The end of the beginning

5 12 2011

This is a post about endings. It has two main parts.

Firstly, the legal profession, and my thoughts on where we are in the evolution of the legal services market.

Secondly this blog, and where it’s going (if you don’t give two hoots about this, stop after the first section – that’s fine by me).

Is this the end?

I started writing this post almost exactly two years since I started blogging, and the amount of change in the legal profession in that time has been phenomenal. It’s as though much of the innovation and drive that has been missing from so many parts of the profession for decades has suddenly been discovered and injected into its flabby buttocks.

Yet it really only is just beginning.

My first couple of posts were about how change was coming and that the increasing pace of the market meant traditional ways of formulating strategy were unlikely to be fast enough for law firms to be successful in the new world.

As the changes that were on the horizon became reality, there was no shortage of material to write about – outsourcing, new business models, technology,  the need for innovation and differentiation, and the even more pressing drive for efficiency and (truly) effective strategy. As fast as I could write, real world examples appeared in the press:

The speculation about the possibility of UK law firms attracting external investment and the potential that brought began to become reality with the emergence of new law firm franchise models and the well publicised investment in Quality Solicitors (mentioned above). Much of the focus in this area was on consumer focussed legal services, but in the world of commercial law, pricing models continued to vex the profession, with pressure on profits resulting from a growing rejection of the billable hour model and a re-examination of what value really means in the world of legal services.

Irrespective of whether lawyers were working in the world of business or consumer legal services, traditional career paths were breaking down and new options were emerging. This in turn has triggered a debate about how fit for purpose current legal training is - and, in particular, against the current economic backdrop, whether training as a lawyer is a sensible career choice.

Massive change, in the space of two years.

This change will undoubtedly continue, and in my view will accelerate. For the agile, entrepreneurial firms and lawyers, and those new entrants with the assets and appetite for success, this is a time of great opportunity. For those law firms struggling to change, sitting on the fence, or burying their head, the end may not be as far off as you think.

So for those law firms, I do think this is the beginning of the end, but for many more this is the end of the beginning.

Let your creativity and courage take centre stage and sieze the opportunities that will emerge.

Just do something.

And so to this blog.

After two years, around 100 posts and over 35,000 views, it feels like it’s time for a change.

Time to sit back and watch the market – watch new business models and legal service providers emerge and challenge old ways of thinking.

Time to listen to new voices and examine the new perspectives that will undoubtedly join the more established commentators.

Time to reflect on the fantastic comments and feedback on the blog thus far.

Is this the end?

Who knows.

I feel I have a book brewing, and it maybe that a break from the blog helps me get it written.

It may be that some of the developments in the profession get me blogging again sooner than expected.

Time will tell.

But for now, it’s goodbye and thanks for reading. If you’re a new visitor, take some time to explore the links in this post. If you’re a regular, thanks so much for your support. You are the reason I’ve been writing, and I sincerely hope you’ve found some of my posts helpful.

 

Postscript – how the year turned out.

For the curious and any of my regular readers who return in a fit of nostalgia, WordPress sent me some interesting facts and figures about the blog which I thought I’d share:

  • The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 28,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
  • The busiest day of the year was January 18th with 2,870 views. The most popular post that day was You are wrong. I am right..
  • Top search terms were:  intelligent challenge, value disciplines, chargeable hours, and identify the best value discipline.

  • Most visitors came from The United States. The United Kingdom & Netherlands were not far behind.
  • Top referring sites were wordpress, twitter and linkedin

Thanks again for visiting.





Excuse me, I think your pricing is broken

28 10 2011

I was pleased to read the post on 3 geeks about value billing as this is definitely a topic that needs exploring further, not least because I’m astonished by the number of law firm partners who continually tell me that it’s for clients to find a pricing model that works for the firm’s services.

Caroline the Finance Director had the new pricing model absolutely nailed

The common refrain from private practice lawyers (especially those who know how I feel about hourly rate billing) is that in-house lawyers who talk about value based billing really just want to pay less, and are not really interested in concepts like sharing risk. Opening a dialogue about pricing is simply an exercise in getting the law firm to do the same work for less money.

