White space?

27 09 2010

I’m always looking to improve my blog, and one of the areas I look for inspiration and guidance is on other blogs, particular those with a big audience. One of the most popular is called “Zen Habits“, a blog about using zen principles to simplify life and slow down which has been going since 2007. Since the author has six children, I figure he must know a thing or two about running a busy, complex life!

The partners at Whitmore Grubbins took the art in their meeting rooms very seriously

The article that grabbed me this time, was called “Life’s missing white space” (link at end of the post), which explained the concept of white space in the design world, and then went on to look at how the principle can be applied to life, to increase clarity, balance, priority and peace.  Now with the possible exception of peace (although I’ve met my fair share of conflict-seeking lawyers over the years!), I think those outcomes could certainly benefit many of us in the legal profession.

In basic terms, the idea is that in the design world, the white space surrounding the design, can form part of the viewer’s experience. Think of the Mona Lisa: looking at this in a spacious room, with nothing either side of the picture would give a very different experience from seeing it in a small gallery with other pieces of art 30cm each side of it and above and below it. The white space has an important relationship with the content.

Where I think the concept has application for lawyers is that building white space into a day allows quality thinking time and reflection. The need for this can manifest in many different ways: the “doh” moment on a deal or case when a lawyer realises that something obvious has been overlooked; the realisation in the middle of an internal discussion that all the parties have been down this road before and are just rehashing the same behaviours again and again; the snatched and heated conversation with a difficult client or colleague that could have gone much better with just a little thought beforehand.

A little white space, a little pause, would offer the opportunity to just go back to basics. What are the objectives for a particular piece of work? What is it that the client really wants?  What are the risks here? What will the other party be thinking?

Often it is this thinking time that is the first casualty of the drive to get more done. Particularly in law firms living with the tyranny of the chargeable hour. The challenge is that this white space and the thinking that could occur within it, could result in a higher quality output for the client.

The other area where I believe that white space can help us, is its ability to allow reflection and learning. This can help us grow both as individuals and organisations (I’ll leave discussion of Senge’s classic book “the 5th discipline” for another day). I’ve written previously about some of the challenges facing lawyers who wish to examine their work and learn from it, but adding some white space offers a great opportunity to grow.

Asking at the end of the day “what went well today” and “what could I have done better?”, is time well spent in my book, even if it is (literally) just five minutes.  One similar technique I picked up from a book called “Mindchi” was a two minute review at the end of each day, where you replay the day’s events from start to finish as a movie on fast forward in your mind’s eye. The first time you identify areas for improvement, the second time successes and things that went well. I found learning in both “films” (although I much preferred watching the second!

The paradox with creating white space, is that it is both simple and difficult to create. Simple is that it’s just a question of doing less and creating some time (ideally by removing some of the unimportant, unproductive things we all do each day). Difficult in that we are often not truly the master of our own schedules, and even when we are, old habits are hard to break.

Just for the record, the five minutes you spend each week reading The Intelligent Challenge should stay in your schedule!





What’s your agenda?

20 09 2010

My friend Ross, an in-house attorney in the U.S., is known for his personal crusade against unproductive meetings.

Derek's two hour meeting to discuss the colour pallete for the firm's new logo was not as popular as he had hoped

We’ve all been in them: the time-devouring, pointless meetings that swallow time and achieve little (if anything).

The book “Rework” by Fried and Hienemeier Hansson gives a great explanation of why there are so many meetings of this nature, arguing (quite persuasively) that meetings are inherently toxic for reasons that include:

- they cover a very small amount of information per minute

- they frequently drift off-topic and often have vague agendas

- to be productive they require preparation, which most people don’t have time to do properly

The authors also highlight the set-up time involved, which is to say getting to meetings, waiting for them to start, leaving meetings, and then getting ready to do “real work” is also another hidden time cost associated with meetings.

Now in my experience, law firms certainly have their fair share of unproductive meetings, and I absolutely agree with the criticisms in the book (which is definitely recommended) but I do think there are reasons why law firms suffer less than some other businesses from the plague of pointless meetings.

Perhaps it’s the culture of time recording meaning that lawyers are more aware of how they spend their time, but I do think that there are fewer of these meandering, aimless meetings than in a corporate environment.  Lawyers are also pretty good at setting agendas and sticking to them, which might be because they are trained to structure and run client meetings from a relatively early age or it might be simply the result of common personality traits in lawyers. Either way, if a meeting is wandering in a law firm, there’s a good chance there will be a fairly direct, strong character to pull things back on track.

Another angle to this is the need to expedite the flow of knowledge. As the ultimate knowledge workers, lawyers need to share experiences and information to build their individual and organisational intellectual capital. A quote sticks with me from a book I read a few years ago (I think the book was Working Knowledge, by Davenport, but couldn’t swear to it) that to maximise knowledge acquisition and transfer, a firm should “hire smart people and let them talk to each other”. Meetings may not be the best forum for this, but if the topic, agenda and participants are right, they can be an effective forum for learning.

