Editor’s Note: The author of this post works at Wicker Park Group, a consultancy to law firms.
By Nathaniel Slavin, Partner and Founder, Wicker Park Group
In a recent conversation with a Fortune 500 in-house counsel, I asked how she defines value. She replied, “Value is the most ill-defined concept in the legal industry. What I value is a firm that understands how its work fits into my work life. But when you ask my boss or the CFO, they are going to give you a very different answer. That answer is probably money-related.”
And she was right. When I talked to the CFO, he said something akin to, “Value is about getting the result at the best possible price.” The chief legal officer said, “Value for me is when outside counsel does exactly what I expect them to do, and I am never put in a position where I have to deliver unexpected bad news to the CEO.”
These very different responses speak dramatically to how deeply clients — even those within the same company — can vary in their understanding of value. Too often at industry conferences, we hear experts opine on the definition of value. One expert’s definition may be true for one client, but making the assumption that definition is universally true, even at a client level, will result in an erosion of client trust and loss of work.
This recognition that there are different definitions of value is hugely important. At Wicker Park Group, we studied 800 interviews from 2011-2014 for how often clients discussed five critical performance areas: Managing Expectations, Client Service, Being Proactive, Communication and our aforementioned theme: Value. During that period, the percentage of clients talking about the importance of value increased from 43% in 2011 to an astounding 73% last year. While other performance areas saw increases, none were nearly as dramatic as that.
Clearly value is becoming vastly more important as a differentiator. As law firms continue to invest in client service, it is more important than ever that they define value from a client’s point of view down to each individual person.
From our constant conversations with clients, we hear many definitions of value and often hear it confused with “added value” such as CLE programs and other client interactions that are not matter or project specific. But value is actually defined by the client in a much more practical way. It answers the question: Does my lawyer understand how I define success and all the myriad components that impact that success? And, do they accomplish that goal in a manner, financially and otherwise, that helps us further our business goals?
Lawyers who answer yes to those two questions can be confident that they are delivering value and truly setting themselves apart from the competition. The only way to successfully accomplish that is to engage the client in an ongoing, meaningful conversation on the topic and never assume that last year’s definition of value is the same as the current definition.