Better-Managing Outside Service Providers

While law firms are generally comprised of intelligent, multi-talented individuals, there will always be the need for law firms to hire some outside service providers.  Yet law firms are not known for being particularly good managers of these providers.  It might be a good New Year’s resolution to improve your ability to manage these services. 

Despite the talents of lawyers and staff in most law firms, there are areas of management and logistics that will need outside help either because the necessary skills to do these tasks don’t exist in the firm (or at least not to the same degree as with professionals), or because those within the firm simply don’t have the time to do the task.

Examples of outside services that might be required include catering, design, website development, some IT services, and my own services of strategic planning, marketing advice and coaching.

Outside service providers are critical to a firm’s brand, workflow and goals.  They are an extension of the firm, and provide a valuable service because they help the firm to accomplish critical business goals.  A strong outside service provider is a hired gun: someone the firm can rely on when needed, who operates as if they are a member of staff, but for whom the firm does not have to pay a regular salary.  A strong outside service provider will come to know the firm so well that while their contributions might be periodic, they will always be on-target for the firm.  Firms may need to engage outside service providers on a project or ongoing basis.  Regardless of how long the engagement lasts, here’s a well-kept secret: many service providers don’t like working for law firms.  Why?  It’s because…

  • Law firms can tend to require an elongated hiring process, with endless meetings and elaborate documentation. In such incidences, it’s not uncommon for the actual project to require less time and effort than the selection process.
  • Law firms can tend to over-direct on projects. Lawyers have often given great consideration to what needs to be accomplished and how.  So once a professional is hired the lawyers will then dictate the solution.  That’s akin to hiring a designer and then telling them what furniture to buy, in which colours, and where to place it in each room.   There seems little value in hiring a professional and then not enabling them to do what you’ve hired them to do, but this occurs frequently within law firms.
  • Law firms can lose motivation before a project is completed. Lawyers can get excited about a new project but then have very limited patience with the process required.  At first, they will gratefully attend meetings and be very forthright with their perspectives, ideas and feedback.  In time, however, their enthusiasm wanes as “process” becomes a dirty word.   Their reduced participation results in delays, which they then blame on the ineffectiveness of the service provider.   At this point, some service providers also lose enthusiasm and may sit back and allow the firm to dictate the completion date.  This is the primary reason for most web project delays…law firms miss deadlines for delivery of content (or review of content) and web companies stop wasting time with attempts at follow up. Then the project languishes.
  • Law firms tend to be poor on celebrating completion. You can imagine a project operating as described above would probably not be celebrated once complete.  In fact, the completion would likely have been a painful process, where all involved needed to grit their teeth, hunker down and with some reluctance, exert the energy needed to complete the task. Once done, under such circumstances neither the firm nor the service provider would be very likely to want to celebrate completion.  This usually results in a somewhat strained or broken relationship between the service provider and the firm, wasting a valuable investment in the relationship.
  • Law firms are surprised and perhaps upset by the final bill. Most lawyers charge by the hour, as do many outside service providers. When a service provider must repeatedly follow up with a firm to complete a process, that time is recorded and charged for.  When a project stops and starts, it takes time for the service provider to get reacquainted with that project.  When a law firm continually changes their mind about the outcome, all of those edits cost money.  These challenges can result in a significant increase in cost over the original estimate.  By way of example, I recall a firm working with a design firm for development of an announcement post card.  The firm changed their mind several times on the purpose of the postcard, which resulted in the need for multiple versions to be written. The firm originally dictated the design, which didn’t ultimately work and had to be redesigned by the graphics company.  By the time the post card was complete, the original estimate had doubled.  The firm wasn’t happy about it, but had clearly orchestrated the increase.

In such circumstances, law firms will often give up on the outside company when in fact, the fault may lie with the law firm.  Increasingly, outside service providers are learning this. There are many companies who will no longer work for law firms, and I have known some who have been approached by a past law firm client and refuse to work with them again.

This is a shame as law firms can actually be fantastic clients.  Lawyers are intelligent, can be fun to work with, and can really appreciate expertise.  But there are many potential clients out there and good service providers will eventually gravitate to where they are celebrated.

To ensure law firms continue to have access to the best service providers, there are ways in which such firms can set up those relationships and projects to better ensure their success.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Carefully consider your hiring process in advance, and stick to it. Ensure it isn’t unwieldy.  Assign a person or committee to make the hire.  Ensure the firm has agreed on the criteria for selection.  Begin with a short list.  Don’t suddenly change the hiring criteria or number of interviews or documentation required mid-stream. It’s a sure sign that the firm doesn’t know what it is doing, and will be a difficult client.
  2. Clearly define the goal of the project or hire, without dictating exactly how it should be done. Let the professionals you hire do what you hired them for.  But do be very clear on the outcome desired.  For example: we need an ad campaign to launch our new office.  We want a new website that specifically attracts new clients to a particular area of law.  We want a themed Christmas party for 100 of our top clients.
  3. Establish a contact person (or very small committee) within the firm to oversee the hire and project. A marketing committee of ten cannot effectively manage a logo design firm.  Pick one individual (or a small team of two or three) to be in charge of the project and the outside service provider.  Run all communications and decisions through them.  They may need to solicit broader opinions from the firm.  They may opt to have the designers do a presentation to the Partnership.  But ensure that all decisions and instructions are run through a gate of some kind.
  4. Establish and absolutely stick to deadlines. Ensure the deadlines are realistic but after that, no excuses.  The internal project manager should check in regularly with contributors to ensure they are not leaving everything to the last minute when their time might be usurped by a client’s legal issue.
  5. Create project markers or stages – for example these could represent 25%, 50% and 75% completion points. Do your internal reporting to the Partnership at these markers. This creates accountability, and enables the internal project manager to point to these markers as extra motivation to ensure internal participants stick to their deadlines.  (Joe, I’ll be reporting on completion of stage 2 to the partnership next week and I don’t want to have to say we didn’t make it because you weren’t able to deliver on your content when you’ve had two months to do so).
  6. Include budget reports in your stage reports, which again tie in firm deadline delivery with cost of project.
  7. Have regular meetings (can be phone calls) between the outside service provider and the internal project manager. Yes, this takes time. But it ensures that there is constant communication between the firm and the service provider and dramatically increases the chances that the project will stay on-time and on-budget.  If anything goes sideways during the project, these meetings increase the chances that issues will be quickly identified and effectively dealt with.
  8. Celebrate completions, with the service provider. Give the completion of a project more weight by finding a way to celebrate it.  For example, a project might culminate in a presentation to the firm (with the service providers in attendance), or a lunch with the service providers and the internal management team, etc.  This is an important relationship and the firm might have need of this individual again.  Don’t let the relationship fizzle out.  Act like it has value.

Well managed well, outside service providers can become an important member of your team that is called upon as and when needed.  If you’ve established good communication with this individual, no one else outside of the firm will understand your firm as well or be as ready at any time to step in and provide whatever help you require.   Further, law firms invest considerable time in developing the relationship with their service providers.  It makes little sense to do this poorly and then switch service providers every time.  Pick well, invest well, maintain well.

Managing outside service providers effectively helps to ensure that projects are done well, on-time and on-budget, and that the firm is able to retain a good relationship with a very valuable resource.  It pays to learn to do this well.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com