January 10, 2011 6:50 PM
The Pfizer Model, One Year Later
Posted by Aric PressFrom the January 2011 Issue of The American Lawyer
A year ago, as the client-to-law firm conversation had fully entered its give-me-a-discount or give-me-death phase, The American Lawyer put Amy Schulman, Pfizer Inc.'s general counsel, on our cover. Fresh from a stint as an enormously successful DLA Piper litigation partner, Schulman had a different idea about how customers and lawyers should relate to each other. Building on work done at DuPont, at United Technologies Corporation, and by her Pfizer predecessors, she abandoned the billable hour, created an alliance of 19 law firms that would get a disproportionate share of her half-billion-dollar budget, and insisted that the lawyers find new ways of assessing the value of the work they did. All that, and save 15 percent off the top.
A year later, she's made a few midcourse corrections, but she says that she's even more convinced that Pfizer's choice was the right one, both for her company and for the profession. To get the prurient detail out of the way: Schulman says that she hit her budget target and is busy fashioning another one for 2011. But more important, she says, is the progress that the alliance has made toward being a relationship-driven operation. Bigger than cost savings, the real goals are better legal service and protection. And that, she says, grows out of client and firms investing in each other, in guaranteeing work, in setting priorities, and holding each other accountable.
"We haven't experienced any diminution in the quality of the work we're getting," Schulman, pictured right, says. The firms are staffing Pfizer's work with the lawyers she was promised at the interview stage, and they seem as engaged as she could have hoped. "Lawyers want to make a difference for their clients," she says. "If what you use to anchor the relationship is money, you’re going to lose, because it's not motivational at some point."
More than atmospherics are involved. Over the last year, Pfizer's legal team has developed a ranking system for matters handled by outside firms. They are graded on performance issues ranging from substantive knowledge to responsiveness to willingness to collaborate. Twice a year, Pfizer gives each firm a report card--and then grades them on how well they take the feedback. "We learned a lot about firms," she says, "by whether they welcomed the feedback or responded by saying, 'You got it wrong.'" Pfizer has sought other ways to make the links tighter. Each firm has an in-house relationship partner. Pfizer encourages secondments and has recruited with two firms at law schools, looking for associates who will split their time between the firm and the company.
So far, the original 19 firms remain in place, and Pfizer added one more, Torys in Toronto, to cover Canada. There have been some irritating rough patches, and I asked whether she was tempted to oust one firm--to put a head on a spike. Such a male question.
"If I need to resort to sending messages like that, then I have fundamentally failed," Schulman says. "My premise is that by building mutually beneficial relationships, because they will know us better, a dollar spent on an alliance firm will get me more...I don't think we need to use a club to demonstrate the alliance's value."
Throughout the interview, Schulman spoke repeatedly about relationships. They were something to work at and improve. Pfizer could do better, and so could the firms; both sides had learned from their experiences; serious relationships were not lightly entered or ended. "Relationship-building requires a certain kind of emotional courage and confidence that knows how to motivate and retain professionals with something more nuanced than a check," she says. "I got so tired of so many people saying they missed how they used to practice law and [regretted] retreating into tenths of an hour and billing codes, as though that would ever solve the crisis of what it means to be a professional. This is my answer."
Hers, of course, is not the only model. Before meeting with Schulman, I'd spent the morning with a managing partner caught in the middle of a procurement process orchestrated by a longtime client.
There was no talk of relationships, only the spectrum of acceptable rates. Despite two decades of service, he and his partners were preparing to walk away. Schulman's point: It doesn't have to be that way.
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