I my have missed the point, but of course they want to pay less!

The fact that the firm hasn’t developed a model that really meets their needs, or if they have the firm can’t communicate it in a compelling model does not turn this into the client’s problem. It’s the private practice lawyer’s problem. It’s the firm’s problem. It’s the profession’s problem.

The market has changed.

Forever.

Except for those highly differentiated firms that have unique or otherwise genuinely marketing leading skills and expertise, law firms are shifting to being price takers rather than price setters in the market. As barriers to entry in the legal market fall, and new models of legal service delivery emerge, clients have more choices about how they resource work:

  • Big firm, small firm?
  • Global firm or international network?
  • Insource, outsource?
  • Disaggregate, multisource?
  • Onshore, offshore, nearshore?
  • Automate?

Fewer and fewer GCs respond well to a conversation with a law firm that starts at a notional rate card, which of course is all great news if you’re a firm with some creativity and innovation.

To me, understanding value starts with a conversation with the client.

Too many firms assume that clients all want the same thing, but in my experience the range of client needs and expectations are almost infinitely variable.

Organisations of a similar size in the same vertical industry may look similar on the outside. They may have similar sized legal teams which do similar types of work. But actually the underlying businesses may have different operating models, different shareholder expectations, different objectives, different risk tolerances and of course different legal budgets. What they want from their internal and external lawyers may be very different, in fact it might vary significantly across the business.

There are a whole host of client needs that might emerge from a well structured conversation, implemented through some good questions.

The challenge for the law firm is then to define the service that would best meet those needs, identify the variables, work out what the cost implications of those variables are on the overall cost of service delivery and then stitch the whole thing together into a great value proposition at a compelling price.

Some of the variables might include turnaround times, the style of advice (who is the ultimate recipient – business person or in-house lawyer?), the  level of detail, different types of relationship management (dedicated team?) and the hours of operation/availability for the external lawyers.

Thinking about how these factors help the client’s business, as well as the needs of the inhouse legal team, can provide a deeper understanding of value – for example will a quicker response time allow a deal to be completed more quickly? If so, what does that mean for the business?

From this baseline understanding, the firm can get creative, but to do so also needs to ensure they really understand the cost and benefit to the firm of moving these “levers” (i.e. changing the variables).

Cost is often not simply the employee cost, but also may encompass opportunity cost or the cost of holding WIP for specific periods of time. The flip side is that the benefits to the firm can be broader than simply revenue – improved cash flow, client referenceability, employee retention (if the work is prestigious or interesting), replicability (the ability to reproduce the output for other clients at lower cost/higher margin) are all benefits that have value and can be quantified.

With all these factors to play with, plus of course the dynamic of genuinely sharing risk and reward with a client, I would be amazed if a firm couldn’t find a pricing mechanism that works for both the client and the firm. Once some pricing options (hint: that last word is a useful one in these conversations), the overall value proposition for the service offering can be pulled together and communicated. Law firm BD has become increasingly sophisticated, and there are plenty of skilled professionals who can ensure the resulting proposal is truly compelling and is tightly tied to the value it will deliver.

So I’ll grant you this – it’s more effort than simply negotiating percentage discounts on an hourly rate. It requires you to understand the client’s business in more depth, but also your own. But surely both of those are worthwhile steps in any event.

And if you do get a client who is genuinely not interested in this type of conversation (assuming you are not in the commodity market where the price genuinely will be just about lowest price), then maybe they’re not the right fit for your practice?

Or maybe you need to go back and tweak the model some more…..





Hasta la vista baby – the termination of the legal profession

13 10 2011

Later this week I’m running a session for a group of leading technology lawyers which will explore the future of the profession.

Withington & Co's new M&A lawyer was a force to be reckoned with

Why I think this will be particularly interesting topic for this group is that I believe technology will be the  single biggest driver of change  for the legal sector in the long term.

