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August 18, 2010 3:32 PM

Sign of the Times: Drinker Biddle's New Chief Value Officer

Posted by Claire Zillman

"Value" may be a buzzword in law firm marketing these days, but Drinker Biddle & Reath has taken the preoccupation with value one step further. On Aug. 1 the firm promoted former practice development chief Kristin Sudholz to the newly-created post of "chief value officer," according to sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer. As CVO, Sudholz will lead the firm's revamped client relations department.

The Intelligencer notes that the CVO role is a new concept at law firms that was spurred on by the Association of Corporate Counsel's Value Challenge initiative, which encourages firms to look beyond the billable hour model and focus on efficiency, alternative fee arrangements, and leaner staffing. The ultimate goal is for firms to offer more value and predictability to clients while maintaing or increasing profitability, according to the Intelligencer.

Altman Weil consultant Pamela Woldow told the Intelligencer that a few firms are trying to move toward the value "vision," but that Drinker is the only one she knows of that has created a CVO position.

"It's a real cultural shift, and for a law firm, it's a business model shift," says Woldow.

Drawing from her experience with corporate clients, Woldow told the Intelligencer that a CVO must accomplish three objectives. First, a CVO must weave the value concept into the day-to-day behavior of the firm, such as having useful pricing data on hand to tailor a project based on flat- or fixed-fee arrangements. The CVO must also be capable of analyzing whether projects are providing value, and finally, he or she needs to have long-term vision of how to build value with clients.

"It think it's a brilliant idea," Woldow told the Intelligencer. "It will speak well to clients as long as they can execute it."

Drinker scaled back its client relations department over the last four years. Former chief marketing officer Stephen Barrett left in 2008, leaving Sudholz and director of communications John Byrne to carry out the firm's marketing plan, according to the Intelligencer. The firm chose to revamp its client relations department and create the CVO role when its strategic value-related programs kept getting pushed to the back burner, as staff had to produce an increasing number of requests for proposals. Now the firm is hiring two new RFP writers, the Intelligencer reports.

The new client relations department, made up of 23 full-time employees, will be split into two groups; one to handle the day-to-day management of filing RFPs or updating the Web site, and one to focus on how the firm needs to change to better provide value, according to the Intelligencer. Managing partner Gregg Melinson says that second group will help determine how the firm hires and trains attorneys and how it staffs matters.

Sudholz told the Am Law Daily that so far her main tasks as head of the client relations department have been handling RFPs and making new hires to the RFP group. Sudholz says one longer-term goal is to process the feedback the firm receives from interviews it's conducting with 250 of its top clients, who account for about 40 percent of Drinker's revenue. The firm hired BTI Consulting to conduct the interviews and compile a report for Drinker's partners. The department will use that report to create an action plan for each client, Sudholz says. The client value team will be responsible of ensuring those plans are executed.

"Our point is that our clients doesn't want normal," managing partner Melinson told the Intelligencer. "They want something new and want us to partner with them and discover ways to change the game a little bit."

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