It’s been two years since Microsoft Deputy General Counsel David Howard wrote a much-discussed article about the company’s strategy for future engagement of outside counsel. He said that over the following two years Microsoft would move 90% of its legal representation to alternative fee arrangements, specifically fixed retainers with its primary law firms, and would bid out some of its most expensive matters. More recently, Microsoft hosted a Trusted Advisor Forum for its preferred firms and challenged them to explain how they improved over the past year and how they planned to improve over the next year.
It’s easy for most of us with experience in solo and small firm practices to dismiss the Microsoft exercise as the lofty province of multinational clients and huge firms. That’s what I thought at the time David Howard’s comments were first published. But two years is a long time in the modern world. Clients at every level are asking firms about continuous improvement and evaluating firms based on price. Many of their questions center on their firms’ adoption and use of legal technology.
The point was driven home recently when a group of ROSS engineers and I were invited to visit the legal department of an insurance company that retains a lot of small and mid-size firms. We were invited to demonstrate ROSS to the company’s in-house lawyers and to talk more generally about the evolution of of legal technology. They were not interested in blue-sky futurisms. They wanted to learn more about today’s legaltech landscape so they could ask their outside counsel informed questions about how counsel planned to improve their services. Our hosts also wanted to understand how adoption of new technology could help move their outside counsel toward fixed-fee billing models.
The Deputy General Counsel told us that the company would soon begin pressing even its smallest firms on how they were using technology to maximize value.
So what would you say if your best client asked how you improved the effectiveness of your practice over the last year and how you intended to improve more next year? It would be a gut-wrenching question for most of us.
Technology like ROSS artificial intelligence will be an increasingly important part of the answer.
Some of the improvements in productivity and efficiency driven by our technology are direct and obvious. The ROSS legal research platform enables our users to complete in minutes research assignments that used to take hours (or even days). Getting to the right answer faster improves client relationships and firm realization rates. Lawyers can be confident that the time they bill for legal research contributed directly to the successful resolution of the client’s matter. Lawyers can also have enough confidence in the efficiency of their practice to welcome fixed fees as a way to win new business.
Some of the improvements are less obvious but no less transformative. Spending fewer hours on grunt work helps junior lawyers improve their important advocacy skills more quickly. The firm can identify star associates earlier in their careers. The best associates will stay at the firm longer as the quality of their work improves. Clients will notice the expertise of the firm’s more junior attorneys and will recognize and appreciate the continuity of the familiar names and faces working on their matters.
Clients are asking more of their counsel all the time. If your clients haven’t already started asking about your firm’s efficiency, they will soon. But their questions are really an opportunity for well-run firms to strengthen client relationships. Adopting new legal technology obviously isn’t the only answer, but platforms like ROSS should be a major part of your firm’s commitment to continuous improvement.
Charlie von Simson is a legal subject matter expert at ROSS. He practiced law for twenty years before running away to join a startup.