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How paralegals can get the most out of vendor relationships.
The chief responsibility of any legal assistant is to get the job done, period. Many times, the task at hand requires resources not found in the legal assistant’s office or firm, and a third party is needed to help bring all the pieces together in time to meet a looming deadline. It’s times like these paralegals must remember they have the key to their own success — the vendor.
Sales people, recruiters, consultants and vendors often are vastly underused resources for legal assistants. There are scores of sales professionals offering services, and it can be amazing what they can and will do for a new or busy client. Unable to see past the sales pitch, many paralegals let the opportunity to use the resources and talents of these vendors slip by. At some point, most legal assistants will need a vendor for services, and every paralegal has an approach to dealing with the sales industry. Some choose to ignore vendors, never returning a call. Others choose to interact with sales people in a way that benefits their law firms. These paralegals know how to get what they need and use vendors as tools for success.
Types of Vendors
The number and variety of companies serving the legal community obviously differs from city to city. Generally, there are at least three different types of vendors with variations on them all:
Other types of vendors include transcription services, translation services, research companies, office product providers and so forth. Needless to say, a paralegal typically has a multitude of vendors to choose from for various legal-specific needs.
Do Your Homework
Depending on where you work and the reputation of the firm, gaining access to vendors can be as easy as answering your phone or as difficult as trying to find a company specializing in a specific service not offered by anyone in your market. “Being at a big firm, [vendors] find you. When I was at a smaller firm in a small city, it was tough to get a vendor to call me back. My firm was not a big user and didn’t have hundreds of attorneys. For them, I was not a hot prospect,” said Lindiwe Tshuma, case manager for Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C.
If you work at a firm where vendors are constantly calling, try to turn their calls into research for your future vendor needs. Instead of rushing to get off the phone, try to listen beyond the sales pitch. By slowing down and taking a few minutes to engage in a discussion, you can yield real benefits for yourself and the vendor.
“I can’t stand to waste time,” said Melissa O’Brien, litigation paralegal manager for Ropes & Gray in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York. “I will, however, take the calls and hear them out. When they send me their information, I keep it with all the other vendor materials in an organized file.”
By taking the call and listening, O’Brien said she learns who the person is, who they work for, what they do and what they are willing to do for her firm. Based on this information, she decides whether to take the next step and follow up with them in the future. “Setting up a time to meet and chat on the first couple calls is pointless,” she said. “It’s not until I actually think they can offer us something of value and that I might have a need that I take time out to sit and talk with them.”
If you are in need of a service and don’t know who to call, the best place to start is the Internet and online phone books. Legal journals and periodicals also identify a great number of service providers. Message boards, blogs and other online services are rapidly becoming instrumental tools in the Digital Age. In these forums (such as the LAT-Forum at www.legalassistanttoday.com/lat-forum), paralegals can find others in similar situations, positions, markets and practice groups who might be able to lend some advice or offer a tip almost instantly. By exploring these tools, legal assistants quickly can expand their group of peers and network of contacts — both invaluable resources.
You might find valuable leads by asking about other services the vendors you already use have to offer. “I ask my vendors to remind me of their other services, ones I might not typically use,” said Susan Style, paralegal manager for the Minneapolis office of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. “If they can’t offer me the service themselves, many times they will suggest someone to me.” Vendors want their clients to be satisfied and view them as a resource. This extends to providing helpful referrals when necessary.
When your firm is seeking a vendor for specific services, first ask the vendor for a list of client referrals you can contact to find out what other firms have used their services, in what capacity, and what the firms’ satisfaction level was with the vendor. This type of research answers necessary questions about that vendor’s performance and product, such as: Do they make deadlines? Is this vendor easy to work with? What types of work has this company done in the past?
While this type of research can be useful, be mindful not to place too much emphasis on it. It should be used broadly to get a feel for a particular company and a particular vendor’s exposure in the field and community. It should not be used to rule out a particular company or sales person because of one person’s good or bad experience. Every situation is different, and you need to evaluate the information you have gathered and apply it to your own circumstances and needs.
