Does Quality Matter (in the Real World)? Consider Phones….
Nokia announced it’s cutting almost 20% of its workforce because not enough people are buying its phones.
The Nokia Lumia 900, running Windows Phone version 7.5, is highly praised as the best phone out there. It’s a judgment with which I would highly concur. (Our family has two current iPhones and the highly praised Android-based Samsung Galaxy S. My Lumia is far and away better than any of them — faster, cleaner, fewer stupidities in the interface1, great screen, excellent battery life, even a decent “radio,” the name for the part of the device that transmits and receives phone calls.)
But few people care. The iPhone continues to win because of outstanding advertising and positioning as an aspirational good — and because it’s certainly good enough even if it could and should be better. Android phones are also doing well, in part because they’re a few bucks cheaper in the stores.2
“Good Enough” and “Inertia” v. “The Best” — Are Phones Like Lawyers?
Introducing in this corner, “The Best.” Tonight they’re facing the killer tag team of “Good Enough” and “Inertia.”3
And they’re getting smacked around.
But that’s phones. How are Smartphones like lawyers?
That sounds like the setup like for a joke — actually, it probably is the setup line for a joke — but the question is a real one.
Forget the apples-and-oranges thing and go with the spirit of analogy:
- Commodity: Phones are becoming commodities, with phone manufacturers in a race to the bottom. BigLaw isn’t a commodity.
- Quality: It’s okay — annoying, but okay — if your phone drops a call. You can’t afford your lawyer dropping the ball.
- Cost: Phones are relatively inexpensive, though those monthly bills sure add up.
- Good Enough: If your current phone doesn’t have glaring, obvious flaws (and the two-year contract isn’t up), it takes energy to make a switch, learn a new device.
- Inertia: It’s much easier to change phones than lawyers or law firms.
- Commodity: Phones didn’t used to be commodities either. Various industry thinkers, from Richard Susskind to Ron Friedmann, predict that the business of law will increasingly resemble a commodity business at all but the high end. And the high end doesn’t include 20,000+ attorneys at the AmLaw 200.
- Quality: Lawyers do drop the ball from time to time, albeit usually in more subtle ways than “can you hear me now.” They don’t deliver the expected results. They lose winnable cases. Their advice proves incorrect, or impenetrable.
- Cost: Lawyers are very expensive, though the cost of not using one when you should is considerably higher. But those monthly bills sure add up. Clients are increasingly questioning these costs. And if we enter a double-dip recession (or worse), the pressure on these costs will be far greater than we’ve seen the past few years.
- Good Enough: If the current firm is good enough, if it’s getting stuff done, it has been hard for clients to switch. It takes energy to learn to work with new firms, new partners. (Of course, there are no two-year contracts.) People tend to stay in their comfort zones unless pushed. Will CEOs and COOs and GCs keep pushing? How much will you bet on that answer?
- Inertia: Inertia remains a significant weapon for firms, though Dewey’s clients have found other representation easily enough. I am not sure I’d want to count on inertia as part of my business model. Even the best client service has limits if commoditization (or recession redux) hits hard and the CEO says, “Why are we still using that $750/hour firm when you can’t prove that they deliver measurably better results?”
In sum, there are very real differences… but enough similarities to be worrisome.
I think there is at least food for thought in this metaphorical comparison.
Legal Project Management, of course, is not the entire answer. But it is part of the answer. Focus on real client needs. Improve communication so that you understand those business needs, and so the client knows that you know. Eliminate “waste,” work that the client doesn’t value and that doesn’t add value to the practice. Do what you say you’ll do… which means planning and budgeting. Be clear early on about what you really need to do — and get client buy-in — so that you’re doing the highest value work. Manage Lead your teams to bring out the best in them… and yourself. And get a bit smarter from each project so you get even better on the next one. That’s Legal Project Management. It’s not a panacea by any means, but it’s one step is beating the big two of Good Enough and Inertia.
You don’t have to stop being The Best. Indeed, you can be even better. But increasingly, being The Best will mean being effective and efficient as well as smart.