A ClariLegal interview with Toby Brown
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
ClariLegal had the privilege to interview Toby Brown, the Chief Practice Management Officer at Perkins Coie. In addition to being the founder of the P3 Conference, a practice innovation conference aimed at bringing together pricing, project management and process improvement experts, Toby is widely known as an expert in legal services pricing. Toby’s career has focused on developing and advancing alternative fee arrangements, legal practice management, and project management. Throughout his career, Toby’s work on Alternative or Appropriate Fee Arrangements (AFAs) has emphasized ensuring and maintaining profitability, which further led him into the fields of legal practice and project management, noting that lawyers “sometimes don’t have an understanding of what makes their work profitable”.
Toby notes how the firm’s business operations team works with clients’ legal operations associates to deliver value by improving and expanding the client’s legal services and opportunities – as an example, Toby cites how Perkins Coie often helps clients who are looking to find more pro bono work for in-house counsel.
We began by asking Toby what value means to him. Toby started by borrowing a fellow legal services expert, Casey Flaherty, to define value as “co-prosperity”. Toby argues that both vendors’ and clients’ focus on cost and profit forces the value conversation. Toby also believes that conversations on the scope of services are, in reality, a conversation on value – what aspects of an engagement are most important to the client? Toby notes that he often asks clients “when you assign a matter to us, how will we know where it falls on the value scale for you? If you give us a contract, how will we know whether you want us to review it in great detail, or just review a few key clauses?” Ultimately, Toby says he tries to educate the client on having a value conversation to discover what is most important to the client in an engagement. Toby argues that “scoping is a necessary preparation to understanding value”.
We further asked Toby how value is defined and viewed at Perkins Coie. Toby begins by noting that a high quality of services is now a necessary element and is no longer a differentiator. Instead, value-adds are now becoming the differentiator among service providers. For example, Toby notes that use of work-flow tools can streamline projects by allowing the firm to understand what resources are needed on a particular matter, automating the preliminary questions lawyers ask at the beginning of a project and thereby eliminating back-and-forth, making the client experience more efficient.
We also asked Toby how his firm’s clients define value. Toby sees client perceptions of value as “all over the board”. But Toby notes that clients’ definitions and perceptions of value are often dependent on each individual client’s sophistication and their commitment to legal operations. Thus, Toby argues that it is law firms’ responsibility to change the way clients with a lesser commitment to legal operations look at the law firm’s work; as an example, Toby notes that many times clients who request alternative fee arrangements are merely looking for a discount they can tout to their CFO; the harder part, Toby believes, is getting the client to change how they look at the work, teach the client the skills to scope work, and encourage the client to have the value conversation at the project or matter level.
We asked Toby how he and Perkins Coie measure their delivery of value to clients, or their receipt of value from outside vendors. Toby states that Perkins Coie’s recently-adopted strategic plan focuses on improving client satisfaction, first by developing a baseline of how satisfied clients currently are, then implementing a five-year plan to improve client satisfaction. Ultimately, Toby says that the firm measures the value they bring to their clients by asking “how satisfied are our clients?”.
We asked Toby for his thoughts on how value is communicated in the legal industry. Toby perceives conversations between vendors and clients as generally being chaotic; however, he argues that this presents an opportunity for both parties. Toby believes that the legal industry can do a much better job of defining, communicating, and delivering value. As to how vendor selection and management tools facilitate the value conversation. Toby believes that vendor selection and management tools are a stepping stone to improving the value conversation. Toby argues that tools can provide process improvements, noting that project management is a necessary predecessor to facilitating and maintaining the value conversation. Toby notes that lawyers often do engage in project management but for one obstacle – namely, resource constraints. Thus, Toby believes that vendor selection and management tools can be used to show clients how to reduce their costs, since these tools allow clients to more easily communicate resource-constraints to service providers – for example, if the client and vendor agree that a project is a 10-hour task, project management tools allow parties to give their associates a clear understanding of project resource constraints.
Finally, we asked Toby whether he believes there is alignment among corporations, law firms, and legal service vendors on the concept of value. Toby begins by noting a high degree of anxiety in corporate legal departments over the pressure to save money. Specifically, Toby notes that clients demand their law firms and legal service providers do something to save costs, but often end up not liking the proposals the law firm presents. Toby believes that law firms are coming up with new fee arrangements and business models to meet the economic pressures corporate legal departments face, but that clients end up saying “…no, not that”. Toby sees a lot of “dysfunction and distrust” between law firms and clients and argues that clients and law firms must become partners in defining the value that is to come out of a project or engagement. Specifically, Toby cites his work as president of the board SALI – Standards Advancement for the Legal Industry – an independent standards body that works to bring together the key stakeholders among clients, law firms, and technology to create standard terminology to help clients obtain comparable prices on work they put out to bid.
Disclaimer: The statements of the interviewees in the Value Article Series are opinions and observations of a personal nature and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and policies of their respective employers.
About the Authors
James Johnson is principal attorney of First Venture Legal, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based law practice focused on corporate and transactional law for very-early-stage startups. James assists entrepreneurs and small business owners with corporate formation and structuring, contracts, commercial law, employment matters, and early-stage fundraising. His practice utilizes alternative fee structures to deliver value-based service to early-stage ventures.
In addition to practicing law, James works with ClariLegal, focusing on building out its innovative platform and spreading the word of ClariLegal’s mission to reduce cost and complexity in legal vendor selection and management for law firms and corporations.
Cash Butler is the founder of ClariLegal, a preferred Litigation/Legal vendor management platform that matches corporations and law firms with the right vendors who have the right service offering at the right price.
A seasoned legal technology innovator, Cash has over 18 years of experience in the legal vertical market, primarily working in eDiscovery, litigation & compliance. Cash is an expert in legal vendor, pricing and project management.