new normal.