October 23, 2012

Shades of Andy Rooney: Trends I'd Like to See Happen or Reversed

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Practice Building Strategies for New Partners

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July/August 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 5 | Page 12

Trends Report

Shades of Andy Rooney: Trends I'd Like to See Happen or Reversed

Saying farewell to some trends would be good news for the profession.

This column has discussed many trends in the legal profession, some of which have been desirable and others of which have approached the nonsensical. This time, however, inspired by one of my favorite people—Andy Rooney—I’m going to discuss new trends I’d like to see happen and some current trends I’d like to see reversed. Why? Because in each case I think they would be good for the profession.

More degrees, but shorter names, please.

Some firms have begun providing management and leadership training for partners and senior associates, and a few law schools are now offering courses in practice management. These are healthy trends. But most lawyers still don’t have sufficient training in business to qualify them for firm management or to serve as “trusted business advisors” to their clients. I’d like to see a few universities start offering combined J.D. and MBA degrees. That would not only improve the level of law firm management but also provide more truly value-added client service.

But here’s something we could use less of. For a while there was a definite trend of firms shortening their names. Unfortunately, it appears to have died out. Start-up firms seem to be the worst offenders, with names such as “Casey, Feinberg, Shostakovich, Weindenbach, Trippenhammer, Dingleberry and Mostacelli Limited.” Let’s bring back the trend of shorter firm names.

Forward steps in marketing and business development.

Marketing budgets in most firms—excluding personal injury firms—still average around 2 percent. Yet in the leading accounting firms these budgets have averaged close to 10 percent for years. It has been the same in the most successful architectural and consulting firms, and it’s now heading toward that figure for health-care providers. It’s time law firms learned from other professions that the only way they can compete in the long run is to invest—and invest is the proper word—a higher percentage of revenues in marketing and business development. That would be an exciting and productive trend.

When it comes to responses to RFPs, most firms still begin their presentations with the firm’s history, the lawyers’ pedigrees and accomplishments, how they think they differ from their competitors and, of course, their commitment to client service. Only a small percentage seriously research the prospective client and its industry and begin their presentations with a discussion of the prospect’s situation and its particular needs before stating how they would specifically address them. Not surprisingly, these are the proposals that usually win the client. Let’s see a move toward doing proposals like a business would do them.

There has been a steady trend toward giving associates marketing and business development training. That’s good. But firms also continue to require ever more billable hours. As a result, associates have little if any time to apply their training and develop new business. I’d like to see a trend in which firms identify those associates who have both the desire and the ability to develop business and support them in that—regardless of their billable hours.

Many law firms talk about cross-marketing but don’t provide the incentive to do it. Let’s see a trend toward firms revising their compensation systems to reward their lawyers for successful cross-marketing.

And let’s see a trend away from blogs, okay? How can lawyers have busy and successful practices if they have the time to spend on blogging?

More sense in associate salaries and partner pensions.

All but a few, mostly small firms still follow the archaic policy of basing associates’ salaries on their class—meaning each associate in each class receives the same salary. That is, and always has been, ridiculous. Like all human beings, some lawyers develop more quickly than others do. So let’s see a trend in which, after the first year, each associate’s compensation is based on his or her progress in both professional development and marketing rather than every associate being blindly “lumped in” with all the other associates in their class. Of course, that would require that all associates receive regular and constructive performance reviews. Hey, there’s another good idea.

Finally, let’s see a trend toward funded pension liabilities for partners so that the younger partners aren’t paying for the benefits of partners who are no longer working or contributing to the firm.

Am I dreaming about all of this? I don’t think so. Many of the worthwhile trends of recent years have developed in response to younger lawyers pushing for them. I believe the new generation of lawyers entering the partnership ranks today are much more able to think outside the proverbial box and, as a result, could initiate these trends and others. That would not only be good for the profession—it would also delight Andy Rooney and me.

About the Author

Robert W. Denney is President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.