Corcoran’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1

by Timothy B. Corcoran on May 21, 2010

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A long time ago when I was a radio and club DJ, I owned a lot of Greatest Hits albums and CDs so I could fulfill listener requests for popular songs. Some of these collections were hastily compiled by an artist’s record company in order to fulfill a contractual obligation. But sometimes the collections were compiled with care and enthusiasm and included never-before-released songs from the vault, liner notes from the artist and other material to appeal to the true fan. With that in mind, I present the top five posts from this blog over the past year along with additional insights of my own and public and private reader reactions.

Legal Project Management Q&A – For quite some time I’ve been writing about the need for law firms to embrace business concepts to improve operations.  Last year I adapted some of the concepts and techniques I learned in my corporate life and developed a curriculum for educating lawyers about project management.  Turns out there’s a whole discipline growing on this topic, now dubbed Legal Project Management, and there are some quality trainers offering insights.  But there are also a number of folks hopping on the bandwagon.  In my view, one can obtain certification in a discipline, one can even teach the concepts, but one doesn’t really know the topic until one applies these techniques in a commercial enterprise to make money.  Ask your project management consultant for real commercial examples of these concepts in action.

In addition to imbuing my approach with real-life experience, I also focus on the big picture and keep away, at least initially, from the statistical and quantitative basis that others believe is necessary to commence a project management process.  One Six Sigma Black Belt criticized my approach, exclaiming in disbelief that no program that addresses project management and process improvement could possibly succeed without a heavy dose of analysis and math.  I disagree.  Well, at least I disagree insofar as I’m confident few law firm partners will sign up for a course that’s heavy on math and analysis.  But many will sign up for a workshop such as mine (and hundreds have!) where we cover the basics, whet participants’ appetites for how project management skills can be applied to a law practice and generate sufficient interest to go to the next level where — surprise! — we get deeper into the underlying math and analysis needed to truly benchmark and track performance.  On a few occasions my colleagues and I have replaced a consultancy that specializes in engineering firms, or that applies a standard Six Sigma methodology to any business process with little customization.  I’ve learned that the practice of law, while not as unique as some lawyers would have us believe, does require customization and care to ensure that the concepts are properly applied.

If you lead a law firm and you’re convinced that with an improving economy everything will go back to the way it was, and this is a good thing because it’s right that lawyers should demonstrate value primarily by billing time, and it’s right that lawyers should treat each new engagement as if it’s the first of its kind because this is the only way to ensure the client receives the most thorough work product, then you don’t need project management.  But write down these beliefs and note how firmly you believe in them, and then let’s talk again in a couple years.  I’m certain your views will have changed, because once everyone else has adapted you will too.

A Note on Reducing Law Firm Compensation – This post generated a number of emotional responses.  It’s also one of the most commonly searched topics on the blog, suggesting that it’s a hot topic elsewhere.  When I wrote this post, quite a few large law firms were conducting public and stealth layoffs of staff, associates and even non-equity partners, and just as many were reducing compensation of these same groups.  Popular legal gossip blog Above the Law teamed with Law Shucks to track these layoffs, and according to their research as of today’s writing there have been nearly 15,000 job losses in the legal sector.  This is an unprecedented statistic in a business segment that is typically known to perform well in good times and bad.

It’s challenging to write academically on such an emotional topic while the lives of real people are so significantly impacted, but the original intent of this post was to provide some context for why the same market dynamics of supply and demand that influence other industries are certainly factors in the legal profession.  In short, when demand for a product or service declines, there tends to be an oversupply of the product or service, and this drives prices down.  When product or service producers experience lower revenues from lower prices, they look to reduce costs in order to maintain profitability.  It should have come as no surprise that associates and staff, the lowest members on the Biglaw totem pole, would experience the greatest pain when demand dropped and law firms cut costs.  But as I said then, when demand returns, hiring and compensation will increase.  And it is, and they are.

That’s the thing about markets — they tend to operate efficiently when you look at the big picture.  Unfortunately, real people and their livelihoods were sorely impacted, often through no action or inaction of their own.  Which is why this blog is intended to help business leaders make smarter choices, to run more efficient and effective businesses, so we can enjoy profitability while also delighting customers and attracting quality employees.

Law Firm Leaders: Save Money Now By Cutting Marketing – The title is ironic.  I would not counsel any business leader, especially a law firm leader, to limit the organization’s visibility to its target audience, particularly when there’s a good possibility that buyers are actively seeking new providers.  But I figured the title would catch the eye of leaders looking to do just that, because after all, isn’t marketing a nice-to-have, not a must-have?

There were a few different points in this post.  First, every marketer will claim that one should spend more on Marketing during a downturn, but like a politician who’s developed a nice ten-word sound bite but doesn’t know the next ten words, i.e., the substance behind the rhetoric, many marketers repeat this mantra without offering salient details such as when, where and how to increase marketing in a downturn.  As marketers, we can’t just try to protect our jobs without regard for the consequences, like auto workers refusing to negotiate labor rates even if it means the plant must close.  We should be thoughtful and prudent in our spending during a downturn, because while surely there are opportunities to be had, there are also a lot of people willing to take our money in return for a lot of empty promises because they too are suffering.

