A large pub gathering of most of the London litigation support industry prompts some thoughts on the state of the industry and on what makes a buyer new to the market choose one supplier rather than another
If the Larder in Clerkenwell had collapsed last night, almost the whole of the UK litigation support industry would have gone with it. Bill Onwusah of Lovells, whose idea it was, thought he was being optimistic in reckoning that 25 people might turn up in response to his invitation for “an evening of convivial conversation”. As the evening began, he revised the estimate to 45. We all lost count, but the final figure was much higher than that. What probably drew in the crowds was the rider “if you can’t manage anything convivial we will settle for an evening of the usual backbiting and sniping”.
There were only a handful of people engaged full-time in the industry when I joined it. Most of them were there last night, and the place was packed also with many others – those who had moved across from other activities and those who were still at primary school when it started. There was refreshingly little backbiting and sniping. Four or five well-known providers were not represented at all, and not all the law firms with litigation support functions were there, but otherwise it was as full and representative a gathering as one could hope for. I have not seen so many London-based lit supp people in one place since the last pre-recession LegalTech, it being one of the industry’s oddities that New York in February is the best place to see everyone, including those you work near in London.
Such events are good for taking the temperature. You do not necessarily get a completely honest answer to the question “Are you busy?”, but the replies come back with shades and nuances which make it possible to guess who has a lot on, who is bumping along, and who is finding it hard to fill their days, let alone meet their budgets. Recession has, to some extent, removed the stigma of reduced throughput — as one person put it last night “Anyone who says he has been as busy as he would like to have been over the last year is lying”. Nevertheless, it is possible to conclude that some companies and firms are doing better than others. The answer which people give in relation to their own businesses may get modulated to some extent by what others say about them — not necessarily backbiting and sniping but hints of things which never quite break the surface.
What, if any, conclusions can one draw about the litigation support industry and the litigation business upon which it depends? I suspect that there is more work about than one might imagine, that it is unevenly distributed both across the year and as between the service providers, and that if (as in the economy generally) most people feel as if they are walking along the edge of a cliff, the general consensus is of muted optimism rather than the reverse. This may simply be because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. If you are going to work every morning and giving it your best shot day after day, you have to believe that things will come right in the end. That may become a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.
What factors decide which companies get the work and which do not? The question is complicated somewhat by the fact that the pool of available work is elastic. Much litigation is optional – clients can decide whether to engage in it or not — and they or their lawyers can, in many cases, choose whether to engage litigation support providers or not. The latter option is narrowing – once a client has decided that it must litigate or chooses to, then the option of giving disclosure on paper is diminishing, if only because the clients will not pay the bills for vast photocopying exercises and manual review by highly paid lawyers. The election to litigate therefore brings with it a near-inevitable reliance on litigation support providers, and they have a common interest in educating people as to their collective abilities. That comes ahead of (in the sense of being a pre-condition for) the scrapping between them as to who actually gets the work which results.
What factors most strongly influence the choice between providers? Providers would like to think that it is the quality of their product which matters most. This clearly plays a part, but few law firms who are new to this are capable of distinguishing between a good product and a very good product — the similarities between them are greater than the differences, at least through the eyes of someone to whom it is all unfamiliar.
Price is clearly a major factor. With clients slashing budgets in an arbitrary manner the cheapest option will obviously seem attractive. This does not, however, mean that the cheapest wins the work: for one thing, pricing is an imprecise art – there are too many variables for suppliers to reduce their offerings to a price list and they need some understanding of the particular job before they can give accurate quotations. This necessarily means that they must impress on other grounds in order to get close enough to size up the job. Price may win the job, but it does not determine who gets invited in to make the pitch.
That brings us back to two factors which are under-valued. The first is the speed and quality of the first response to an expression of interest by a would-be client. You may in fact have the best and cheapest option, but if you are the last to return the initial call you will not get the opportunity to compete. There are players in this market who, whilst banging on about process in the actual conduct of the work, themselves lack any process for connecting callers through to a salesman or consultant who can react quickly and authoritatively. Examples include companies with a single US website in which you have to burrow to find UK contact details, and switchboard operators who have not been briefed to channel a call to the right person quickly. Very few of the relevant people sit in their offices all day; they should ask themselves the question “How quickly would any prospective new client find me?” Lawyers newly instructed on a big matter do not know the mobile numbers and e-mail addresses, and if they are trying to assemble a quick short-list of prospective suppliers they will move smartly on if all they get is a switchboard operator saying just “He is not in the office today”.
The next factor is a more personal one. Assuming they can find you, do they like you? This is not a factor which will override considerations of quality and price, but if I am right in what I say above, you do not get to the point of demonstrating quality and price, even if the punter can find you in the first place, if you are not approachable and likeable. This remains a people business, and all the best salesmanship theory is no substitute for a pleasant manner if you are to have the opportunity of pitching on the basis of quality and price.
Another underrated factor is the quality of the support which comes with your application and services. To most people, this appears to be secondary to the quality of the product, but that presupposes that the client is able, at the early stages of selection, to distinguish between one product and another. I reckon that the novice user (and, perhaps even more so, one who has had some limited experience) is much more concerned that his calls will be answered when he needs help. The reputation to go for is “the support from this company is fantastic and their software is pretty good too” rather than the reverse.
One thing which was clear from this gathering is that this industry needs more women in it. I don’t mean this in a Daily Telegraph “good-looking fillies” kind of way but because the disproportionate number of men emphasises the technology at the expense of the primary objective, because a great proportion of those who actually do the work in law firms are women and because, frankly, women are better at selling to a market which is resistant to being sold to. That there are few women in the profession is not, I think, the result of any resistance among those who do the recruiting, but follows from the relatively small number who apply. I am not, of course, suggesting that there are a lot of vacancies out there for anyone, but, if I am still going to these parties in another 15 years, I hope to see a more balanced profession.
It was not mere duty which kept me at the party until nearly last train time. Two people within a few minutes told me that I looked terrible (as in knackered rather than unattractive to look at – at least I hope that is what they meant). They both know what my default appearance is, so they presumably had cause to say this, but the mirror said no more than one would expect after a quick succession of foreign trips and no let up at home. Busy is good. It was a great evening and, I think, an important one for a profession which, whilst fiercely competitive, remains able to enjoy an amicable drink together. Many thanks to Bill Onwusah for setting it up.