In-house perspective on client service by Matt Fawcett, senior VP, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for multinational data storage and management company NetApp:
Most of the time, I am proud to be lawyer. I know many smart, engaged, driven lawyers, including some that I count as close friends. And I believe that most lawyers working for big firms really want to provide good service to their clients.
I can’t stand the way many lawyers – and law firms – work.
With that lawyerly disclaimer out of the way, I can’t stand the way many lawyers – and law firms – work. I’ve written before about things lawyers say that drive me crazy. Now I need to vent about things lawyers do, things that bother me and hold us all back as an industry. These are the behaviors that give us a bad name, such that nearly every business person I meet shows up with a preconceived negative, doubting mindset that I have to disarm before building a relationship and making progress.
1. Bill their effort, not their results
It’s 2017 – why are the clear majority of law firms still stuck in same billing model? Why are they still selling me their time? This makes no sense.
There is such a disconnect between the needs of clients and what they pay for. What do I want, as the client? Value and results. What do I get charged for? Time served. Even if lawyers have the best intentions, this model fails to reward them for working faster or smarter. Lawyer bonuses are based on achieving billing targets. The billable hour encourages conflict and forces a narrow, tactical focus on the relationship between the firm and the client.
What do I want, as the client? Value and results. What do I get charged for? Time served.
I believe the hourly billing culture is so embedded in firm culture that it also warps the perspective of lawyers. It is demoralizing to think about your contributions in terms of volume rather than quality or impact. We focus on how much you worked, now on what you achieved.
Virtually every other industry has revolutionized their billing models and service delivery models in the last 20 years. Why can’t we figure this out?
2. Follow convention blindly
Just when I think the legal industry is modernizing, I’ll see another reminder of just how tradition-bound and innovation-phobic it really is. Consider the recent wave of follow-the-leader salary increases among big firms. When Cravath and Wachtell raised their salaries for first year attorneys to $180,000, we saw a rash of firms across the country follow them almost immediately. Who do you think is paying for those raises?
Another place you see this conservatism is in the achingly slow rate of adoption of new technologies. We were the last industry to provide employees with cell phones. In 1999, I remember getting frustrated with a firm and saying, “Our copier repair man carries a cell phone – why not my high- priced lawyers?” Even today, many “old school” partners still take pride in not being reachable and having their secretaries (yes, their “secretaries”) print their emails.
...many “old school” partners still take pride in not being reachable and having their secretaries (yes, their “secretaries”) print their emails.
3. Hide from the truth
There is probably nothing more important that I need from someone working for me than a commitment to honesty. So I am always disheartened at how much dissembling and spin some firms can bring to the table. For some lawyers, a “loss” is never really a loss. It is mind-blowing how after a court ruling, the attorneys on both sides can be heard explaining to their clients how they actually won. Here is how I decode what really happened: if they call me, it’s good news. If they email me, bad news.
The subtle art of deflecting blame is practiced at a high level in the modern law firm. “There is risk in taking that approach,” is a euphemism for, “You can’t blame me if things go wrong.”
4. Assume that their clients are happy
Every partner at every law firm who I’ve ever asked has told me that they value, collect, and act on client feedback. Yet almost every one of my peers who I have asked tells me, “No firm has ever asked me how they are doing.” It is bizarre mismatch that I just cannot reconcile.
I urge every partner to ask their clients, at least once a quarter, “How are things going?”
Something is broken. Where is the disconnect coming from? Do these firms really believe they understand and are serving the needs of their clients, if they aren’t even listening to them? Every time I buy a product online, every time I take a flight, every time I stay in a hotel, I get a request for feedback (it reminds me of the copy repair man and his cell phone in 1999). At no time as the General Counsel of NetApp has any feedback actively been solicited from me, though sometimes I have volunteered it!
I think the assumption is that silence is golden. If you aren’t complaining, you are satisfied. Humbly, I urge every partner to make a New Year’s resolution to ask their clients, at least once a quarter, “How are things going?”
We can do better
I know it’s hard to change, but it is necessary. The world has changed and conventional service delivery models are not adequate anymore.
These fundamentally poor behaviors don’t do justice to clients. They are also beneath the smart and capable people who sometimes resort to them. We can and should do better as an industry.
[As senior vice president, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for NetApp, Matthew Fawcett is responsible for all legal affairs worldwide, including corporate governance and securities law compliance, intellectual property matters, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions. He has overseen the development of NetApp Legal into a global high-performance organization with a unique commitment to innovation and transformation.]
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