GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
Maintaining Good Vendor Relationships
One fact that escapes many lawyers is that they must be prepared to maintain productive ongoing relationships with their key vendors. Many high-quality tech vendors simply refuse to do business with law firms. Estimates for how many refuse to do so run as high as 25 percent. Other vendors charge premium rates to law firms, claiming that they are more difficult to deal with—especially on a profitable basis. Are law firms and lawyers really more difficult as consumers? Generally speaking, and compared to other types of corporate environments, the simple answer is yes.
What makes many lawyers such difficult clients? Are you one? If you feel you’ve gotten poor response or attitude from a number of your critical vendors, or frequently have been overcharged for services and/or supplies, chances are you’re viewed as a difficult client. Here are some of the reasons you are viewed that way—and how to change so you’ll be a better client.
Lack of Planning
Because lawyers work with an evolutionary process to turn out documents and deals, they do not anticipate that the vendor has a right to charge for changes to plans and/or specifications. Lawyers usually consider this a cost of doing business. Unfortunately, many vendors do not. Especially when the project involves software, revisions can cost the vendor any margin of profitability and strain the relationship with the lawyer to the breaking point.
The solution is simple: If you cannot adequately plan, be realistic and expect to pay for changes and revisions that crop up as a result of the “evolutionary” nature of your project. At least talk with the vendor about these possibilities. If possible, negotiate a reasonable charge in advance that will be mutually acceptable to both.
The Blame Game
One firm thought it was the vendor’s “fault” that they did not buy an optional, costly piece of equipment that the firm originally judged to be an unnecessary upgrade. When they discovered they were unhappy with the package’s performance without it, they actually expected to receive it free from the vendor, who had failed to convince them they needed it. Of course, the correct response would be to purchase the additional equipment and try to negotiate a reduced rate for installation.
The solution is simple: It is incumbent upon you to ask questions—lots of them—and then make an informed decision. Be sure to get the answers in writing or reduce them to writing. If your decision turns out to be flawed, you must take responsibility. Unless the information you received was inaccurate, don’t expect the vendor to pay for your poor decision or for the questions you failed to ask.
Ego and Bloodletting
Egos often run a bit larger and stronger in law firms: Individual partners may seek to prove their place in the pecking order by exacting the most concessions from the hapless vendor caught in the middle. (This is called double- or triple-teaming.) In their effort to outdo one another’s negotiating, they trample the vendor and wipe out any profit margin that might ensure an ongoing healthy relationship.
Ego can also get in the way of making good technology decisions. Accustomed to having the answers, lawyers with a shaky grasp of technology often attempt to bluff and/or intimidate the vendor, trying to pay attention to what they know (like contract negotiation) and gloss over what they don’t (like network specifications).
Lawyers also may use ego to make decisions about deployment of technology. This is where you see partners getting the super-fast computers with large monitors, and staff getting the worn-out hand-me-downs with tiny monitors. Of course, the lawyer will blame the vendor for the dip in productivity and employee morale.
Several solutions are available here. Keep in mind that it is in the best interest of the firm to have a good ongoing relationship with a vendor, one that remains fiscally sound. Therefore, although you want to negotiate a great deal, you should stop short of drawing blood from or making a killing off the vendor. When you allocate equipment and plan for technology upgrades, focus on productivity and service to your clients and how you can deploy your resources to achieve these aims.
I Don’t Have Time for Class
If the coauthors had a dime for every time we’ve heard that phrase, well, we’d be doing something else now. Lawyers rarely want or take the time to get adequate training. And they usually don’t want to spend the money or allow the staff the time to get trained, either. Sometimes the unwillingness to train is caused by overconfidence that training is unnecessary—but just as often it’s from a fear of appearing ignorant. In either case, time constraints and fears of lost productivity exacerbate the underlying cause. Unfortunately, it’s the vendor who bears the brunt of the problems created by untrained users. Vendors also hear about it when lawyers and staff are unhappy with software they don’t fully utilize.
We are often contacted by people unhappy with “proven” software. They tell us they have complained endlessly to the vendor and gotten nowhere, and want us to recommend other software. “It won’t do ________,” they whine. We know it will. When we ask how much training they received when they got the software, the answer usually is little or none. When we contact the vendor, they are relieved to hear from us. “It’s a training issue,” they say, “but the firm won’t listen to us.” We resolve the issue—by convincing the firm to pay for and take the time for proper training. Once we do the math and show the lawyers that conversion will be a lot more costly than properly learning to use what they have, they are convinced.
You can and should expect to pay as much or more for training as for the software itself. For implementing a network project, as much as 35 percent of the overall budget should be allocated for training. (This also means lawyers and staff must schedule the time to get trained, retrained, and advanced trained until using the software is second nature.)
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Lawyers constantly counsel clients to “get it in writing.” Yet they rarely do so themselves. Too many relationships with vendors go sour because of conflict about what was said and/or promised (but never put in writing). Lawyers are very quick to threaten vendors with lawsuits over these misunderstandings. No wonder many vendors who have had this experience refuse to deal further with law firms.
Again, the solution is very simple. The law firm representative should take copious notes during every meeting with the vendor. Record all representations and statements of fact, promises, who agrees to do what and be responsible for what. Within 24 hours of the meeting, type the notes—in plain, understandable English—and deliver copies to all who attended the meeting. Let the vendor(s) know that the notes are subject to correction within 48 hours, after which everything in them will be relied upon as fact. This simple exercise is well worth the effort and can totally eliminate finger pointing. It will quickly pinpoint miscommunications and misunderstandings so your project moves smoothly.
Think of your own clients. Some are absolute joys to work with, while others are painful. Which type of client do you want to be viewed as when you are calling with an emergency that has stopped production in the firm or when you need a favor?
Changing from being a “difficult” client to a “reasonable” one is not difficult nor does it mean you have to be a “sucker” or overpay for services, equipment, and supplies. It simply means that you will plan more carefully, keep your goals in mind and egos in check, realistically expect to pay for course corrections when your planning has proven inadequate, budget for and obtain adequate training, take responsibility for your oversights and errors, and take detailed notes to document all meetings and conversations. You can be a tough consumer and still be a reasonable one. Vendors don’t mind tough; they do mind bullies. Being tough but reasonable will earn your firm the pricing and support you want, need, and deserve.
Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s management assistance program in Oklahoma City; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. llen Freedman is the law practice management coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; she can be reached at email@example.com.