Conventional Law Firms (& In-House Departments) Who Claim a “Customer Focus” But Ignore Client Companies’ Basic Operational Needs

Conventional law firms working to their profession’s prevailing business model — with its various forms of built-in waste — often claim to have a “customer focus”. And the in-house law departments who hire these conventional law firms may make the same claim.

But creating waste — or tolerating that waste by paying the bill for it — is not consistent with any meaningful “customer focus”.

Most everyone — in any kind of business or nonprofit — says that they work from a “customer focus”.

Recent business management literature is full of articles that tout the primacy of the customer: “6 Ways to Build a Customer-Centric Culture“, Harvard Business Review, October 2, 2018; “Why Your Customers Should be Central to Your Innovation Efforts“, Strategy + Business, August 13, 2019. “Customer Centricity in the Digital Age“, MIT Sloan Management Review, May 30, 2019.

The legal profession is just as outspoken in its claimed embrace of the customer — or, as they like to put it — the “client”: “7 Habits of a Client-Focused Lawyer“, The American Lawyer, August 10, 2018; “8 Ways to Create a More Client-Centric Mindset at Your Law Firm“, JD Supra Perspectives, March 20, 2018; “Keeping a Firm Client-Focused During Changing Times“, Forum (Legal Executive Institute), September 3, 2015.

But under the legal profession’s prevailing business model, attorneys’ service delivery loads up a lot of what their client companies don’t need, along with what they do need:

  1. Hourly quotas for attorneys encourage more lawyer time per task;
  2. This motivates a proliferation of lawyers on any given task — each lawyer with their own hourly quota; and
  3. This proliferation leads to insertion of recent law graduates alongside fully qualified attorneys to do the routine & repetitive work for which law clerks or paralegals are suited — but billed to clients at several hundred dollars per hour.

Just as bad, their business model leaves out a law function that I found imperative when running two different divisions at Whirlpool Financial, and later as a business development executive at GE.

And this law function can be the least expensive — and safest — risk management tool of all:

Preventing legal problems from arising in the first place

Inflating lawyer time on a given task, over-staffing on purpose, or charging the party you’re meant to serve with the cost of training your employees (recent law graduates) — none of these is consistent with “customer focus” or “client focus”. None meets rudimentary management disciplines that apply everywhere else in the corporate enterprise — everywhere else other than in Legal. 

I have posted before about Jeff Carr, the general counsel who’s brought management disciplines to major corporations’ legal affairs more successfully than anyone else I know of — cutting legal costs and preventing legal problems.

Here’s Jeff Carr’s response to conventional law firms’ claim of “customer focus”:

“For many law firms & lawyers, ‘customer focus’ means focus on the customer as a source of revenue as opposed to focus on meeting the customer’s needs, objectives, and expectations.”