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September 10, 2015

Valorem's Patrick Lamb: Ways law firms put themselves before clients.

No one cares more about clients than Chicago trial lawyer, fellow Irish-American storyteller, legal profession critic and Renaissance man Patrick Lamb; Pat was--long before any other practitioner-blogger out there--fixed on clients as the North Star. Client service orientation is not a gimmick with him--or with any of his partners at Valorem.

I personally owe Pat. I and four others would not have started What About Clients? in August 2005 and write about lawyering daily were it not for Pat's example and advice beforehand and during. Pat and I are both products of the associate-partner big law firm training track. While we do not certainly see eye-to-eye on everything in law and life, we do have lots in common. We famously differ on billing--no need to get into that here--but over the years have been on the same page consistently on the client.

Ironically, establishing and insisting upon law firm cultures where clients are first--and from which all else must flow--is a natural professional and business instinct for Pat (and me). But it is for almost no other lawyers or law firms I know. Other firms talk about it. Write about it. Proclaim it. But they don't do it--and in truth client service regimes are simple but they are much, much harder to establish and maintain than they look. Client-first cultures require discipline, work and enforcement.

My sense is that Pat and I would still love to try a case together. We both revel in the rules of evidence and the art of storytelling for business clients in American federal courts. We even like the discovery process, providing it's efficient. Generally, Pat may have a better business head, both as a managing law partner and a trial lawyer, than do I. But as a trial lawyer, I'd wager that at least my closings are more logically compelling and emotionally gripping--an unusual combination--than any trial performance Pat has ever seen. Make no mistake. I am evilly persuasive with any woman juror who is, say, 85 or older. I'm also funnier, slightly better-looking and a much, much shallower human being than Pat. Some jurors do appreciate these qualities. I've worked hard for them all, Jack.

But I digress. Last week at his award-winning In Search of Perfect Client Service, Pat in "Valorem Law Group's Why" takes a thoughtful but also brave look at the demise and collapse of once well-respected Dewey LeBoeuf. Do read the whole piece; it's eloquent and at points quite moving. Here are some excerpts I especially liked:

One lesson learned from this state of affairs is that, lip service aside, client well-being is irrelevant in most law firms. Countless examples prove that firms placing their own interests above clients’ interests has become part of the firms’ DNA: they just can’t change it without killing themselves. In no particular order, here are just a few:

1. Hourly billing

2. Bonuses based on hours

3. Compensation guarantees.

4. Compensation based on revenue rather than profit.

5. Compensation that ignores client satisfaction.

6. Large partner offices and high downtown rents.

7. Expensive artwork.

8. Mergers. And then justifying them by saying it helps clients.

patrick_lamb 2 seated.jpg
Valorem's Patrick J. Lamb

9. Annual fee increases that have become self-righteous expectations.

10. High turnover of associates and income partners.

11. Putting all risk of failure on the client side.

12. A business model as unfriendly to clients as one can imagine.

13. Pressure to collect at year end for the firm’s benefit with no regard to how that practice helps or hurts the client.

14. Massive infrastructure and expansive numbers of offices that provide no value to most clients, but are paid for by all clients.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that those who run large law firms have become “the Man,” doing things for themselves and the other powerful elite in their firms.

In most firms, any semblance of equal treatment of partners has faded along with bygone eras. Even in the “good old days,” clients were merely a means to comfort and success.

My partners and I all practiced at firms run by one version or another of “the Man.” The challenge for each of us was what to do about it. Separately and without knowing it, we all had the same epiphany.

We could not work for the Man any longer. Indeed, we had to challenge The Man and everything he stood for.

Posted by JD Hull at September 10, 2015 11:00 PM


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