Since I love the TYS Lawyers Loving Life Series so much, this week I’m sharing not just one, but two stories about lawyers and law firms doing things differently – an extra dose of INSPIRATION for us all! So in addition to the continuation of Rob Laurie’s journey in Lawyers in a Dangerous Time: PART II, I am today writing about an exciting alternative law firm in Toronto that has a Director of LAWYER and Client Happiness. (Yes that’s right…there are happy lawyers in Toronto…)
Recently, I had a conference call with Rubsun Ho, one of the founding partners of Cognition LLP, and Cognition’s Director of Lawyer and Client Happiness herself, Lesley Henry.
Cognition is an alternative law firm that has been enticing many an unhappy Toronto lawyer from traditional Big Law and in-house off the beaten path. The firm was founded eight years ago by Rubsun Ho (previously at Stikeman Elliott) and his partner Joe Milstone (previously at Oslers), and while their office has never really looked like a traditional law firm (from starting up operations out of their local pub to working in an open concept office where their 31 lawyers now come and go as they wish), they have succeeded in creating something pretty AWESOME for lawyers and clients alike.
So why are their lawyers so happy?
- They have COMPLETE ability to CONTROL their own workload. Each lawyer chooses the amount of hours they want to work each week and takes on a level of work commensurate with their goals. There is NO PRESSURE TO BILL MORE. If the firm gets too busy, they will simply bring a new lawyer on board!
- LOTS OF FLEXIBILITY. For one, there is NO FACETIME requirement. Most lawyers work from home or from their clients’ offices most of the time. Lawyers can however, come into the office and work in its open space workplace if they so choose.
- NO PRESSURE TO SELL. Rubsun told me the firm believes in disassociating “doing” work from “getting” work. Lawyers are only required to “do” legal work; they are not required to sell the firm or to go out there and “get” new clients. So how, you ask, do the lawyers “get” any work? Simple. The firm has three SALES AND MARKETING PROFESSIONALS that “get” the work for them. Yes, that’s right, Cognition’s team includes people who are specialized in generating clients and building businesses, to generate its clients and build its business! AMAZING. And for those lawyers who do enjoy business development, Rubsun advised that the option of “getting” work yourself still exists.
- Each lawyer has the ability to choose from a VARIETY OF WORK. Their clients are all shapes and sizes of organizations – from startups to big names such as Rogers, Volkswagen, the Canadian Cancer Society and John Deere. Lawyers coming from both in house and Big Law are able to find challenging work in line with their interests.
- GOOD PAY. Lawyers are paid a percentage of the revenue they generate, and because the firm keeps its expenses and overhead so much lower than a traditional law office, Rubsun explained the lawyers will often take home MORE PER HOUR than they did in their previous law job! These lawyers agree.
And what do they do that makes their clients so happy?
- LOW COST – Rubsun advised that Cognition charges approximately one-third of what a typical big law firm would charge for a lawyer with similar experience. One of his main objectives in creating Cognition was to make legal services affordable, especially for smaller corporations and startups. He told me that it just doesn’t make sense to him that a small startup would pay the same per hour rate for simple corporate legal services as a giant like The Royal Bank would pay for a complex transaction.
- HIGH QUALITY – their lawyers have experience in both Big Law and in-house (typically 10 years or more) and Cognition can therefore offer expertise in a wide range of corporate services.
But REALLY, how do they DO this? How is it possible to charge one third of traditional Big Law rates and pay the lawyers doing the work the same or more per hour AND still run a profitable business? (Rubsun tells me that they have averaged 20% revenue growth per year.)
THEY RUN THEIR LAW FIRM LIKE A BUSINESS. They’ve leaned down. They’ve cut out a lot of the inefficiencies of a traditional firm and have reduced their overhead dramatically by not having a swanky downtown office where lawyers are required to sit every day and show face. They outsource support staff. They maximize specialized skill sets (such as lawyers doing legal work and someone trained in sales and marketing doing business development). And so it just costs Cognition less to do more.
And now what you’ve all been waiting for - where does this Director of Lawyer and Client Happiness come in? What exactly does Lesley do?
Basically, she does as her title suggests. She makes sure the lawyers working at Cognition are happy and fulfilled in their jobs and she makes sure Cognition’s clients are satisfied. And yes, this sounds like something every law firm says they do, so I’m going to share with you some of the cool things Cognition is doing to ensure these objectives are actually met.
- They have put in place what is called the 15 – 5 Project. This is a form that goes out once a week to all of Cognition’s lawyers. It asks them to describe how things are going, what their top three priorities are that week, what’s working and what’s not, and how they are managing aspects of their practice and life. The reason behind the name is that its takes about 15 minutes for the lawyer to fill out, and 5 minutes for Lesley to review, per lawyer. Lesley reviews all of the forms each week and checks in with each lawyer about anything that they noted being concerned about. She will regularly meet with lawyers for coffee to discuss their goals and help them to ensure that their career is in line with those goals!
- Lesley also checks in with clients in a similarly personal way. She will regularly contact clients to get real feedback about how the firm is working for them, what they are happy with, and how things can improve.
- Cognition has created a firm CHARTER and set of VALUES that every member of the firm knows and lives by. AWESOME! I can only hope that this type of connection and meaning becomes more and more common as new firms emerge. (And maybe it is… remember Miller Titerle’s visionary flip charts...)
- They have a ReCognition Program (clever name, wouldn’t you say?). ReCognition is an incentive based program that recognizes and rewards lawyers for acting in accordance with the firm’s charter and values. As colleagues see each other exemplifying Cognition’s charter and values they can share their observation with the firm, and the lawyer being recognized will receive points which they can redeem for various prizes. Sounds pretty great to me!
- And even though their lawyers don’t come in to the physical office every day, they keep CONNECTED in a number of different ways. They have a monthly newsletter that shares both personal and professional accomplishments; they put on monthly or bi-monthly CLEs at the office; they have social get togethers; and every Friday the support staff and anyone else who is in the office goes out to do something fun for a couple of hours over lunch, such as to see a movie or go bowling!
The alternative structure and all of the AMAZING things I have described above have been so well received by lawyers and clients that Cognition has grown from two to 31 lawyers in eight years and continues to be increasingly profitable year after year.
In the end, Rubsun said, “we just want to do good legal work and help people with their problems.”
I’m sure many firms would say the same thing. But, the difference, in my view, is that Cognition is doing both of those things in a way that is much more affordable to clients and that allows each of their lawyers to have the freedom and the flexibility to CREATE a LIFE that they LOVE in law.
If there are lawyers doing things differently in the largest, fast-paced city in Canada, why not everywhere? And why not you?
Anything is POSSIBLE.