The Vendor-Client Relationship
Once you have narrowed down possible vendors you might be interested in using for a particular service, it’s time to sit down with the company’s representatives for a one-on-one interview. At this point, your instincts should give you a sense of whether the vendor is selling you a line or is sincere and can back up what they say they can offer your firm. Ask simple questions, such as: “How do I know this is true?” or “Who else have you done this for, and may I call them?” Like any good interviewer, take notes and follow up with other firms who have used their services to make sure the information the vendor provided during your interview is true.
“Going through the fact finding process is what helps define a successful relationship,” said Phil Leon, director of Business Development for Merrill Corporation in Washington, D.C. “Trust needs to be established for your relationship to work, and you can get there many ways, but the only tool you need is dialogue between the vendor and their client.” Leon, who has more than 20 years of experience in the legal services industry, said those vendors not interested in talking and listening, but rather selling, are not worth your time. You want to work with a vendor genuinely interested in understanding your needs. Once you find a vendor with these qualities, take the time to communicate your needs and expectations and how the vendor can address them.
Along these same lines, paralegals and firms must provide vendors sufficient information to get the job done adequately. “Good clients share information with their service provider because they understand how this will benefit them,” Leon said.
O’Brien agreed, adding that you need to talk about your baseline expectations and provide insight into the firm culture and your work process. This type of dialogue is invaluable to establishing the good working relationship between you and the vendor. Like your work group and peers in your office, vendors are part of your team. Moreover, if a legal assistant provides honest details, from establishing true, accurate deadlines where possible, to giving precise detail as to what the finished product or solution will look like, vendors can assess whether they can help and under what terms.
Don’t be afraid to ask what you are getting for your money, and how the price was calculated. Also, remember a vendor is in the business to make a living, so part of that price is the vendor’s compensation and the company’s profit. You have to determine if the price is a number you can live with. If not, work with the vendor until you can find a solution that is satisfactory for both sides.
Finally, as the person ultimately responsible for getting the job done, you will need to know if there are any weaknesses in the vendor’s process. Ask vendors direct questions about any limitation or weaknesses in their service. This will save you and the firm many headaches.
“The best things I can hear from a vendor are the words ‘I can, I can’t, I will try and I will find out,’” said Tshuma. “I don’t expect the sales people I work with to give me the answers to all my problems; rather, I want them to help me where they can and provide ideas on where to go if they can’t.” Over-promising and under-delivering is common in the legal services business, and a paralegal can’t afford to waste time and resources on a vendor unwilling to be completely honest about possible problems or limitations.
Using a Request for Proposal
Some law firms, and to a larger extent corporations and government agencies, employ the use of Requests for Proposals to solicit bids from vendors. These RFPs typically are a standard form to which the legal assistant simply has to “plug in” the specifics of the project for which they are seeking service.
Typically, the type of information needed for an effective RFP is a detailed description of the service needed, time the RFP is open, deadline for performing the service or term of contract, location where the service is to be performed or product delivered, a short description of issuing entity (law firm, corporation, etc.), specific requirements and qualifications, and how to submit the bid. Some RFPs will include an explanation of how the winning bid will be decided.
With RFPs, there often is a trade-off between price and service. Generally, the winning RFP will be decided almost exclusively on price. If a legal assistant uses the RFP process, he or she must understand the service associated with an RFP arrangement can be lacking service they would receive from a vendor otherwise. This might be because the RFP de-personalizes the buying process, making it more challenging to forge a relationship. “Often you can reach a better and more flexible agreement through a handshake deal rather than being locked into the terms of some stiff contract,” O’Brien said. “RFPs are really only best used when exclusivity is the goal and not simply trying to find a vendor to do a service.”
Often firms require RFPs. However, if you want to avoid an RFP, there are some options. RFPs by their nature take time, and with tight deadlines, there might be no time to draft, mail and review responses to an RFP. As the legal assistant, you can stress the loss of time associated with the RFP to a supervisor. When time is of the essence, the supervisor who also shares responsibility for the project might make an exception.