Sure, globalisation, outsourcing, commoditisation, changing procurement patterns are all shaping the market now, but technology has the potential to change it to a much greater degree.

Here’s why.

There are a number of technology trends that have already influenced the profession to a greater or lesser degree:

  • The Internet has enhanced communication speed and accessibility which has fundamentally changed client service expectations and the response times in the market
  • The vast amount of electronic information available has made search and retrieval a vastly different affair to that of twenty years ago, when a trip to the law library and a long afternoon was required to get oven an overview of the latest law in an area
  • Collaboration software is allowing the process of working with internal stakeholders and external parties to become more efficient (not least by reducing the number of times documents are passed backwards and forwards)
  • The sharing of information between law firm clients has become far more widespread (intensified by social media) so that emerging client buying patterns such as the rejection of hourly billing become more adopted more quickly
  • Technology supports the standardisation of work – with more and more firms focussing on efficiency and improving process, tools like workflow software can support and enhance changes to the way lawyers work
  • The automation of low complexity work, most visible in the consumer space (think automated wills online), is also beginning to see wider adoption in the B2B space as more complex work gets disaggregated and the low complexity components get packaged up and automated (standard due diligence report anyone?)

However, to my mind, this is really only playing on the edges of what’s possible.

Where I’m really interested is the area of law where lawyers believe they add most value. The high-end, complex work. The work that NEEDS a specialist. A true expert.

Lets go right to the “business end” of the legal value chain.

Think about the legal sector and what it actually does.

Law is made (the government legislates, courts decide a case etc). This law is recorded and at a high level interpreted (often by academics and other commentators). The combination of these two steps provides a shared view of generally what the law is.

By and large, and the moment the value here is really only accessible to legal practitioners – the public  can get access to certain statutes and cases for free online, but the public’s ability to understand what they mean remains limited – although this is beginning to change.

The next step is to turn this information into a broad set of tools (largely documents – agreements, policies and other commercial instruments) and for the lawyer to use these tools and his or her understanding of the law to interpret the high level meaning and apply it to a particular set of facts, and in doing so create some further value for which the client will pay.

S0mewhat simplistic, but in very basic terms, the majority of the value that the market will pay for is in this interpretation and application of the law to increasingly complex situations. There are other factors that drive value such as the scale and risk involved, but generally speaking, more complex work means higher fees.

Looking a bit more closely at what lawyers actually do in this high value phase, in the vast majority of cases it will take  two forms – advising and creating documents. We already know that technology is starting to shape document creation (have a look at Epoq, Rocket Lawyer, legal Zoom and LexisNexis if you don’t believe me), but surely (SURELY) technology couldn’t actually start to creep into advising clients?

Could it?

This is the skill honed over years of hard-earned experience. The ability to steeple fingers, sit back in chair and let the cogs turn. To casually drop a Latin phrase into an argument. Those uniquely human abilities to find meaning and similarities between cases and facts. To both synthesise, analyse and structure highly complex information.

The skill that requires (in the UK) a three year law degree, a year of practical training, a two year stint of on-the job training, before the brightest and best graduates can call themselves qualified and enter the profession fully to “start” their career and their real learning.

Surely not.

Think about this, from a BBC article on the impact of technology in the City:

Trading floors were once the preserve of adrenalin-fuelled dealers aggressively executing the orders of brokers who relied on research, experience and gut instinct to decide where best to invest.

Long ago computers made dealers redundant, yet brokers and their ilk have remained the masters of the investment universe, free to buy and sell wherever they see fit.

But the last bastion of the old order is now under threat.

Investment decisions are no longer being made by financiers, but increasingly by PhD mathematicians and the immensely complex computer programs they devise.”

While there are many differences between this activity and the legal profession, there are also plenty of similarities.

Once you start really looking at what lawyers do, and begin to grasp what technology is already capable of, a real threat to the profession as we know it doesn’t seem so far fetched.

Entity recognition (understanding, finding and cross-referencing individuals and organisations in documents) is already well established, and software like Autonomy (“the leader in meaning based computing”) can do magical things in terms of identifying relationships between “things” and deriving meaning from raw information (think “facts”).

