So what gets a firm "on the list?" One of the panelists counseled that lawyers shouldn't make them jump through legal hoops, but should do as much for them as they can, so that they don't have to do it themselves. Another said that lawyers should identify the obstacles for their clients, think two steps ahead to the solution and articulate it. Their impressions of firms come from their experiences with the attorneys of that firm, reinforcing the theme that it's all about relationships. The panelist admitted that she thought saying service was the most important thing to her might offend the audience, but as Kate Haueisen said via Twitter "we influence service too!" The panelists suggested that firms have a dialogue with their clients about their expectations for communication, workflow, and sharing the work burden and they agreed that they are trying to isolate the firms that they have good relationships with and save some money.
The panel moved on to talk about alternative fee arrangements (AFAs), and a few of them admitted that they were skeptical of them at first. One panelist said that she wondered who would end up with the short end of the stick, but after using AFAs for a while, she can now see the value. Another panelists said that she also feels more satisfied with the value after using AFAs for a few years. DeCecco commented that almost all work being handled for Sun Microsystems is now done on an alternative fee basis. A panelist added that firms proposing alternative fees are automatically seen by clients as trying to bring value from the start of their relationship. They appreciate the predictability and proactive nature of these proposals. When alternative fees haven't worked, it's because the client can't tell what the firm's motivation is, and trust is not there. The panelists felt that alternative fee arrangements work best with firms they do a lot of business with, and therefore have established relationships where there is trust and a "safer" risk.
The panelists said that when they're reviewing whether to use a firm or not for a piece of work, they first get referrals and then go to the firm websites. Because of this, they warned that if an attorney doesn't list all of their areas of expertise in their bio, they assume that they don't handle that type of work and move on. They also agreed that because they're spending time to check the firm's website, they don't need "marketing slicks with the same content." Instead, they want to know how you'd approach a matter. Another panelist comment that she thinks there's "nothing worse than a cheesy bio" and doesn't want "flowery language," like "cases are not won on luck alone." A client's hiring criteria is 1) expertise, 2) do they have the time, 3) cost, 4) likeability/do they care about me, and 5) politics. A GC commented "It's almost like speed dating...we want to like the attorney."
In terms of formal RFPs, the panelists advised putting a lot of work into customizing them - and they emphasized a LOT of work - and reflect on how the firm would approach the case. They don't want firms to just mention that they're open to working with a client on alternative fees, but to actually tell them what the firm has in mind. The panelists admitted that firms competing in the RFP process might get knocked out for not including a budget, though there are some cases in which if the skills and chemistry is there, the client might ask them for more instead of immediately dismissing them.
Another interesting takeaway that came out of the panel was that clients don't think that firms are less qualified because they discount rates. Bills were also a point of contention, with a couple of the panelists talking about how they've had surprises on their bills, which indicates to them that their relationship partner at the firm isn't reviewing them first. The clients said that they like law firms that help them in other ways too, such as inviting them to conferences or introducing them to their counterparts at other companies. Since many law firms don't do this, it's a way to set yourself apart from other firms. They suggested that firms take the time to talk to their clients about what's going on, without charging them. They appreciate when their lawyer asks them questions outside the scope of the matter being handled, and clarified that this doesn't mean small talk, but discussing what else is going on at the company. However, they did caution that when a firm "stalks" them with too much repetition of what they've seen in the news about them or on their website, it does make them uncomfortable.
Rynowecer then asked the panelists to give one piece of advice to law firms. They said the following:
- Develop long-term relationships at the partner level and come to the table with creative fee structures
- Don't just show the "hoop;" show how to get through it, or better yet, get through it yourself without involving the client.
- Give legal marketers a raise. Put yourself in the client's shoes - envision what they're going through and how to meet their needs.
- Relationships are key - meet people, but not for the purpose of selling. Find out where clients are and be there.
- Partners should be thoroughly reviewing all briefs and bills, despite any time crunches imposed by the client.