During the conference, I was fortunate enough to serve as the moderator of a lively panel of corporate legal operations leaders who shared their insights and perspectives on trends and challenges in legal services procurement. The discussion began with a review of a letter one of the panelists, NetApp’s Chief of Staff and Director of Legal Operations Connie Brenton, received from one of their top law firms. The one paragraph letter, dated January 31, 2017, read as follows:
In order to comply with Rule 1.5(b)(1) of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, which requires that we communicate in writing any changes in rate of our fees, we are notifying you that [the firm] increased its billing rates effective January 1, 2017. The increased rates will be reflected in future invoices. We thank you for the opportunity to provide you with professional services and value our continued relationship. Thank you.
Manager of Client Accounts
To executives at NetApp, the letter captured many of the frustrations corporate clients say they experience in dealing with outside counsel:
- The letter was dated January 31 and received several days later, but it announced rate increases that had already been implemented without any conversations with the client.
- It was addressed “Dear Client,” which suggested that perhaps the client wasn’t as valued as the letter indicated.
- The letter was signed by a law firm employee the client had never met or communicated with.
Law firm chief operating officers shared frustrations of their own, including challenges in responding to RFPs, compliance with varying billing guidelines, and the communication disconnects between the lawyers managing client relationships and the operations professionals responsible for the delivery of legal services. And everyone acknowledged there was plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the equation.
There was a fair amount of discussion about billing guidelines and security audits — two areas where the variety and complexity of the requirements make it difficult for law firms to efficiently comply and for clients to have legal services delivered in a manner consistent with their business needs.
As the group explored ideas for how to bridge the gap, standardization emerged as one opportunity for collaboration. ALA’s Uniform Process-Based Management System (UPBMS) can support initiatives to streamline processes, gain insight into the true costs of delivering legal services, and provide a common language that both law firms and clients can use in assessing the full range of support tasks in legal operations.
Likewise, ALA is working with the Legal Marketing Association and the International Legal Technology Association as part of Standards Advancement for the Legal Industry (SALI), a consortium developing legal matter coding standards to bring greater consistency and clarity to pricing, procurement and management of legal services.
But at the center of the discussion was the need for better communication and collaboration. How can law firm leaders be a catalyst for more engagement and cooperation with corporate legal operations professionals? How can we encourage our key client relationship managers to support and facilitate these conversations, allowing the folks responsible for making back-end operations work effectively to connect and find solutions to shared pain points? How do our law firm operations professionals lead change within the firm to adopt practices that improve legal service delivery? How do we help corporate clients in making the changes needed to improve the selection and evaluation of law firms?
As the legal industry continues to transform and client pressures continue to increase, perhaps we have reached a tipping point where the operations professionals on both sides of the relationship have a unique opportunity to work together to find solutions to these challenges. As the leaders in the business of law, ALA has the opportunity to be that catalyst.
We have taken some early steps in our work with UPBMS and SALI, but the next steps will require law firm leaders to convince the traditional owners of the client relationship to welcome their involvement in strengthening the client relationship. I look forward to exploring ways ALA can help facilitate that change.