Look at recent developments in ediscovery and contract management software, and have a read of Jason Wilson’s great post on lawyers “I am now an app” for lawyers, and of course, whether you agree with him or not, do revisit Susskind’s work .

For me, rather than the commentary in the area, what makes me really believe big change is coming, is what I hear and see when I talk to some of the leading technology thinkers in this area.

To hear them describe the law by talking about decision trees and statistical probability (based on historic data and future trends), to hear them explaining rules engines, logic and information structures, really makes me pause for thought.

It’s a different language, but with the same objective of solving problems and creating value for clients.

This type of technology promises paradigm shift in speed, accuracy and cost reduction that goes far beyond what an LPO could offer with a human based process.

Of course it’s not that simple. Apart from the very real time, effort and money required to build the technology, aside from the judgment required to apply the law, there is of course a truly human element in providing legal service (that word is a clue). This service wrapper is likely to keep large chunks of the profession safe for a while, and of course as one work type is automated, the opportunity for the profession is to find a new, higher value area of law to explore.

My (human!) instinct is that it will be lawyers who first use these new generation of tools first, to provide faster, better services to their clients, rather than clients using them directly to replace lawyers.

The lawyers may be at traditional law firms (large or smaller niche players) or LPO or other volume providers. Either way the early adopters will become the Terminators, the firms that resist will be Sarah Connor.

Seems far fetched?

My belief is that the fundamental changes now facing the profession are only the beginning of the beginning, and that technology will shape the end game far more than any of us can probably predict.





The legal market place – carnage or opportunity?

7 10 2011

When you look at the legal marketplace, what do you see?

With the implementation of the far reaching Legal Services Act finally happening in the UK (albeit with some fairly significant delays in related regulation), it seems the right time to step back and assess the state of the market.

Talking to people in the profession about this, from partners to in-house lawyers, business development directors to IT professionals, through to trainees and law students, one thing is clear.

There is no single opinion on the state of the market right now.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Opinions are strong and polarised.

Is the glass half empty or half full?

The world of pain

One group see the profession as an industry in decline.

Painful struggles with increasing firm overdrafts and personal debt are symptomatic of underlying structural problems with the profession, and the cash flow challenges facing many firms are just another indicator that it’s time to get out before the interest rates rise and bankruptcy looms large.

With lawyers at both small and large law firms working harder than ever, increasing competition from overseas firms and LPOs becoming more visible, and constant talk of a new wave of competition, does not fill them with hope that easier times are ahead.

Small firms worry about hyper efficient, large scale competitors with a resource base, national reach, consumer brand and technology platform  that they simply can’t match. Large firms worry about transactions being disaggregated and large chunks of profitable work being placed with legal service providers with a cheaper cost base. Mid-sized firms talk about being squeezed, with larger firms looking for work in new markets just to keep their associates busy while they weather the current economic storm, and about smaller, more agile firms  punching above their weight.

These people can often see the need for change, but despair of the pace of change in many law firms, pointing out that the culture and consensual nature of partnership often make decisions glacial when they need to be made at the speed of the digital world we now live in.

They look at the management of their firm, and question whether they have the right skills and experience to thrive in such a turbulent environment. Management themselves wonder how they can free themselves from operational fire-fighting to spend time focussing on the strategic questions that will define their firm’s future.

The lawyers lower down the pyramid see equity structures remaining in some firms that encourage low performing partners to sit back and coast, while the best talent works their asses off and often still finds it impossible to break into the club.

Below them are a generation of students who have made a huge financial and personal commitment to enter the profession, and are finding training contracts like gold dust. Those that are lucky enough to find work may be confronted by suggestions that the legal training system is in need of reform and is not equipping graduates with the skills they need to excel in the profession and exceed client and colleague’s expectation.

They may also be confronted with a linear career path, and find that if that’s one they are willing to follow, then the demands made by the firm are at odds with a generation Y philosophy that puts greater emphasis on work/life balance.

