As originally seen on Forbes
In times of crisis, your bank, accounting firm and law firm show their true worth. Earlier this week, I wrote why many of the emails sent by your service providers are being ignored, and it comes down to one basic problem: lack of empathy. In times of crisis, this is when you need them most, so how did your service providers stack up? The help answer this question, Christina Lutz, Partner and Litigator at Levenfeld Pearlstein (“LP”) in Chicago, shared with me eight principles that signal to a client that your firm is a true partner. How has your lawyer or the firm you use has shown their loyalty over the last couple of months?
1. Have they shown real empathy? Has your outside counsel made an effort to understand the challenges you are facing? Have they reached out at all, other than to confirm you will be paying the bills? Have they proactively offered to help you through those challenges, or asked what you need right now? In times of crisis, your outside counsel should be there to support you, personally and professionally.
“At LP, we engaged in a firm-wide systematic effort to reach out to every single client and find out whether they are 1) safe and healthy, and 2) what we can do to help them,” explained Lutz. “This not only created a touch-point with clients, deepening their relationships with our attorneys, but it also provided us with valuable feedback about where we need to devote our resources based on the prevalent issues our clients are facing and their priorities.” There is a big difference between sending a generic message that says, let us know if we can help with anything, and personalized individual outreach.
2. Are they taking advantage of you? If you are a long-term client and have always paid timely, now is not the time for your lawyers to suddenly require a retainer for everyday matters or to put you into potentially awkward situations regarding conflict waivers without thinking. Allies do not take advantage when times are tough, and your law firm shouldn’t either.
“We recently received a significant matter from a client because another large firm that they regularly work with demanded a large retainer for a new project,” Lutz explained. “We knew these clients, we liked these clients, and we wanted to help them, so we took on the work without the retainer. We saw first-hand how demanding a retainer from a long-time client simply because of the current financial climate (without any additional basis to believe the client wouldn’t pay) soured the relationship.”
3. Are they keeping you informed? Do you know what impact the coronavirus pandemic and state-wide shutdowns have on your deals or lawsuits? Have you been advised about court closures or deal delays status? Are they helping you come up with strategies to address impediments to current matters to get you as close to your expected outcome as possible under the circumstances? Court closures are not an excuse to stop working on a lawsuit, and deal closings can still happen remotely if lawyers leverage good relationships with title companies. They should be keeping you informed about what you can do now, and what you should be thinking about next.
“Clients need to know their work continues to move forward, so we’ve worked hard to over-communicate. Wherever possible, we are working to move lawsuits forward despite the court closures and extensions for non-emergency civil cases. The last thing a client needs is an enormous bill in a few months when courts re-open and everyone starts working furiously to catch up on a case. And we are getting creative in closing deals, working remotely with title companies, and virtually notarizing documents as necessary. There is very little we cannot do as a law firm right now, so now more than ever, you should be up to speed on how your firm is getting creative to get your work done,” explained Lutz.
4. Are they wasting your time? Even in the best circumstances, business leaders don’t have an abundance of free time, and in the current climate, that is especially true. If your outside counsel expects you to get crucial information in the form of drawn-out webinars or lengthy articles, they do not understand what you are going through right now. You need key information, you need it fast, and you need them to understand that in their communications.
One of the primary reasons this article came about, was because I really appreciated LP’s 3 Things to Do Today daily email series that cuts through the clutter more than any other law firm alert I’ve received (and I receive dozens.) “It is mind-boggling how much content out there right now requires watching ridiculously long webinars or reading 10-page articles,” contended Lutz. “Who has time for that right now? Efficiency in communication is more important now than ever for most of our clients, so we are hitting the key bullet-points in the communications that we disseminate widely and on our website postings, and letting our clients dictate where they want to spend their time. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and we are now collaborating with clients to create contact and directly answer questions.” The biggest question this example left me asking, was why aren’t all law firm alerts this simple to read and actionable all the time?
5. Are they sharing the financial burden? The country is facing an unprecedented financial crisis. Now is the time for firms to share in your financial strain, and take a hit with you. Your advisors are your problem solvers, and they should get creative to address the current crisis. If you send significant work to a particular firm, are having trouble paying the bills, and they have not accommodated you with temporary rate decreases, alternative fee arrangements, or extended repayment terms when you genuinely need it, you should have a serious discussion with your outside counsel.
