Defining value

David Burgess, publishing director of The Legal 500, considers what really matters when selecting a law firm, as well as previewing some major initiatives ahead in 2018.

Premium mediocre

For those well-read followers of Twitter among you, the phrase ‘premium mediocre’ will be a familiar concept. I stumbled across it last year when reading David Walsh’s always stimulating column in The Sunday Times. The phrase was coined by blogger Venkatesh Rao, and I’ll let him explain it:

‘Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything, and extra-leg-room seats in economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio. Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes. Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre.’

In our travels around the world, in the course of our research, and in our interactions with law firms, I think that perhaps premium mediocre is the best way to describe part of the BigLaw experience.

Let me explain. As a client, you go to visit your preferred law firm for lunch. Of course, your assigned partner is so busy, it only makes sense to save time by keeping the lunch in-house. Upon arrival, the first thing you encounter are front-of-house maître d’s, who greet you as you make your approach. Usually armed with an iPad and an earpiece, they confirm your meeting and invite you into the chic in-house café. You are invited to please ‘help yourself’, or even better, ask the baristas, who you are told will happily whip you up a skinny latte while waiting for your appointment.

As you awkwardly carry your grande latte past meeting rooms named after nearby landmarks, you find yourself being ushered by the butler into the in-house dining room, where your meeting will commence. It’s a small room with no music, soul or atmosphere. When the partner presses the button, the waiter appears in awkward silence to deliver the next course, or to offer you a glass of wine that you cannot possibly accept. You leave, having had a perfectly pleasant time, but somewhere deep within, there is a slight hollow feeling.

Perhaps you notice that this piece of theatre seems out of place in an era where firms are feeling the pressure from clients (perhaps you among them) to entertain alternate fee arrangements in order to maximise value for money. And all the while, their in-house counterparts, often working for the very clients for which this charade is being performed, are being asked to do more with less – but are managing to do it without the bells and whistles (or in this case, butlers and lattes).

It is worth remembering that all this style over substance has a cost, and one way or another it will eventually find its way onto your bill. And you have fallen for it. Because after all, premium mediocre makes us feel that little bit more special.