Those who see the world in these terms often point to clients showing less loyalty and who have ever increasing expectations in terms of service standards, yet in the same breath are looking to pay less for that service. A widespread rejection of the hourly rate billing model leaves many firms struggling to come up with a viable alternative and without the capability to re-engineer their business model to support these new fee structures.

The downward fee pressure squeezes profit margins further, and even after several rounds of morale-sapping restructurings and redundancies, with economic growth in the core western markets slow at best, there’s no end in sight.

Pretty grim huh?

Now those that know me know that I’m on balance, a pretty upbeat person, so let’s try and bring a bit of balance to the picture.

There are plenty of people out there in the profession who don’t think like that. Who see the current time of change as tremendously exciting. These are the people who see

A world of opportunity

First and foremost they see an incredibly profitable sector that has weathered an unprecedented recession and shown real resilience with relatively few high profile casualties.

They see businesses with the ability to offer a broad portfolio of services that add real value to clients at critical points in their lives or organisational existence. Many of these services are counter cyclical (helping manage difficult economic conditions) and many of which allow the lawyer to genuinely claim that coveted position of trusted advisor.

It’s not hard to point to law firms that have access to senior people at some of the best and biggest companies in the world and advise some of the most influential people who are shaping society.

For those in the UK, having a core competency in the English language and the common law system that underpins many other legal markets means firms are well placed to support global businesses and expand intro higher growth international markets (as indeed many UK firms have done very successfully).

While there would be an acknowledgement that the bar for client acquisition and retention is being constantly raised (particularly by increasingly sophisticated business development professionals and practices) this is raising standards in the profession and represents progress. There is still a huge opportunity to win by being ahead of this curve and setting the pace.

For those with one eye on the future, advocates of the profession will point out that the chance of a career offering not just the potential to earn big bucks, but one that can offer a lifetime of intellectual challenge and stimulation, will always attract its fair share of top talent, and that the training and development opportunities within law firms have improved massively over the last ten years.

Those who see opportunity see the ability to innovate as being a genuine source of competitive advantage, and are looking at technology, process and efficiency as ways of maintaining and indeed improving profitability in a fast changing market. The ability to change quickly is a key enabler, and they recruit the people with the ability to adapt and thrive to make this a reality.

They also see that market consolidation can offers opportunities. Low price acquisitions, the ability to pick and chose individual teams, to make strategic acquisitions of particular clients or relationships, and the clearing out of some of the noise in the market place.

Yes clients are demanding “more for less” but that’s a common refrain across all business these days – the change facing the profession is not unique and in  many other industries there are organisations that came out as big winners.

A somewhat simplistic categorisation, but I urge you to reflect – which messages resonate most, and critically, what are you going to do about it?





What’s the end game?

30 09 2011

I was with a group of law firm partners from different City firms this week, listening to them discuss a case study about super-profitable US law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Aside from their phenomenally successful business model and profitability (with the Amlaw100 reporting profit per partner of over $4m), one of the points that provoked most discussion was the idea that many of the partners would retire from the firm in their early forties.

Doris was overjoyed to hear she'd finally made partner

One response from the group was “that’s just coming into your lawyering prime”, which really got me thinking about careers in the legal profession, how they’re changing and ultimately what the end game is for many lawyers.

It used to be simple.

When I entered the profession in the mid/late nineties you joined a firm, did your training contract, hoped you’d get kept on, and if you did took your place on the conveyer belt. In the larger firms this often meant increasing specialisation and more often than not, increasing your hours.

In particular it was understood (albeit often unspoken) that the years between two and five years post-qualification were the proving ground. Where firms got to weed out those who were not suitable for partnership, and consequently lawyers were competing to prove they were up to the job.

This ethos, coupled with the leverage dynamic (with a smaller number of equity partners generating huge fees from supervising and managing junior lawyers) and chargeable hours model saw associates happily prepared to work all hours as they strived for partnership. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Every year their increased experience meant law firms could up their hourly chargeout rate, meaning in turn that as long as their chargeable hours stayed high, a nice chunky payrise was available, thus providing a short-term incentive for the associate to stay in the game.

