What’s in a title anyway?

Paralegal.

Trainee Solicitor.

Solicitor.

Partner.

Managing Partner.

Senior Partner.

Chief Executive.

And a plethora of dreamt up, ‘keep them happy’, varieties in between.

For me a title has always been meaningless. It is no more than a line in a business card.

I recall the dumbfounded expression on a Senior Partner’s face when I told him that his offer of associateship was not important, given that my role would not change one iota (and neither would the pay!). He couldn’t understand my rationale, having told me that I would see my name on the door to the office that I was then occupying. Big chuffing deal.

Some of you may think it crass or disrespectful of the profession, particularly if you have worked your proverbial butt off to make the grade. Sorry, but I don’t buy it, and frankly neither do the majority of your clients, particularly when most of them are paying through the nose for your title.

Do you honestly think they are that discerning?

Yes, I have had some clients who insisted on a partner but they soon gave up the ghost when presented with the first bill and were handed off a very experienced lawyer who was, according to the said partner, just as good as them!

[Can you honestly say that your excessive hourly rate as partner is justifiable? Does it provide remarkable value for money? Can you magine paying £350.00 per hour? Wouldn’t you expect the very, very best of service – and with a bloody big smile?]

In time clients will no longer understand sufficiently the distinction between partner and senior associate. Most of them are already in the category where they just want the job done quickly and with the minimum of fuss. Some of the best lawyers I have come across were never likely to assume the mantle of partner but they were bloody exceptional lawyers. They billed, they had great client skills and they were consistent. OK, perhaps they weren’t rainmakers but the clients that they served didn’t seem to mind.

I don’t know about you but my rationale for being in practice was to serve. That thought process didn’t change no matter how long I had been doing the job, although I would be the first one to concede that the incessant need to bill often got in the way.

Titles should be seen in their proper context. They might demarcate the student and the teacher but no more. And just think about your own experience as you made the transition from Trainee to solicitor. Were you any different the day after? Absolutely not. If anything, if you were anything like me, you were more apprehensive because now you had no one to hide behind as your principal.

Of course the rubric may make a difference in the context of a case. It signifies the importance of the matter. But I must admit to having a hard time understanding why nearly all my cases had a partner on the other side when I was a solicitor. I, of course, worked for a largeish commercial law firm and they may have worked for a smaller firm, but the matter was as equally complex whichever way you sliced and diced it; and I was left wondering how much the other side were paying for a layer of unnecessary partner cost.

I am not suggesting you throw baby out with the bath water, but you must keep under the review the need to constantly trade off your title and not focus instead on the quality of the user experience. Will the level of service be different depending on the expense and seniority? I bet you haven’t thought about it. Sorry, you need to address the subject much more deeply, particularly if you are going to go the premium, partner route. What will your clients expect over and above that they already receive?

Summary

Spend time on the service levels and not the title.

Ask your clients what they want from their solicitor.

Are they hung up on a title?

Do they even understand the difference?

If you are going to market your title then make sure there is something discernably different about the level of title that you call in aid.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~

4 responses to “What’s in a title anyway?”

  1. Nick Hanning says:

    In principle that is all very fair comment but, sometimes, titles can be important (and ought to be) if they actually mean something.

    If ‘partner’ means no more than a higher charging rate then you are bang on, the focus is all wrong. But if the title brings with it some assurance about competence, experience etc. then it becomes important.

    This risks being relevant in the context of ‘regulation’ of paralegals. In theory at least, the consumer knows what to expect from a Solicitor (and, dare I say, a Legal Exec but there is probably more work to do there) but does not know the difference between all the other ‘titles’ given to others in the firm.

    Consistency (and clear information) about what certain grades or titles bring with them would be good for both consumers and the profession.

    [Yes, I am a Legal Exec!]

  2. Nick Hanning says:

    In principle that is all very fair comment but, sometimes, titles can be important (and ought to be) if they actually mean something.

    If ‘partner’ means no more than a higher charging rate then you are bang on, the focus is all wrong. But if the title brings with it some assurance about competence, experience etc. then it becomes important.

    This risks being relevant in the context of ‘regulation’ of paralegals. In theory at least, the consumer knows what to expect from a Solicitor (and, dare I say, a Legal Exec but there is probably more work to do there) but does not know the difference between all the other ‘titles’ given to others in the firm.

    Consistency (and clear information) about what certain grades or titles bring with them would be good for both consumers and the profession.

    [Yes, I am a Legal Exec!]

  3. Thanks very much for the comment Nick. I do think we are too associated with a/our title. When someone asks you what you do, I doubt if any partner would say “I serve others”. They will say a solicitor or some will say I am a partner. For me I am a Dad first, then a husband and then I try to help others. I don’t mind what I am called and never have. I suspect clients do associate competency with the label partner, but sadly even that doesn’t go hand in hand. Some partners are not the best technicians and often pass the work on to someone else, and then charge the client for the privilege of fronting things up. I don’t think clients know the difference between legal exec and others, particularly when their titles are changing all the time. Some of the best people in practice I met – particularly in the private client area – were legal execs and I would very often go to them for help because I knew that they would be on top of the technical stuff more so than some of the partners! Agreed on the consistency point. Really important.

    Regards
    Julian

  4. Thanks very much for the comment Nick. I do think we are too associated with a/our title. When someone asks you what you do, I doubt if any partner would say “I serve others”. They will say a solicitor or some will say I am a partner. For me I am a Dad first, then a husband and then I try to help others. I don’t mind what I am called and never have. I suspect clients do associate competency with the label partner, but sadly even that doesn’t go hand in hand. Some partners are not the best technicians and often pass the work on to someone else, and then charge the client for the privilege of fronting things up. I don’t think clients know the difference between legal exec and others, particularly when their titles are changing all the time. Some of the best people in practice I met – particularly in the private client area – were legal execs and I would very often go to them for help because I knew that they would be on top of the technical stuff more so than some of the partners! Agreed on the consistency point. Really important.

    Regards
    Julian

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