Take it from Patti Williams — sometimes it takes an insider to disrupt the tried-and-true approach.
After more than two decades as a vice president and general counsel for some of the biggest companies in St. Louis (most recently Peabody Energy and SSM Health), Williams had what her no-holds-barred online bio calls a “disconcerting realization — she had spent the first 25 years of her career helping people who were already very rich get even richer.”
This led to the 2017 creation of Lex Valorem, a St. Louis firm that uproots the traditional model of billable hours in favor of flat fees and monthly subscriptions. Its mandate: providing business-intelligent solutions at a price that reflects the value to the client, not the amount of time the lawyer spent.
“If you’re a lawyer in an outside firm and you believe you’re a revenue generator, then you have misaligned yourself with your client completely because you are a cost center,” she said, recounting her own experience as a buyer of legal services.
“Delivering legal services is inherently inefficient due to the variability in legal issues. That inefficiency always seems to inure to the benefit of the hourly-billing outside firm,” she added.
With a focus on startups and entrepreneurs, Lex Valorem calls the Cortex Innovation District home, its office strategically located in a high-traffic area to generate both visibility and walk-in traffic.
While those drop-in visits have ground to a halt amid the coronavirus outbreak, Lex Valorem’s work has nonetheless caught the attention of the robust St. Louis startup community.
“I’m a big fan of lawyers,” said Ron King, a longtime accounting professor, angel investor and director of the Center for Experiential Learning at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. He enlisted Lex Valorem’s services for App Notch, which converts websites to mobile applications.
“[Williams] started by listening to what the problem is, rather than by anticipating what we should be asking,” he said. “It’s really incentive-compatible, from my point of view.”
Williams credits the executive MBA she earned from WashU in 2017 with propelling her own business idea. But as a former board member at companies including medical device manufacturer SynergeticsUSA (a public company) and privately owned hydraulics manufacturer Propulsys Inc., she also brings to the job a sense of business savvy and experience that can be hard to find among many of her peers, her clients and colleagues said.
“She understands all the problems and challenges [of running a business] from all sides better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said former colleague Brandon Hall, now of Armstrong Teasdale.
Lex Valorem’s other two attorneys bring similarly expansive resumes to the firm.
Business lawyer Vince Volpe doubles as an associate professor of management at Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz School of Business, where he also is the former director of the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship. Michael Curoe, also previously with Peabody Energy, brings more than 30 years of in-house expertise, including stints at Rabo AgriFinance and MetLife Insurance.
Upending the traditional business model isn’t necessarily Lex Valorem’s goal, Williams said. The broader goal is to level the playing field, so to speak.
“A lawyer’s time is not worth more than yours. You shouldn’t have to pay for the time it takes a lawyer to learn about you,” she tells her clients.
“If you invest the time to show us what you’re up to, the problems you want to solve for your customers and how you plan to make money at it, we’ll show you how to keep the legal stuff out of the way. You only pay for that last bit.”