Now this approach certainly had its faults, but it was largely understood and accepted and as a result it worked. Hell, early in my career I was certainly prepared to play by those rules.

But things have changed.

That model is breaking.

Firstly, the concept of work/life balance arose. Slowly, softly at first, it began to gnaw at some of the Generation Xers. Marriages came and went and at both points, people began to pause for reflection. Children brought matters into even sharper focus. None of these events were new, but society’s attitudes were changing and the legal profession was not immune from this.

With the emergence of Generation Y, the trend began to accelerate. I vividly recall a conversation with a managing partner of similar age to myself a couple of years ago, where he shared his frustration that many of his assistant solicitors wanted to leave work at 6pm. He understood this, but having put the hours in himself at that stage in his career, found this attitude difficult to reconcile with the drive and focus he expected from his young lawyers.

At the other end of the spectrum, change was also afoot. Many of those partners who had put in the hard yards and had been through the grinder were looking round and asking “is this it?”. Some had migrated into management as this was seen as the only upward progression, but either didn’t like it or weren’t suited with it. Others began to see the downside of their high levels of specialisation by craving a broader workload.

The model was also being tested by the market. A growing rejection of hourly rates, and more sophisticating procurement of legal services caused clients to question firstly whether hourly rates were suitable, and secondly, if they were, why they should be paying more for a particular resource than they paid a couple of months ago (simply because they had another year PQE and their rate went up) when the value delivered was exactly the same.

As the career model began to crack, the consequences began to emerge. Moves to in-house roles, into venture capital and private equity companies became more common, and law firms began to adapt by creating different career paths and non-partner senior roles such as “Of Counsel”, “Legal Director” and of course “Consultant”.

But with the structure of the profession fundamentally changing due to trends such as outsourcing, technology, commoditsation and globalization, is this enough?

While the supply of law students far outsrips demand, the answer I suspect is that the slow changes to the status quo will probably be sufficient in the short term, but ultimately as the profession reconfigures to meet the changing needs of the market, new and better career structures must emerge or I believe traditional law firms may begin to lose heavily in the global war for talent.

 





The Joy Of Secs (secondments)

22 09 2011

I’ve been hanging out with a lot of in-house counsel recently, and one thing’s clear.

They love their secondees.

Really love them.

The working environment on secondment wasn't quite what senior corporate associate Sarah was expecting

Whether it’s a GC who is relying on a specialist skill set that he or she can’t quite find the budget to recruit, a mid-level corporate counsel who is working with a junior lawyer from private practice who helps with the “heavy lifting” on a big deal, or a small in-house team that find having a secondee gives them much broader access to their external law firm’s resources than their usual interaction – the sentiment is unanimous.

For law firms, secondments offer some incredible benefits too. Time and time again, clients point to knowledge of THEIR business as a critical factor in selecting their external lawyers. The insight secondees getting living and breathing in that environment can’t be gained from market research or reading up on the company. Plus, alongside the knowledge of how a client works, their culture, their pain points comes the opportunity to build broader and deeper relationships – not just with the in-house teams, but with their internal clients too.

Where a secondment programme has a rolling element (whether trainees or more experienced lawyers) and the firm puts in a continuous series of lawyers over time (for example a change every six months), this can build an incredibly strong connection over time between firm and corporate team and build a powerful competitive advantage for an incumbent law firm.

Outside of the particular secondment relationship, lawyers often return to private practice with a broader skill set and a better understanding of clients at a more general level, and are much better placed to empathise with the in-house community as a result. Plus in-house experience, even at a secondment level, really does does count when pitching for work with corporate counsel.

So it’s all sunshine and light?

Hell, let’s try and stick everyone on secondment and then we’ll never lose a client. Right?

Alas, it’s not quite that simple.

The major challenge law firms face is economics.

