As Summit Law Group, a 40-lawyer firm headquartered in Seattle, approaches its 20th anniversary this year, it is ﬁnding itself uniquely challenged.
Long an innovator in pricing – pushing pricing transparency and the use of creative pricing models even as much of the legal industry held tightly to the hourly billing model – Summit Law is now facing an industry waking up to client demands for alternative pricing and mimicking some of the innovations that Summit has used for the past two decades.
Rod Younker, the firm’s CEO, sat down with Forum to discuss the firm’s unique approach to pricing, managing growth and how it plans to remain innovative in a legal environment that is pushing law firms to be cheaper and faster.
Forum: You’ve just returned to your role as CEO, is that right?
Rod Younker: I have – I came back to the role just this summer. I had a previous tour of duty of about four years that ended in 2014, then after a two-year break, I’ve come back to the job.
At Summit, we strive to put a practicing lawyer in the CEO’s chair, and that can be a challenge in a firm of our size. I have a busy practice (in labor and employment law) alongside my management functions, so the combination can be taxing.
Forum: Summit Law was launched 20 years ago this spring. Tell us where you are now at 20.
Younker: That’s right – it was launched on St. Patrick’s Day, 1997. At that time, we were frustrated lawyers in the big law firms around Seattle and the West Coast. About a dozen of us came from the now-defunct Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, which had more than 700 lawyers at the time. Other lawyers joined us from other firms like Davis Wright Tremaine and Perkins Coie.
We shared the common belief in the business case for Summit, articulated by Ralph Palumbo, one of our founders:
We believed then (and still do now) that most law firms had a tin ear when it came to their customers and their customers’ needs.
So, we set out to build a law firm designed completely around the principle of customer service. We looked through that lens for everything – how the business was to be organized, the offices we inhabit, the staff we hired and the way that we charge for our services.
For example, back in that era, it was the rule that law firms layered in additional overhead charges for things like legal research, phone calls and photocopying. We knew from real-life experiences with clients that those kinds of nickel-and-dime charges, which do add up, made them crazy. We got rid of that practice and said, “Our overhead is our overhead, here’s our rate.”
We also got rid of the distinction between partners and associates. We felt that whole partnership track created a huge amount of negative energy in law firms. It also caused a whole lot of very inefficient behavior, with young lawyers doing things to please the partners that may not be good for the client or a good use of resources. We wanted everyone to be focused on client service, not serving other lawyers.
To read this full interview, check out the latest issue of Forum.