Commoditisation of legal services: The mistake most firms are making

“Commoditisation” in the legal profession has always felt like a dirty word.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken with Partners who say they don’t want to “commoditise” the work that they do. I have a different perspective on this.

At the risk of quibbling over semantics, I’ve always had a different view on this word.

Commoditisation is “the process by which goods that have economic value end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers.”

You don’t get to decide if your clients see your legal services as a commodity!

Whether your service proposition becomes a commodity is something that your clients determine, not you. It has very little to do with “how” you deliver your services (other than to the extent that you can differentiate with a unique service delivery approach or brand).

Therefore, with legal service delivery, it’s important to make the distinction between the “what” and the “how” i.e. what does how client want (or value) and how will we deliver that to them?

The aim is obviously to align how we deliver services to match the client’s expectation.

There are two types of possible error you could make:

1. Standardising service delivery too much resulting in clients being dissatisfied with the level of customisation provided to meet their specific requirements.

2. Not standardising service delivery enough resulting in missed opportunities for efficiency, productivity, process consistency and scalable growth.

In my personal experience, error 2 is far more common than error 1.

Claims that the client demands a “bespoke, Partner-led” service are one of the biggest reasons that the scale gets tipped in that direction.

There are certainly some major areas of any legal service that requires Partner attention, presence, expertise and / or intervention. Some of these activities might include:

• Initial consultation, diagnosis and recommending a course of action
• Interpretation of intended meaning or implications
• Provision of advice
• Representation and negotiation

There are also many components of a legal service that just need to be done correctly and efficiently and, quite frankly, your client neither knows or cares how they get done. These include:

• Gathering information and subsequent documentation
• Document creation and or compilation
• Execution of instructions to a defined standard
• Examining or analysing information or data in a structured way
• Determining and evaluating whether a defined condition has been met or not
• Planning, tracking and monitoring completion of a task
• Trouble shooting
• Interaction with third-parties
• Matter management and administration (including time-recording, WIP write-off, billing, client take-on, etc)

This second (and larger) list of activities are typically those that would most significantly benefit from simplification, standardisation, improvement and automation.

Spending more and more time manually carrying out these activities is unlikely to change your clients mind as to whether your service propositions are replaceable with one of your competitor’s offerings.

What you can do to turn the tide is to improve and automate those activities as much as possible. That allows your Staff and Partners to focus their time and energy on providing excellent client service, building client relationships and differentiating their brand.

Whilst sounding counter-intuitive, focusing on standardising and improving your core legal processes can actually prevent your services from being seen as a commodity, as you’ll have more time to focus on the things that your clients actually value.

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