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Rodney Dukes, head of finance, Taylor Wessing
”Are we nearly there yet?” shout the children from the back of the car. “Yes, nearly there,” says the road-weary lawyer parent who has driven through the night. Still, that night gave said lawyer time to think about the looming panel application.
The lawyer was pleased to have kept up the client contact, but the timing of the panel request was tight: confirmation of participation by 23 December and delivery of completed application by 10 January. This was a Christmas to look forward to, with the angst of having a week post-holiday to ensure that the firm was presented in perfect form, with every aspect glistening and pristine and, like every snowflake, unique.
In the mid-2000s outsourcers turned the panel process into a scientific method. Standardisation ruled, with every firm classified within indemnity limits, IT systems, diversity policies and disaster-recovery platforms.
Law firms were unable to dump glossy brochures into panel submissions and all had to produce the newly necessary systems and policies. In management speak, law firms became more corporate; focus was the watchword. This was an improvement, but still did not meet the fundamental requirements of the purchasers.
The more recent change has been to value. Much has been written on the slashing of hourly rates, value accounts and bulk discounts. Law firms now need to provide value for money. The panel prize requires demonstration of nimbleness in work allocation, budgeting and value-adds.
Service standards have changed dramatically, not through the winning of a kitemark, but through the need for law firms to meet panel requirements and develop better ways of providing value, whether through better people, standard documentation or the facilitation of secondees, training and horizon-scanning.
The purchasers are happier, but given the changing markets firms have found it difficult. Constant supply of value-adds and reduced rates have meant a dramatic reduction in recovery rates.
This brings me to the key driver: the relationship. Deeply embedded, outside the control of the outsourcers and better value than any secondee, the relationship remains the heart and soul of any panel success. Not just in winning the place, but in the future development of business, and business with value, for both purchaser and supplier.
Panel selections are far more relationship-driven now; the process is becoming more of an art than a science and, even where outsourced, the ’process’ part of the selection is only part of the overall need to demonstrate the desire to build a relationship.
Differentiation is achieved only after excellence and value have been established by the ’panel process’. Once the panel place has been secured the real differentiator is the relationship, and it is the relationship that drives real value.
So as panel submission deadlines loom, law firms need to think not just of the hourly rates, value-adds and IT standards, but also of the relationship. It is a long way to the panel, but it is the relationship that makes it rock and roll.