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Reaction to Altman Weil’s “Law Firms in Transition”

June 4, 2015, 8:10 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post manages marketing, communications and business development efforts at Sullivan & Worcester.

By Leah Schloss, Director of Marketing, Sullivan & Worcester

One of the highlights of my career as a legal marketing professional was creating a business development training program. Established by my firm’s director of professional development, business development partner and me about seven years ago, the program involved group learning as well as one-on-one business development coaching with an outside professional coach. The coach and participant were charged with setting and implementing a business plan with clearly stated goals, strategies and tactics to win new business for the firm.

When we presented the program to the management of our firm, one of the first questions we heard, was, “How much will it cost?” There really wasn’t any way to sugar coat the fact that the program was expensive: approximately $6,000 per participant at the time. We went ahead with the program, but we also set about trying to measure the effectiveness of the program to reassure the management of the firm that we were getting return on investment. It took us a while to work with our accounting group to come up with the right reports, and then once we did, we had to wait about two years to see the ultimate results of coaching. After all that time, we were encouraged to find that there were clear benefits to coaching. In fact, the benefits were substantial. Nearly all of the participants had seen a significant bump in originations over the two-year period, and they outperformed their peer group in the rest of the firm significantly. Once we presented our findings to the management of the firm, the expense seemed entirely justified. In hindsight, it would have cost the firm a great deal not to start the program.

Nearly all of the participants had seen a significant bump in originations over the two-year period

I thought of this example, when I read the “Law Firms in Transition” published recently by Altman Weil. Of the many law firm management studies out there, I have never read a report that so convincingly argues for law firms to define a strategic vision. Like the coaching example in our firm, the study found a clear financial benefit to firms that set concrete strategies to deal with the many unknowns in the legal market. In the case of the Altman Weil report, firms that set clear strategies related to lawyer staffing, efficiency, and pricing saw financial benefit. There are some startling statistics in the report: “Seventy-seven percent of law firms that changed their strategic approach to lawyer staffing reported an increase in Profits Per Equity Partner from 2013 to 2014, compared to 56 percent of firms that had not made such a change — a 21-point difference.”

There are equally compelling numbers relating to efficiency and pricing. These initiatives are not directly related to marketing and business development, but I believe there is an important lesson here. Putting strategies in place in a changing profession, whether they relate to pricing, business development or staffing is, in itself, a competitive advantage. According to the Altman Weil report, law firms are not changing their staffing and pricing policies because “ clients aren’t asking for it .”

Every law firm management professional knows that strategy can be a tough sell whether it involves marketing, business development, staffing, budgeting, or pricing. My firm’s coaching example demonstrates that it’s often impossible to see results in the short term, and investing in long-term goals can be expensive and risky. When we set strategies or goals, by definition, we are prioritizing certain types of work and relationships over others. We are closing the door on opportunities that come by chance because we will spend more time on relationships that are more carefully planned.

I have never read a report that so convincingly argues for law firms to define a strategic vision.

Can we all answer the question, “Why should you hire us?” An even tougher question is, “Why should you hire us when you can source the work in-house, utilize new technologies or hire a legal process outsourcing organization?” In other words, are we so sure of our value to clients that we are able to communicate it to them? Do our clients understand how we as law firms are approaching their legal challenges with ease and efficiency?

Let’s use the clear connection between strategy and results to convince our firms that setting a clear course, hopefully based on conversations with clients, is the first step toward crafting your law firm’s answer. Not only do we need to ask our clients how we’re doing, we need to implement the changes that they are asking for. Then, we need to measure our progress and adjust. As I learned with my firm’s coaching program, measurement is the key to the long-term viability of any major change in strategy.