Listening and metrics of quality

If a client feels listened to, is that client likely to use the lawyer or law firm again? Maybe, but not if the lawyer listened deeply and sincerely while charging three times what the client expected for the work. Metrics for lawyers and firms get complicated very fast.

Courtesy Flickr/Scott Akerman/CC by SA 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/Scott Akerman/CC by SA 2.0

Kenneth Grady’s latest Seylines post points toward the lack of process (and process-based metrics) for delivering legal services. The lack of process makes it difficult to measure the services and compare them. Instead, “counseling and advisory skills” are viewed as what can and should be measured:

[M]any general counsel talk as if legal services delivered by one firm are not distinguishable in substance from those delivered by another firm. Rather, say general counsel, it is the counseling and advisory skills that separate the desirable outside lawyers from the rest of the pack. While soft skills are key qualities differentiating lawyers, until we become a process-oriented industry, legal services will not be interchangeable.

So I think what he is saying is, general counsel may be using metrics about soft skills because they don’t have “harder” metrics about process. Grady points with hope toward signs of better process:

As the ways in which lawyers handle matters become standardized, it becomes easier to compare what law firms do, the quality delivered, the value clients receive, and to find areas for improvement. This is the first major step to transforming legal service delivery from a world of inputs and outputs with a black box sitting between them, to a world of transparent legal services and costs.

I hope he’s not saying that “counseling and advisory skills” will become unimportant in a world of truly standardized legal services. I don’t think he’s really saying that, although perhaps he would like these skills to be measured in the background against a foreground with objective metrics of process.

Whether metrics for counseling and advisory skills are a good thing, or just a second-best waiting for something better, Grady’s post made me want to know more about the metrics for these skills. In particular: How do GCs measure whether lawyers and firms are listening to them? 

The most accessible list of metrics I found was published by the Valorem Law Group. (Thanks to Ron Dolin’s post on “Getting to New Law: Standardized Quality Metrics” for pointing me to the Valorem list.) I took a look at the common metrics suggested in the Valorem list to see whether listening was mentioned. It wasn’t explicitly, but it could play a role in quite a few of them.

Here’s a chart brainstorming how listening may play a role in lawyers’ and firms’ performance on a number of common metrics. The metrics are on the left; thoughts on listening are on the right:

Typical metric

How listening may play a role

Cycle time Effective listening could help resolve matters more quickly and reduce cycle time.
Performance to budget Effective listening can help counsel gauge how difficult a matter will be (e.g. reluctant or poor witnesses) and thus estimate budget realistically
Results to predicted outcomes Similarly, effective listening can help with more accurate predictions by teasing out bad facts and revealing problems with potential testimony.
Timely work completion Effective listening can help the lawyer understand the client’s preferences on setting up timelines (more flexible or more aggressive and strict).
Percentage of holdback awarded and buckets of holdbacks awarded These are incentives that are “indicative of widespread client satisfaction.” Effective listening could contribute to the overall effect of widespread satisfaction.
Re-engagement percentile and   re-use index A client is more likely to want to re-use and re-engage with a lawyer or law firm that listened to the client effectively. Or at least, a client is not likely to engage a firm or lawyer who didn’t listen.
Recommendation index A client is more likely to recommend a lawyer or law firm that made the client feel listened to.
Creativity index This metric “[r]equires client to assign a score on lawyer’s creativity in solving problems, structuring settlements, providing strategy ideas, etc.” Understanding the client’s goals and what the client can give up is an example of effective listening that contributes to problem solving. In general, effective listening enhances problem solving. (This claim is worth a more detailed post at a later time.)
After action ratio The Valorem Law Group post notes that an after-action review isn’t necessary in every case. Effective listening could help a lawyer gauge whether a client wants to spend time on this kind of review. Effective listening in an after-action session seems like it could be crucial to making the session productive, especially in a sensitive situation.
Quality of advice Effective listening could contribute by allowing the lawyer to have more complete information when crafting advice, and a better understanding of client preferences in receiving advice.
Quality of written product Listening indirectly contributes to good writing by giving the writer more information. “Listening” to how the writing sounds in draft form helps a writer modulate tone. Reading out loud and listening to the words can be very effective.
Quality of outcomes Listening can tease out weaknesses and strengths that the lawyer can then use to help the client understand what kind of outcomes to expect.
Wins v. losses Can listening contribute directly to wins and losses? I’ll make a case here: Poor listening can result in problems such as failure to make a record, so yes. Good listening can steer a lawyer toward the arguments that matter most to the judge, so yes. And effective listening can help a lawyer manage which cases are appropriate to go the distance as “contested proceedings,” thus affecting the overall set of cases measured in terms of winning and losing.
Collaboration As defined by Valorem Law Group, a collaboration event would be “two or more people meeting to discuss the case, brainstorm about strategy and tactics, and similar discussions yielding value for client.” Listening is crucial to these meetings. This one isn’t hard at all.
Transparency index Transparency seems to be more about what the lawyer says and shares than how the lawyer listens. But effective listening can help a lawyer recognize what the client wants in terms of frequency and manner of sharing, and when the client may not understand. (Giving a correct and detailed explanation that the client does not understand may not help a lawyer’s transparency rating.)
Total value index This index “[f]actor[s] in all metrics weighted in whatever manner client sees fit.” Listening could contribute to the client’s perception of “total value.”
Percent of claims resolved within 30/180 days of claim As noted earlier, effective listening could help resolve matters more quickly and reduce cycle time.

The list here does not include all of the metrics from the Valorem Law list. Although I try to relate almost every legal topic to law in some way, I just could not see the connection to metrics such as “effective disaggregation,” “average number of timekeepers per matter,” and “average seniority on team,” as well as a number of quantitative measures based on fees. (But wait. For average seniority on team, maybe there is a connection to listening. Ineffective communication with junior associates may lead them to seek opportunities elsewhere, reducing the pool of senior associates available for staffing.)

Another caveat is that not all legal matters involve the traditional definition of listening, as in some form of spoken and/or nonverbal input. For those that do involve meetings or phone calls at any step of the way, the metrics above suggest that listening can affect a pretty broad variety of metrics.

The Valorem Law post notes that many of these metrics are “subjective” such as whether a client would recommend a firm or lawyer and what the client feels is the “total value index.” And that brings us back to the difficulty of measuring listening in any context.

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