Partnership in law extends to lawyer-client relationship

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Published on 6/15/09

Recently I heard a law firm staff person describe a senior partner as "a carriage builder in an automobile world." The phrase connoted a craftsman who puts time and effort into creating a quality product but who is unwilling or unable to work at a pace and in a manner that would make a quality product available to a wider audience.

That lawyer undoubtedly believes he is entitled to receive the same level of business, and compensation, as he has for years. He doesn't understand that in a rapidly changing world, a deliberate and controlled pace of work is inadequate in the legal services marketplace.

I thought of this illustration when listening to legal technology expert Richard Susskind at an American Bar Association presentation. He defined two principles in his talk:

First, technology is making the practice of law more efficient, more like a commodity, with resulting downward pressure on costs and fees. Second, technology has made information about the practice of law - court cases, professional journal articles and the like - widely available on the Internet.

Clients are thus becoming more sophisticated and demanding and less accepting of lawyers who tell clients what they must do rather than consult with clients on what they want to do.

The more widely available a service, the more of a commodity it becomes. When hand-built horseless carriages gave way to the Model T, millions bought cars, and lots of skilled carriage builders went out of business.

While I was listening to Susskind's presentation, the light bulb suddenly went on for me regarding technology and the law. During the Industrial Revolution, we learned that the more equipment we could use to make a product, less labor was required, and we could lower the price. With a lower price, volume increased, and profits likewise could rise.

Then, we moved into automation, with the same result but with a different name. The more product or service a machine could produce, the less expensive it might be. The result would be a lower price with higher volume, all of which tended to produce higher profits.

Value added

Today, we have moved to electronic technology. The principles are the same as in the industrial world; only the pace has changed. Increased machine power reduces labor, which tends to reduce cost, which tends to reduce price, which increases volume ... and profits.

The key to higher volume for lawyers is partnering with clients - understanding what they need, listening to what they want and bridging the gap between the two by providing value.

Value is defined as listening to clients to understand what they want and showing them how we can provide value by addressing that want and delivering what they need to address their challenges. Or, said another way, the difference between want and need is value. That is what we provide.

Law firms that can partner with their clients can show their clients how they can reduce their legal costs (without reducing the lawyers' per unit fees) and can develop strategic plans for meeting legal challenges. These are the law firms Richard Susskind was talking about, and these are the law firms that will thrive in the new economy.

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