Another tactic is to let your supervisor know about the strong relationship already established with a vendor and how well the vendor has served you in the past. Another approach is to assert yourself and fortify your position by suggesting that since the matter is your responsibility, you should decide how best to achieve the result. Based on tenure, reputation and politics, some legal assistants might find this tactic useful, while others might feel it to be futile.
If an RFP is unavoidable, there are strategies to make it more effective:
Vendors as Experts
Many legal assistants fail to recognize that as much experience as they might have, vendors often have more experience and knowledge in their specific specialized areas. Vendors’ knowledge can be invaluable. Vendors deal on a daily basis with situations some legal assistants only encounter once a week, a month or a year.
Either out of fear, ego, lack of time or ignorance, many paralegals don’t get their vendors involved earlier in the process. “The vendors I use have the keen sense they are here to provide the firm a service, just as I am. I treat them as though they are part of my team, and therefore, I will call them as soon as I can to get them into the process,” Tshuma said. “So many legal assistants think the vendors work for them and forget that both the legal assistant and the vendor work for the firm’s client.”
A vendor is a tool that can be used to get the job done properly. Don’t be afraid to ask for a vendor’s opinion or seek consultation on a matter. “True clients use me and call me early in the process to seek out my thoughts,” said Clint McDonnell, regional vice president-West for Ajilon Legal Staffing. By being patient and honest, you will help yourself find a solution much quicker and more easily than if you forge ahead alone.
“You need someone to vent your thoughts to because you are operating under stress,” Tshuma said. In the end, however, it will fall on the legal assistant to make the decision on how to proceed. “I want as much confidence as I can when I make the call, and I will do whatever I can before that to make sure I have the best possible data,” she said.
Dealing with Problems
It’s the nature of a paralegal’s work to be complicated, detailed, time-sensitive and ever-changing. The one certainty is that problems will arise. “If a vendor fails, it’s viewed as though the legal assistant in charge failed,” Tshuma said.
Legal assistants are the buffer between disaster and delivery and need to understand how to operate within that role. When a vendor doesn’t deliver what they were hired to do, you need to act swiftly and immediately to correct the situation. The thing to remember is it’s not about assigning fault but about fixing the problem and moving forward.
When a problem arises, first you should assess the damage or level of failure. If the problem can be fixed easily with some extra help, be prepared to ask your peers and the vendor to pitch in. If the problem is larger and more complex, the team will have to salvage any work they can and restart the process. The vendor’s role in this situation is to accommodate the additional work and be readily available to the legal assistant.
If you are faced with a nonresponsive vendor when things go haywire, you can always call another vendor to step in. Although this isn’t ideal, it might provide a workable solution. Whatever the outcome is, the legal assistant and vendor need to examine where the process failed. If the problem is identified and addressed adequately, there is no reason not to use that vendor again. If, however, the vendor and the paralegal can’t come to terms and fix the problem, it’s time to go to another vendor.
“This whole industry is based on service. The best service comes out of a good relationship that has developed into a partnership. Once this partnership has developed, the vendor and legal assistant equally are vested in what has to happen,” McDonnell said. “This is where you will find vendors working late into the night, being called on their cell phones on holidays or loading boxes of documents into their own cars. They know it’s their job just as much as it is the legal assistant’s. Plus, the vendor has the added incentive of keeping a client satisfied and being around for the next job.”
Forming a Partnership
Being a legal assistant means sometimes working in a stressful environment. During these times, paralegals can better avoid a crisis when they have established a partnership with their vendors and remain open to new ideas, solutions and services. This can only happen if legal assistants learn to view communications with vendors as opportunities to learn and grow their collection of tools to get the job done.
Of course, not every phone call needs to be returned, nor does every sales person need to be met. However, if legal assistants can learn to effectively deal with the bombardment of vendor pitches and get the most out of the contact, they will be better equipped with knowledge and choices to find the solutions and get the job done right.
Joshua (JP) Kubicki is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He earned his juris doctorate from The Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America and has worked in the legal industry as a legal assistant, a practicing attorney, and as a legal recruiter for Washington, D.C.-based staffing companies. He is a member of the District of Columbia Bar and the International Paralegal Management Association.
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