By James Forrest
For the first seven years of my career, I had the privilege of representing corporate clients on behalf of two of the country’s premier corporate law firms, first in Atlanta, and then here in the Triangle. In both of those firms, I worked with, and was mentored by, some of the most impressive individuals I’ve ever met. All of them have had a significant impact on my development and my practice over the years. My entrepreneurial leanings, however, were eventually too hard to resist — and I opened my own law firm in January of 2011.
As I started putting together the plan for what would become The Forrest Firm, I realized that I needed to have a mission that would result in sustainability — a set of core values that would drive my business in such a way that the legal process could be one of intense collaboration and high reward for my clients and for me. I’ve come up with a few core values so far, and I’m consistently analyzing and evaluating… here they are in no particular order.
The first core value (and the one that separates us in the most dramatic fashion from most of the competition) is the principle of “meeting expectations on pricing.” Over the years working at large law firms, I polled my clients about their experiences with law firms – and the most frequent complaint I heard was that there was no way for the clients to know how much their legal bill would be (even in a general sense). CFOs couldn’t predict legal fees with any accuracy. Without knowing how much a particular project or scope of work may cost, there was no viable way to make a business decision about whether a particular legal task was worth pursuing. The billable hour model is the pricing-mechanism standard by which mega-firms were built across the world. Over the last two decades, we’ve benefitted from an economy in which that model worked very well — quite simply, there was more legal work than lawyers. Fast forward to our current economy, there are more lawyers than there is work to do – so the model has to change right? We’ll see. The Forrest Firm still uses the billable hour for a myriad of tasks, however, our mantra is that “our clients never get a bill they don’t expect.” That doesn’t mean legal work is cheap – it isn’t – but at a minimum, we try to make an effort to frame tasks for our clients so that they have a good-faith estimate about their expected outlay for a project. This empowers them to make a business decision about whether to move forward with the project. On a more macro level, we are starting to experiment with various types of billing arrangements, including monthly retainer relationships where companies may pay a set monthly fee for an unlimited amount of certain services for a certain period of time. In some ways, this looks and feels like fractionalized in-house counsel services. In sum, really no pricing proposition is really off the table as long as it works for my clients and for us. We’ve found that the relationship and trust between the client and the lawyer under some of these different pricing models has really deepened and expanded from prior models.
The second core value of this firm is superior work quality. This is a given when dealing with c-level executives and their respective risk-management decisions. At every level, The Forrest Firm prides itself on the delivery of exemplary work product for every single project. The work will always be of the highest quality and technically sound. My previous mentors have served and trained me well in this regard.
The third core value of our services is responsiveness. We answer the phone and respond to phone calls and emails within a reasonable time. Our culture keeps moving faster and faster, and you certainly don’t want your lawyer slowing down your deal. We will outline specific response metrics and commit to having work turned around to the client within that period of time.
Lastly, as a corporate law firm, we have to provide legal services not in a vacuum, but in the context of each particular business transaction – in other words, and I know this is a little bit scary, but, gulp – we have to be entrepreneurs! No one wants to hear their lawyer drone on about a legal issue, burning time and money, on an issue that really isn’t important to them – particularly those sales guys who want to close the deal! We try to educate our clients along the way about what particular provisions in a contract mean and why they may be important — so that we (and they) don’t spend time and money on issues that don’t matter to them. Legal decisions are really just business decisions, and we enjoy being a part of that process with our clients.
As a fellow entrepreneur, I want The Forrest Firm perceived by the business community as a partner in the business development process. All aspects of the partnership—from billing arrangements, work quality, access to personnel—must be open and transparent, providing a firm foundation for a great working relationship. My clients, without exception, are quite cerebral in nature. They are intensely engaged in what they do to provide services, make products, and, ultimately, make profits and generate jobs for thousands of people in the Triangle area. We shoulder tremendous responsibility as their legal provider of choice, and we approach our work with a seriousness of purpose that we match with a desire to provide as much information as our clients need to make sound legal decisions.