The basic premise of a secondment being that if a client has enough of the right type of work (generally consistent in terms of volume, skill and experience required), but not enough to make permanent recruitment an option, then taking a single lawyer on secondment will be cheaper than paying for that resource on an hourly rate basis. In return the law firm gets guaranteed utilisation of the lawyer, a degree of certainty of revenue and predictable cash flow.

But the world has changed. Because the competitive intensity in the legal market is increasing rapidly, and because firms have wised up to the broader benefits of secondments (set out above), the price that in-house teams have had to pay for a secondee has fallen rapidly.

As the economy tightened, putting secondees in “at cost” became more prevalent. At a superficial level, this again made sense – with firms restructuring and struggling to find work to keep all their lawyers busy (and therefore employed), farming them out to clients allowed them to retain their good people while keeping clients happy.

But in reality, often the exercise often ended up costing the firms more than they anticipated. Questions arose to what “at cost” actually meant. Was it salary cost (and if so did that include benefits, bonus etc)? What about a proportion of overheads (often asked as the finance director walked past the secondee’s empty desk in an expensive City location)? Who picked up the tab for the upgraded laptop that was required to get on the client’s network? What about the opportunity cost when another project turned up unexpectedly and the firm was struggling for a particular resource profile to do the work efficiently?

As the requests for secondments increased, difficult decisions had to be made – who can we say “no” to? If we say “no” will another panel firm put someone in? Is it an investment rather than a revenue stream, and if so, how do we calculate the return on that investment?

Competition for resource within firms, already fraught with politics in many cases, heightened.

The pressure on resources is made worse still when a secondee doesn’t return (not as sinister as it sounds!). Two common outcomes are that the secondee “goes native” and is simply recruited by the client. If the relationship with the law firm is financially material, the firm will have limited ability to negotiate any form of compensation, irrespective of terms in the engagement letter. The other alternative is that the secondee gets a taste for in-house life, and after returning to the law firm simply finds another job with a corporate legal team as quickly as possible.

Speaking from experience, while I had already decided that an in-house role  was probably the next move for me, three months I spent on secondment a year before I made that move did help to crystallise my thinking when the time was right to make the change.

Another challenge is for longer term secondments, how does the law firm effectively keep the connection with the secondee? I’ve seen this challenge at several levels – from the junior associate living out of a hotel for nine months, disconnected from her peers and far from her family, to the partner slowly becoming marginalised in the partnership and losing the emotional connection to the mothership.

Pros and cons.

Swings and roundabouts.

To my mind however the overall value equation is clear. If the engagement is structured well, the economics thought through and the fit between secondee skill set, personality and appetite with the in-house team’s culture and need is good, a secondment is a winner every time. The key is not to assume every secondment fits this model and to put the time in up front to get to a working relationship rather than to simply react and throw resource in at every opportunity that comes along.

Happy seconding.





Why sorry is the hardest word

14 09 2011

I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday around a workshop he was facilitating for a fairly sizeable group of lawyers. As part of the discussion he asked the question “how many of you have ever been the subject of a client complaint”.

Our subsequent discussion centred around the fact that the solitary hand that was raised did not seem representative of the either the statistical probability of the number of complaints from the group (there was probably well over 150 years of cumulative PQE in the room) or the amount of unspoken discomfort in the room.

Adam readied himself to discuss his drafting mistake with the head of department

I’ve written before about why lawyers find it difficult to admit they are wrong (a training based on hiding weaknesses in your client’s arguments and exploiting your opponents, and a pathological fear of negligence claims), but the point I want to explore here is how much harder it is to deal with the consequences of a mistake, if you can’t admit it in the first place.

My starting point is that mistakes will happen. I don’t care how good you are as a lawyer or a law firm, while legal advice is predominantly a human activity (as opposed to automated or process based), the human factor remains fallible.

You, me, none of us are perfect.

Now of course you can minimise the risk of mistakes – quality checks, supervision, training, best practice etc, but at the moment I’ve yet to come across any law firm partner that can hand on heart tell me the firm has not made a single mistake in the past 12 months.