I also wanted to take on the lazy business leader who applies cuts across the board without regard to growth potential or profit contribution.  In tough times we all need to tighten our belts.  But if Mom loses her job, do we sell the car to save money, and now Dad can’t get to work and he loses his job too?  A corny analogy, but in effect many business leaders our of some misguided sense of fairness try to spread the pain evenly.  Hogwash.  The current and potential growth engines might need relatively greater investment in tough times, and the slow growth or cash cows might deserve nothing, so long as we’re willing to acknowledge that this will effectively kill them.

The other point was to distinguish between marketing as defined by many lawyers and marketing as defined by experts.  Just the other day I was reminded that this is a long-term battle.  A Biglaw partner asked me if I could help the firm get its RFP response approach “right.”  I suggested we might have very different views for what is “right.”  An elegantly bound booklet full of deal lists, league tables and lawyer bios, accompanied by boilerplate responses to an RFP’s standard questions is very often a waste of everyone’s time.  An RFP that addresses the client’s business challenges and offers potential solutions along with a project plan and a budget is very often a winner, even if it’s a tenth of the size and weight of the alternative!  But lawyers want the former (and so do many marketers).  If a law firm leader wants to cut marketing costs, my suggestion is that in addition to reviewing the marketing budgets and org chart, he should look in the mirror and identify the silly things lawyers do under the guise of Marketing.  And the marketers can help.  After all, we’re in this together.

Addressing the Martindale-Hubbell Question – I receive calls nearly every week from law firms big and small asking if I’ll help them negotiate their Martindale-Hubbell contract.  Many, but perhaps not all, readers of this blog may know that for a period of time I led the large law, international and corporate business for Martindale-Hubbell.  Obviously I know where the bodies are buried and how to negotiate against my old team (actually, now that LexisNexis manages the business, nearly everyone I knew is gone).  But I have no interest in doing so.  Despite the unethical, short-sighted, juvenile and profoundly incompentent manner in which I was treated when I left the organization, I spent too many years building its brand to take any joy in knocking it down.  Besides, the leaders of the parent company need no help from me or other alumni to harm the franchise.

Of more interest is that when it comes to directories, everyone continually asks the wrong questions!  There is no list of “good” directories and “bad” directories.  Even comparing Martindale to Ted’s List of Blond-Haired Left-Handed Lawyers of Southern North Dakota is a misnomer, because one is a multimedia network connecting buyers and sellers, and the other is a vanity listing which lawyers buy to feel good.  But I’ll leave it to the Martindale marketers to tell their story.  Despite the title, the post is about how one measures the impact of any legal directory to influence your prospect’s buying decision.  After all, isn’t that what it’s about? 

The calculus is fairly simple: define your target market, identify the ways to reach this market, identify the manner in which they make buying decisions, and then be in those places and do those things.  If the cost to do this effectively is too high, seek out proxies.  If a legal directory has access to the target market and influences a buying decision –and it can prove it — then perhaps an investment of a dollar there gets you ten dollars of return.  If not, move on to the next tactic.

Marketers are just as bad as lawyers when it comes to judging legal directories, just on the opposing side of the argument.  Typical legal marketer discussion of directories:  “Does anyone use the Tall Lawyers of Montana directory?  One of my delusional lawyers thinks it’s an important investment.  I’ve tried to tell him that all directories are a waste, and he should spend time developing a Facebook fan page instead because I think it’s a better investment.”  In Biglaw land, few buyers will identify, evaluate or select a law firm based solely on its representation in a legal directory (or network), but sometimes it can be a differentiator when all other factors look the same.  It’s important to know when this is the case and when you’re throwing your money away.

Web 2.0 / Social Media Update – I’ve long been active in social media, before we even used those terms.  I had the good fortune of joining Steve Brill’s team in the early ’90s when Counsel Connect was launched as a sort of AOL for lawyers, which was several years after I joined AOL and participated in its chat groups, which was a year or two after I joined Compuserve.  For many of you, these names mean nothing.  That’s okay.  Suffice it to say, I’ve long been a fan of learning from experts wherever they hang out, and occasionally I’ll have something to say that I think others might find useful.  The venues change, but the concept still applies.  In this post I shared the many legal and non-legal blogs I read daily, and the legal and non-legal social networks where I spend time, as part of my effort to stay connected and stay informed about the changes in my chosen field.

This was an enormously popular post a year ago, and while untold millions of users have joined the social networking bandwagon since then, I suspect many are still looking for a roadmap of what’s good and what’s a waste of time, from the point of view of someone who’s been there.  Rather than point people to the year-old summary, I’m updating the post and I’ll publish that shortly (Update here).  My daily reading list has expanded yet the frequency of my commenting (on this blog and elsewhere) has declined somewhat as I try to strike the right balance between studying my field and working in my field.  I know that I’m not alone in seeking this balance.

So there you have it.  The top 5 posts from this blog in the past year.  I hope you enjoyed them the first time, perhaps enjoyed reading them a second time, and I hope these liner notes were helpful additions.  Feedback is always welcome.

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