This dialogue can be particularly important for those law firms that are rigidly structured, leaving their lawyers sitting in silos. I’ve seen this in firms of all shapes and sizes: from the five partner law firm where the personal injury team has no idea who the tax and trusts lawyers are acting for, to the large City firm with a corporate team preparing for a pitch for a FTSE100 energy company, not knowing that the partner who recently joined the real estate team spent ten years acting for them at her previous firm.

So, let me be clear, I’m not aimlessly waving the flag for meetings. Far from it. However, in law firms that still fall prey to the tyranny of the timesheet, a focussed, well-run meeting may well have some benefits that are proportionate to the time invested in the meeting.





You do what?

14 09 2010

Reading another interesting discussion on the Interweb last week, which was urging lawyers to ask their clients the simple question “so what do you do?”. The basis of the article was that this would give a client or a prospect the opportunity to talk about their business, and thus provide a deeper level of insight that would allow the lawyer to provide a better service.

"tell me what you do?" asked the driver innocently. A question he would soon regret....

It was a good starting point and could lead into an examination of question-based sales techniques such as “S.P.I.N. Selling” by Neil Rackham (still one of my favourite sales books). However, I took the opportunity to flip the question, and asked how many lawyers could give a concise and compelling answer to the same question.

So, what do YOU do?

A refreshingly simple question, but a difficult one to answer well IMHO. Not least because in our society, your occupation is an important part of your identity. For me, after 10 years as a lawyer, answering that question suddenly became much more challenging. However, even when I was practising law, beyond the simple, one-word answer (be it lawyer, attorney, solicitor, barrister etc), the question is really what DO you do? How are you different from all the other lawyers? How do you help your clients, whether you are inhouse or in private practice.

I’ve tried to answer this question at various times in my career, and it’s not easy. At the heart of the problem is the need to differentiate yourself, either at an individual level, at a practice level, or at an organisation level. Do you feel more comfortable talking about yourself and your skills (creatively solving problems, aggressively defending my clients), your practice and work type (I draft contracts for….) or your firm (I work for a company that…..)?

Whatever the level you answer the question, once you have the descriptive answer, you can then challenge yourself to ask how many other people could have given the same answer. If the answer is “a lot”, then ask yourself what it is that you do that’s different.

It’s not an easy task; before you know it, you’ve run into your second paragraph, and the person you are talking too has glazed eyes and is desperately wishing they hadn’t asked the question.

Ultimately, I think to answer it well, you need an understanding of your personal value proposition: how do you create quantifiable value for your clients? What results do you create? An exploration of value propositions (a great subject for lawyers) is probably best saved for another time, but thinking about how you create value can give you another angle on how to answer the question about what you do.

Finally, if you think you’ve answered the question “so what do you do?”, it’s time for the ultimate test. Grab a taxi to somewhere more than 15 minutes away, chat to the driver and wait for the inevitable question. If you can answer it before the driver loses interest, starts a rant about how much he hates lawyers or talks in detail about their recent divorce/house move/tax investigation, you’ve done well!





The Great Commodity Debate

6 09 2010

Fascinating debate over the last month on the Linkedin group “Leadership for Lawyers” on Mike Ames’ discussion “Is the law becoming a commodity, and if it is, what can be done about it?”.

If you can brand and differentiate salt, legal services should be easy, right?

One of the things that immediately struck me about the comment, was the implication that commoditisation was a bad thing, and something to be resisted. By contrast, my natural inclination is that there are certain areas of law that should be commoditised, but that the inefficiency of the law firm market and the business models of firms in the market that have prevented this happening extensively so far.

However, rather than look at the rights or wrongs of commoditisation, or indeed the future impact on the profession (which is where much of the Linkedin debate focuses) I thought I’d share my thoughts on what is driving this trend.

In understanding the roots of comoditisation, Delong, Gabarro and Rees in their great book “When Professionals Have To Lead” talk about the relentless commoditisation pattern facing professional service firms, and suggest that technology is a major driver of this trend.

Another author, Dawson in his book “Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships: The Future of Professional Servicesargues that the main causes are in professional convergence (i.e. the blurring of boundaries between the professions) and the “unbundling” of professional services. Unbundling  occurs where new competitors, rather than competing head-to-head with incumbent firms, select a very narrow section of services and offer very focused competition; to compete the incumbents have to unbundle their service offerings. I believe this driver will become increasingly prominent as a result of both the increased deregulation in the UK market place (leading to more new market entrants) and increasingly sophisticated LPO offerings that are beginning to reach the market.

In addition to these supply-side forces, I believe much of the drive towards commoditisation comes from the demand side of the market. In particular, as a law firm client I  frequently resisted paying for services by reference to a traditional “hourly rate” on the basis that the service was now a defined offering which had a clearly identifiable market price.

Buyers of legal services are undoubtedly getting smarter (whether commercially-savvy corporate counsel or in house teams working with procurement professionals) and the push for more fixed price work in turn drives law firms to put boundaries around their services (in order to control scope and risk). The recession has heightened these buyer behaviours, and as a consequence more and more services are being “productised” into individual and standardised products, which are easy to replicate and difficult to differentiate, which in turn means the market becomes price and cost driven.

So, that’s my take on some of the drivers. What it means for the profession (both opportunities and threats) are for another day, but if the comments on this post are as rich and well thought through as those on the Linkedin discussion, I’ll be a happy man.








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