Would a market driven approach to lawyer training include legal project management?

The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has identified project management as being one of the  “‘Missing’ skills, knowledge, behaviours and attitudes” from those currently taught as part of lawyers’ professional education.

The LETR has recently been criticised by Professor Stephen Mayson, amongst others. One aspect of Professor Mayson’s critique in particular caught my eye –  the reference to design and delivery of appropriate legal training in light of expected market requirements.  Such requirements do not seem to have been considered by LETR (as yet) and Professor Mayson laments their absence:

Barely a whisper is heard about the needs of those in the broader market, and the expectations and needs of clients are almost universally unmentioned…..we should be looking from the outside (market) back in, not from the inside (professions) out.

The technique of identifying market needs then  – and only then – building products or services to meet those needs is classic Product Management.  One of the leading product management training and consultancy organisations, Pragmatic Marketing, has created a detailed product management framework which starts with this idea of identifying market problems, creating solutions to those problems and bringing those solutions to market. (Full disclosure: I have attended Pragmatic Marketing training courses, and I have certification in product management from them).

The discipline of product management also encompasses the delivery of services, including those which support a product and those which are of themselves the total solution being offered.  I suspect that many law firms would benefit by reviewing their service offerings through the lens of product management, but I’m digressing here – perhaps this will be the subject of another post.  The danger of inward-looking assessment, with the attendant increased possibility of losing sight of market needs is a constant concern of good product managers.  Indeed, Pragmatic Marketing suggest that during internal discussions about product and service delivery it can be useful to remind participants that

Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant

A bit blunt perhaps, but it gets the point across. The point being to focus on the customers in the market concerned.  Although in reality, the quote usually translates into meaning the most important opinion is that of the customers / clients  who make up the relevant market.  Another important point is that market analysis should be based on facts and objective data wherever possible.

So what are current legal market issues?  What problems do clients have?  Is Legal Project Management a valid technique for solving them?  If so, how should lawyers and law firm’s acquire Legal Project Management skills?

Individual legal service providers following a product management review of their service offering should identify, define and segment their markets and then identify common consumer (client) problems in each market.  For the purpose of this blog post, I will take a more general approach by examining some recent surveys and reports about legal service delivery and then highlight some of the most common client needs identified by the data.

Last year Peppermint Technology conducted a survey of consumers and business (an audio-visual summary of the survey results is available via the Peppermint site).  Probably the most single striking thing of the survey was that 94% of businesses and 95% of consumers surveyed said that knowing the total cost of legal work quoted to them was important and ‘may or would’ influence their decision about whether to instruct a particular lawyer.

Recently the Legal Services Consumer Panel has reported in its 2012 Tracker Survey that of those who have paid privately for legal services, 58% were quoted fixed fees.  It would appear that fixed fees are now by far the most commonly used means for pricing legal services to individuals: approximately 12% of respondents were quoted only hourly rates, and a further 12% were quoted a blended combination of hourly rates and other means of fee setting.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel also found that although overall satisfaction with aspects of solicitor’s services was high, the lowest satisfaction levels (70%) were related to communication and clarity in the area of costs.  This also reflects the findings of the Legal Ombudsman, who has noted that more complaints are made to his office about costs information than any other single aspect of solicitor’s services.

In the Peppermint survey 49% of respondents said that they would prefer to have subsequent face to face meetings with their lawyer after an initial face to face instruction meeting.  The Legal Services Consumer Panel reported that, overall, just 42% of legal services are actually delivered face to face, with some practice areas significantly below this level of personal interaction between lawyer and client.  Unsurprisingly, the most popular forms of communication as alternatives to regular face to face meetings appear to be the telephone and email.

In April of this year LexisNexis (the Martindale Hubble division) published results of its annual survey of large corporate legal departments throughout Western Europe.  The purpose of the survey was to identify the factors involved in the selection and retention of law firms.  When hiring law firms the three most important criteria listed by corporate legal departments were being able to demonstrate:

  1. An understanding of the client business need
  2. An ability to respond with advice quickly
  3. Excellent client service and communication skills

Interestingly, cost of legal services appear to be less of a factor during the selection stage.  This was also found in the Peppermint survey, where only 6% of business respondents said that price sensitivity was a very significant factor in the decision about whether to engage a law firm.

However, when it comes to reviewing services provided by law firms to (large) business clients, cost factors become more prevalent.  When the Martindale-Hubbell survey asked what would prompt reasons for service reviews, 48% of respondents cited the need to achieve better value for money, 21% cited the associated need to ‘reduce legal spend’ and 19% felt they needed to review in order to achieve better levels of service.  When asked about which factors were most likely to prompt cutting a law firm from a panel (whether formal or informal) of legal providers, 93% of respondents cited ‘delivery of poor service’ as being the most important single factor.  As the report summarises:

This seems to indicate that once relevant sector knowledge has been proven at the selection stage, the overall importance placed on service delivery and the day to day management of the relationship increases significantly once things are underway.

It should also be noted that, in the U.K particularly, in both business and private client sectors the decision about whether to instruct a law firm is also heavily influenced by personal factors, such as whether a particular lawyer has been recommended or is otherwise known to the prospective client.  These are consistent themes found in the Peppermint, Legal Services Consumer Panel and Martindale-Hubbell surveys.  Whether a lawyer is particularly good technically does not seem to be a major factor during the initial selection process by either businesses or consumers.  Unsurprising really, as technical competence is expected and therefore not a differentiator during initial selection.

As we all know, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. While acknowledging the risk of seeing only what I want to see whilst reading these surveys, I would summarise high level client needs  as:

Consumer sector:

  1. Clarity and certainty about costs before the legal work begins
  2. Continued (and improved) communications about costs during matter progress
  3. Preference for face to face meetings whenever practicable

Business Sector:

  1. Demonstrable understanding of client need
  2. Speed of response
  3. Client Service / Responsiveness / Communications
  4. A need to keep costs under reasonable control once work starts – let costs spiral out of control and you may find that this triggers an unscheduled service review.

I have omitted the ‘personal factors’ during the selection process, as arguably that reflects behaviour rather than a need.  Neverthless, it may be worthwhile to consider how a lawyer establishes trust and generates recommendations.

Can the application of legal project management techniques help to meet these high level client needs?  Yes, I think they can.  You would expect me to say that of course.  In my next post I will outline how legal project management can help lawyers meet these market needs and offer some thoughts about legal project management training.

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