If ever there was proof how poorly the term ‘non-fee-earner’ describes those in law firms who aren’t lawyers, Rhian Huxtable’s research into the customer experience is it. His company insight6 specialises in exploring ‘client journeys’, from the background research they do before making an initial enquiry, to their first point of contact with a firm, then looking at what happens as they request (and then receive) information, and finally exploring what happens between that point and their enquiry being converted into a firm instruction. When you break it down like this, it’s easy to see just how many people, from different professional disciplines (receptionists, secretaries, marketeers, lawyers) are involved in reeling in a client. And once they become a client, this full range of professionals all continue to be involved in the client’s ongoing experience, in addition to the IT team who are responsible for digital communication working smoothly and the finance team who send out bills and maybe have to chase for payments, and so on and so on. Everyone plays a role in earning fees for a firm and contributing to clients’ perceptions and thus the firm’s wider reputation. That’s why the term ‘non fee earner’ is such a bad fit – yet you will see from my recent LinkedIn survey detailed below, just how prevalent the use of this awful term still is. Indeed one City firm senior partner told me he worked at a firm recently that talked about ‘fee-earners’ vs ‘fee burners’! I remember working in-house in marketing roles myself and being labelled a ‘fee-spender’ in stark contrast to the hallowed ‘big fee-earners’. But that was in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I had hoped that attitude was long gone. Clearly there’s more we need to do to understand how clients see the contribution that everyone makes in the law firm, beyond just the legal advisors.
So what else does Rhian’s work tell us about the client’s-eye view of legal service provision? Just as I was poised to start writing up my interview of him and everything he told me about this, (and actually quite randomly), I had the opportunity to ask one of his clients and mine. How entirely appropriate! Instead of using his own words, I can tell you how one of his customers found the experience of working with him! The Family Law Company’s very wonderful Kerry England, (she’s a dynamo and one of the most creative legal marketeers around – you may remember her Only Human campaign that we profiled in this blog before), has worked with Rhian previously at Stephens Scown. She says what Rhian is particularly good at is the critical part that happens after gleaning the customer insights: getting partners to listen to what they need to do differently and actually getting them to change. He does this by getting under the skin of their practical and psychological blocks to change, starting with three simple questions: 1. What do we think is not working as it should do? 2. What can we do to fix it? And 3. What are the blocks that stop you doing those things to fix it. And he manages to do this without making anyone feel defensive. That’s the big difference, she says. That and the fact that everyone he coaches in the firm, which covers people at all points in the organisation from receptionists and secretaries to partners, respect his pedigree, honing his customer experience skills over 16 years at much-loved high street brand Boots. That’s why he’s worth his weight in gold, she tells me. And this comes direct from the experience of a customer!
I am sorry to report that over 40% of people we asked told us their firms still use the term “non fee-earner” to describe the many talented people that work hard in making their contribution, but who are not lawyers. We posed our question via a LinkedIn survey and 80 people replied, showing it’s clearly a theme people are interested in. One equity partner in a City firm put it well: "It suggests non-fee-earners or non-lawyers are somehow not as important as lawyers. Quite frankly the term fee earner itself is rather offensive too, given that it suggests that a lawyer’s primary purpose is to earn fees rather than to service clients”. Quite.
I always loved that Unsung Heroes campaign led by Managing Partners' Forum, urging the profession to rethink how it assesses and describes how different people contribute value in their firms. But that was launched in 2004 and I'd kind of assumed the issue was behind us now. Sadly, it would appear not. But there is hope: another respondent to our survey, Daniel Fletcher of Trowers & Hamlins, pointed out: "I do think a silver lining of the pandemic is that it has really showcased the talents of BD and marketing folk and hopefully this will see a shift in how they are viewed - as professionals". And not before time!
This story posted by Jack Rodway and Svitlana Lyekar