If you’ve been grappling with the practical, real-world meaning of “value” in legal services delivery — and many of us have been — then I want to start this post by recommending a recently released paper from Prof. Noel Semple of the University of Windsor Faculty of Law. “Measuring Legal Service Value” is available for download at SSRN. A lengthy except is available here at Slaw (Part 1 and Part 2), and it is worth your time and consideration.
The core of Noel’s article, although by no means the entirety of his thesis, is expressed in the following outtake from his columns:
Legal service value has four elements:
- To the extent that a firm gets good legal results for its clients, it has effectiveness
- To the extent that the firm’s fees are low and easy to pay, it has affordability
- The more the firm’s practices minimize clients’ time and stress costs, the more client experience value it has.
- Finally, if the firm’s work has many benefits and few costs for people other than its clients, it has high third-party effects …
The value of a legal service is a complex aggregate of its effectiveness, affordability, client experience, and third party effects. Measuring it accurately requires gathering data from multiple sources, using a variety of methodologies….
[I]t is entirely possible – and entirely worth the effort — to create accurate, objective methods to quantify the value propositions of different firms in different legal niches.
I’ll leave it with you to peruse the balance of the posts and the article itself — there’s lots more great stuff there to ponder and engage with. What I’d like to do here is generate a very simple riff on Noel’s valuable and complex framework. Specifically, I’d like to take some of these concepts, tinker with them a little, and use them to whip up a quick-and-dirty mechanism by which law firms can measure the value of their work to their clients.
Noel makes the point that determining the value of a legal service in each dimension requires a different set of stakeholders and participants in the service delivery process. He (rightly) sketches out roles for clients, lawyers, judges, regulators, and third-party entities affected by the legal service. I’m going to focus here on only one of those stakeholders — the client. And I’m going to limit myself to three of the four dimensions he identifies: effectiveness, affordability, and client experience. This is not because I think these are the only aspects of Noel’s model that have value — they’re not. But I want to create something simple for law firms to use that has elements of frugal innovation, something that can be generated and used quickly and easily.
Here’s my suggestion. Upon the completion of any client engagement — for our purposes, that’s the issuance of a final invoice for services rendered — the lawyer sends the following one-page message and survey to the client. It can accompany the invoice contemporaneously, but I think it would be better to arrive a few days later. It could read as follows:
We are committed to delivering outstanding value to our clients, and we are eager to learn how we can increase that value every day. To help us accomplish that goal, we would ask you to complete the following brief “Client Value Survey.” It will take no more than ten minutes of your time, and your responses will help ensure that future clients of the firm benefit from what we can learn from serving you. The people who worked with you on your legal matter will see your responses.
This survey consists of three statements. On a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 means “Absolutely disagree” and 100 means “Absolutely agree,” please choose a number that best expresses your agreement with the following statements. If you are not yet sure of the answer, please click the box that says “I’m not sure yet” and we’ll ask you again in two months’ time. Please also make any comments after each question that you’d like to add.
- I obtained the outcome from hiring you that I wanted and needed. I got what I paid you for.
- You treated me the way I wanted and expected. I had a good experience getting this outcome.
- Considering both the outcome and the experience I received, I paid you a fair price.
Please let us know if we can provide any other information or answer any questions about this survey. Thank you again for allowing us to serve you in your recent matter, and thank you in advance for your responses to this survey.
A few notes:
- Sophisticated clients (e.g., in-house counsel, veteran business owners) could give an informed answer to the first and third questions, but most individual clients could not — or at least, not for months or even years after the service is delivered. That’s why the survey offers the “I’m not sure yet” option. But even though the client’s answer in most cases will be under-informed or even completely uninformed, I still think it’s important to ask. The client might not be able to judge the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the service with professional clarity, but he or she will still have a reliable “feel” for whether the work was successful or not. And in any event, clients deserve to be asked if they believe they got what they paid for — it’s at the very heart of the retainer.
- I went with a scale of 1 to 100, rather than the traditional 1 to 10, because legal matters and lawyer-client relationships are too complex for single-digit assessments. The 100-point scale might also cause people to unconsciously default to a “grading system,” where any score above 80 is an “A” and anything below 50 is an “F,” and that’s helpful too. That’s why the comment option is important: a two- (or three-) digit rating system will cause the client to reflect a little more deeply, and those reflections will often yield feedback and insights that are invaluable to the firm. Why did the client give us a 68 on this aspect of the retainer? Chances are, the comments will help show you the client’s reasoning.
- Let me emphasize again that this is a simple, frugal, quick-and-dirty way to assess the value your firm has delivered to its clients. You can and should set out to explore and develop more complex and finely grained analyses of your value accomplishments, and Noel’s paper is an excellent place for you to start. But you can still do a lot with the results of this simple survey. Responses to the first statement can help you continuously improve the quality of your processes, people, and outcomes. Responses to the second can help you design an exceptionally good client experience by doing more of the good and less of the bad. Responses to the third can help you determine whether your pricing is attuned to the value you’re delivering (too high or too low).
If you do manage to construct a feasible, sustainable way to assess client value, using this or some more sophisticated measure, be sure to record the results, track them over time, and task your people with a mandate to constantly improve the results or maintain them at a judiciously selected and reasonable high level. The next step after that will be to incorporate client value assessments into your compensation system: rewarding lawyers in proportion to the degree to which they have rewarded the faith that clients placed in them.
Whatever route you choose to get there, strive to place the value your clients receive at the core of why your firm exists and what it does every day.