Biglaw, Billable Hours

Drinker Biddle’s Latest Attack on the Billable Hour

Have you ever heard of a “chief value officer”? Let’s assume your answer is “no,” because you don’t spend your free time reading synergistic white papers produced by McKinsey & Co. But that’s something the good people at Drinker Biddle would like to change. The Legal Intelligencer reports that Drinker Biddle is creating a new position to help the firm focus on client value:

If in a push for efficiency law firms are changing the way they offer their services, it’s only logical that how they market those services needs to change as well.

That’s a concept not lost on Drinker Biddle & Reath, which, after scaling back what it calls its client relations department over the last four years, is ready to grow it in a different way after widely restructuring the department’s functions.

The restructuring is highlighted by the appointment of Chicago-based Kristin Sudholz as the firm’s first-ever chief value officer.

You gotta ask yourself: What kind of economy are we living in where a professional services firm needs to create an executive position to make sure clients receive value for the services they purchase? It’s almost like a automobile manufacturer needing to create a “chief driving officer” to oversee consumers’ ability to actually drive the product.

The thing is, I’m almost positive GM does have an executive in charge of “drivability” or something. So maybe this Drinker Biddle idea isn’t totally off the wall…

The new position reminds me of Bill Simmons’s call for sports teams to hire a Vice President of Common Sense. The description of the position is so simple that it’s almost embarrassing that it has to be codified. And yet the role seems totally crucial if the firm can’t organically generate client value through the traditional method of “partners giving a crap about their clients”:

Altman Weil consultant Pamela Woldow said there are a few firms trying to move toward the value “vision,” but as far as she knows Drinker Biddle is the first firm to formalize the role under the CVO banner.

“It’s a real cultural shift, and for a law firm, it’s a business model shift,” Woldow said.

This type of focus is a recognition that “time does not equal value,” which is at odds with the way almost every firm tracks its work — the billable hour, she said.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Woldow said. “It’s very timely. It will speak well to clients as long as they can execute it.”

Right, “brilliant” — if it’s a real idea and not just some marketing ploy. Is Drinker Biddle creating a kind of law firm ombudsman who can tell truth to power within Drinker Biddle? Or is Sudholz’s new job going to be selling the firm to clients using a slightly updated corporate lingo?

At Drinker Biddle, the CVO role is tied in part to the firm’s commitment to the Value Challenge, and follows other projects the firm has already implemented, such as a six-month training program for first-year associates, the competency-based advancement of associates and Sudholz’s seat on the firm’s strategic planning committee to ensure a voice on “value” is at the table…

The firm wanted to divide its client relations department into one group that “gets the trains in on time” by handling the day-to-day management of filling out RFPs or updating the website, for example, and a second group that focuses on how the firm needs to change to better provide value.

If you’re still a little bit hazy on what “value” actually means, you’re not alone. But somehow, it’s all wrapped up with the billable hour:

While not new to other professional service firms, the CVO role is a new concept to law firms and follows the goals of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Value Challenge initiative. The challenge is a push away from the typical billable hour method in which firms make money through working more hours on a project to one that focuses on efficiency, alternative fee arrangements and leaner staffing. The end goal is to offer more value and predictability to clients while maintaining or even increasing profitability for law firms.

If Drinker Biddle can tap into the general hatred for the billable hour, they might be on to something. But the billable hour concept has proved so resilient that Leo DiCaprio must have put it there while we were sleeping. It’s going to take a lot more than a newfangled marketing campaign and some consultant talk to boldly move in another direction.

Drinker Biddle Creates Role of Chief Value Officer [Legal Intelligencer]

Earlier: Drinker Biddle: Merit-Based Pay Means Cuts to 53% of Associates

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