When defining value, the question is: value for whom?

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Published on 3/9/09

Last year at this time I wrote about the Association of Corporate Counsel's self-proclaimed "revolution" embodied in its Value Challenge, a concerted effort to better integrate law-firm billings with corporate clients' perceptions of value.

Since then, the ACC has made progress toward defining what the index will look like and measure. The concept is that of a scorecard, not a ranking.

Defining "value" will be a difficult task, but among the elements being considered are:

  • delivery outcomes that the client wants;
  • longevity of the attorney-client relationship;
  • the right mix of outcome and anticipated cost;
  • clear communication before, during and after the provision of legal services;
  • customized and innovative approaches to the service; and
  • top-notch quality, or "peace of mind" for the client.

Criteria for assessing how well a law firm has provided value include a demonstrated understanding of the client's goals and objectives, the use of client service teams and efficiency of a firm's management processes.

Value, as we've written before, ultimately means that a law firm must demonstrate to a client the worth, and not just the cost, of legal services provided. Corporate counsel regularly assert that their goal in seeking greater value is not to reduce law firm revenue, but rather to lower their own costs.

The general counsel of a multi-national chemical company described to me his views about how the law firm needs to collaborate with his department, as contrasted to the traditional vendor-buyer relationship. Collaboration produces more effective representation at a lower cost to the company without discounting either the value or the lawyer's per-hour fee.

This in-house lawyer saved much of his budgeted legal fees by working with outside counsel to enhance the value, rather than just cut the cost, of legal services.

This is a longstanding viewpoint that certainly has gained additional weight as both clients and firms contend with financial crisis and recession. However, a survey of corporate client attitudes released last year by the Eversheds international law firm (which has nearly 40 global offices and more than 2,000 legal and business advisers) contained information that demonstrates how tricky it is to define where law firms and corporate clients stand on the value continuum.

Eversheds found that, despite what clients say, they often do not put a priority on cost-cutting because they fear it will hurt service. This dichotomy may explain why, despite complaints, Eversheds found little evidence that hourly rate billing is an endangered species.

Was it Mark Twain who said everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it? So, too, corporate counsel talk about lowering legal fees, yet continue to engage large law firms with high billing rates, even though very competent, but smaller, law firms are available.

The bottom line should be that corporate counsel look for performance in the firms they hire, regardless of size. Performance, as the ACC's Value Index indicates, can be measured in many ways. When the standard for evaluating such firms shifts to which ones provide value, identifying which firms can do the work properly and most cost-efficiently will become the ultimate criteria.

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