When this financial crisis hit, our company worked hard with our customers to help adjust terms or be flexible so that we could all make it through this crisis together. My executive team was pretty surprised at how many of our service providers offered no flexibility whatsoever. “These relationships are long-term investments and we only exist if our clients succeed financially,” agreed Lutz. How our service providers treat us in times of need, will directly impact how loyal we are to them in times of plenty.
6. Are they focused on delivering value? Your law firm’s work should be tailored to achieve your goals, and that is especially true in uncertain times when cash is scarce. While you may be prepared to run headlong into a lawsuit, which would be big fees for your outside counsel, that may not always be the prudent decision. If you have no way to recover attorneys’ fees and it will take years to reach a resolution, it may be a better value for you for your lawyer to leverage a settlement quickly and get you some money now. Or if previously planned work is not essential right now and you’re better off focusing on your money-making deals, your law firm should be inquiring about your priorities and how to achieve them. Now may be the time push down work without sacrificing quality, if that is what your current budget allows. Your outside counsel should be asking you about your goals and coming up with creative ways to deliver.
How does this work in practice? “We are working with clients to craft solutions that work for them, not us. For several of our clients, that has meant making the hard choice to settle a case because it is not financially feasible to continue the battle,” explains Lutz. “For others, we have worked with clients on restaffing deals, giving our impressive senior associates an opportunity to shine in working directly with in-house counsel. There are so many ways to get things done efficiently and economically if lawyers are working with their clients to craft the right strategy.”
Lutz ads, “We are also giving away the business, which is a strategy from Patrick Lencioni in Getting Naked. In our 3 Things to Do Today daily email series, we have spent a lot of time compiling a lot of content that we would normally charge clients to advise on, and sending it for free to everyone. For example, I have published articles on what to do when your clients don’t pay, how to renegotiate your sales commission agreements, and what to include in all commission agreements. This is the secret sauce and knowledge I’ve acquired through years of practice, but we know everyone needs this advice now, and we’d rather help our clients than leave them floundering.”
7. Are they reviewing their bills? You don’t have time to go through bills with a fine-tooth comb right now, but given the financial constraints caused by the coronavirus, your budget is top of mind. That means every line item gets scrutinized, and your outside counsel should be sensitive to that. If it is clear that they are sending out bills without reviewing them in detail for errors, inconsistencies, or other irregularities, they are making things harder for you, not easier. Unnecessary expenses should be written off. Office conferences should be billed only if you allow them and only if they are demonstrably accretive. The bills should be consistent with past bills and should not suddenly skyrocket unless the firm took on a new project or did authorized work to address the coronavirus pandemic or other damage control. When your law firm sends you a bill riddled with errors or unexpected charges, at best, it shows a disregard for the difficulties you are enduring right now. At worst, the law firm is protecting its bottom line at the expense of yours.
Shouldn’t firms always be reviewing bills before they send them? “You would expect that,” explains Lutz, “even during typical, non-pandemic times, LP has a strict ‘no surprises’ approach to client bills. We establish budgets, communicate status along the way, have client extranets for real-time invoicing/billing and often institute a pre-bill phone call to confirm with the client that there are no surprises on the bill they are about to receive.
“Our attorneys are also empowered to review and reduce total charges to a client if they feel there has been inefficiency or time was used as investment/or training on our part. One example of this is our use of the “No charge” time entry. The client will see the task or activity performed by LP but the amount charged will be $0 this shows the client that we value the relationship and don’t feel the need to bill for every phone call or research request. While these are best practices generally, they are especially important and considerate as clients focus on cash management.”
8. Are they performing under pressure? Now is the time for your outside counsel to show how well they can perform under pressure. Are they exceeding expectations, or are you getting a lot of excuses? Are they working hard on your matters and committing to delivering outstanding results? Are they overcoming the challenges of working remotely? If your law firms are incapable of rising to the challenge, that could be a bad sign for uncertain times to come.
“The matter mentioned above (that we were able to win from a larger firm) was a significant project that contained 500+ leases to review and analyze for the client to make quick and urgent business decisions,” explained Lutz. “Our team was able to complete the work in a weekend, ahead of expectations and on budget. This should be the standard and all too often it isn’t.”
The eight principles described by Lutz should be standard practice in all firms, and not just during a crisis. Too much money is spent on legal expertise to put up with poor business practices from sloppy bills to insufficient communication. Far more important than the money though, is the peace of mind provided by a firm that truly has your back. You should have high standards for you service providers, and if they aren’t meeting them when things are tough than they really don’t deserve your business when things are great. Has your firm shown up in unique or special way during the COVID-19 crisis? Please share with me your experiences - dayton@