“This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
You may recall that famous advertising slogan from the 1980s. One could use a similar phrase when describing today’s legal marketplace. Changes in billing methods, improvements in technology, a turbulent economy and the globalization of the legal practice have left us with a landscape far different from the one we worked in even a decade ago.
While there will always be a core skill set of legal expertise, quality legal work, strong ethics and the ability to provide a high level of client service, today’s lawyers need to constantly evolve their skills in order to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the legal industry.
There are four key areas in which attorneys should focus on sharpening their professional skills:
Back when the billable hour was king, lawyers could concentrate on addressing matters at hand. As long as the bill wasn’t too outlandish, life was good. When the economy took a downward turn, however, buyers of legal services had more power and the emergence of alternative fee arrangements became noticeable at many law firms.
Due to the increased usage of AFAs, lawyers must now be skilled in identifying which model best suits specific situations. Options include fixed fees, capped fees, contingency fees and hybrid models, among others. Attorneys must analyze the pros and cons of each model. They must educate both the client and internal law firm management and describe how they plan to execute under these billing parameters.
Even for matters in which the billing method is the traditional hourly model, a lawyer’s ability to negotiate an effective rate is a skill that is vital in today’s market. With many companies requesting double-digit discounts, lawyers must be able to convey to the prospect or client why their proposed price is of more value to the company — especially since a competitor may be proposing a lower rate for the same project. Negotiating a fair but profitable price is a skill that can positively impact both the firm’s bottom line and the lawyer’s own compensation.
While project management has always been an important skill for lawyers, it has never held such a high level of importance as it does today. Without proper project-management skills, a lawyer can provide high quality legal work and still end up losing money on the matter.
In the past, when a project looked as though it could go overbudget, the lawyer could simply call the client and explain why the original cost estimate was going to be surpassed. Now, due to AFAs, the risk is shared or, in some cases, owned by the law firm, which may end up eating the cost.
There are training programs and tools available to help lawyers improve their project-management skills, and many firms have incorporated project management into their professional development curriculum. Attorneys who can manage a fixed-fee project and come in underbudget will not only increase the profit margin, but also impress the brass.
Whether it is management systems, e-discovery technologies, e-billing capabilities, or document imaging and review capabilities, modern technology allows and demands attorneys to be more efficient and productive.
Lawyers should consider inviting IT managers to conduct group meetings to discuss how best to leverage the latest developments in technology and implement them in their practice. By adopting new and relevant technologies, today’s lawyers are likely to experience a noticeable reduction in internal expenses, which will positively impact the firm’s profit margin.
As companies expand into new international markets, the lawyers who are able to effectively service them beyond local borders will be in higher demand. Whether your firm has offices outside of the U.S. or uses a referral system to find legal counsel for clients, it is imperative that today’s attorneys possess a deep understanding of their clients’ global objectives.
Those lawyers who act as connectors and provide seamless entry into new markets will be seen as a valuable asset.
This is certainly not your parents’ legal marketplace. Times and technologies continue to evolve at breakneck speed. Today’s lawyers can keep pace by focusing on the four areas outlined above. By honing in on each, attorneys will be better positioned to deliver superior service and value to their clients — and, in doing so, impress firm management.
Matt Prinn is director of business development at K&L Gates. Katie Reagan is business development and communications manager at Jones Day and 2012 president of the Legal Marketing Association’s New England chapter. A version of this column originally appeared in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, sister publication to The Daily Record.