And as work becomes more complex and has to be done at ever increasing speed, the possibility of mistakes may well increase.

So mistakes are going to happen. The question is, how are you going to deal with them?

The majority of larger law firms and corporate legal departments have some type of relationship. Some are more transactional than others, but I’ll make an assumption that the mistake happens in the context of some type of broader relationship, not least because that’s when both parties are likely to care more about it.

My experience both in law firms and in-house tells me firms can deal with mistakes really well, or get it spectacularly wrong.

Let’s deal with some classic unhelpful responses ( Twitter would categorise these law firm #custservfails) first:

  • Refusing to the acknowledge the problem – “advising around it” – effectively providing remedial advice to sort out the problem before the consequences become significance (“I see your point, we’ll add some additional wording in here, just to clarify that”)
  • Blaming the client - implicitly or explicitly (“well, if they’d given us clearer instructions this never would have happened”)
  • Glossing over the problem (“lucky we caught that in an early draft”).
  • Sorting the problem out without any sign of good grace or contrition (“leave it with us”)

Perhaps my favourite example was a conversation I had with a law firm where I’d had a repeated breach of my company’s outside counsel policy (which explained among other things, who in the business could instruct external lawyers, and what involvement the legal department had to have with a matter). After the third clear breach since I drew the point to their attention, I asked for a meeting with the relationship partner to get to the bottom of the issue.

I have to admit to being amazed when the partner turned up with two of his peers from different departments, with a clear plan to try and turn the meeting into a cross-sell pitch. I was certainly expecting the “S-word”, but it wasn’t “sales”.

  • No apology.
  • No self-awareness.
  • No more instructions.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Several firms I worked with were very good at managing the occasional mishap.

One of the most telling signs was where the law firms brought a mistake to my attention, particularly as there was a chance the error might not have got noticed. For example, I’ve had that happen when there was no chance at all of me noticing, because the error arose as a result of a translation from Arabic (where the law firm had arranged the translation).

This builds a huge amount of confidence, and in every case where that has happened, the firm also presented an explanation of why the problem arose, and (critically) a plan to make sure it didn’t happen again. Viewed in this light, problems can be an opportunity to improve the service for the future, and build genuine trust with the relationship.

To me, as a client, that open dialogue is critical.

It works both ways too. Rather than bitch and moan about poor service (which can be more than a simple mistake, as it involves performance measured against expectations, which in some cases may not be explicit), I believe it’s in both parties’ interest for the client to raise the matter with a law firm, and to do so in a clear and specific manner which allows the firm to take action.

I’ve done that in situations where this has helped the law firm have difficult performance management discussions with under-performing staff and also improve processes that have benefitted multiple clients.

Now if this sounds like some sort of rose-tinted utopia, let me be clear – it’s not. Not all of these conversations are easy, (“Difficult conversations – how to discuss what matters most” is a great read by the way) and at times can be uncomfortable, but I do believe that putting in the effort beats the alternative for both parties – a dysfunctional relationship benefits no-one.

There are also times where the scale of the screw up is so monumental, that the relationship simply can’t be saved (for example the reputation damage to the law firm within the client business is so great that the in-house lawyer would lose the confidence of his or her clients by using the firm again), but those cases are few and far between.

In most cases, starting an open, honest and productive dialogue is the best way forward, and saying “sorry” might be a good place to start.





How to find an extra 1,000 hours a year

6 09 2011

I have a confession to make.

The partners were surprised to see Fiona set fire to the firm's library in the name of productivity

I’m an information junkie. All my life I’ve been a voracious consumer of books, magazines and newspapers.

From burying my nose in novels as a child, through reading 3-4 books a week when commuting as a lawyer, to teaching myself to speed-read early in my legal career to keep on top of fast moving professional development, books have never been far away.

Indeed I wrote about how reading more widely can help a lawyer become more rounded and get a wider perspective that can enhance their thinking and advice (and I stand by that idea!).

So what’s the problem?

Well, the quantity, quality and ease of access to information  is so high these days, that reading can take up a disproportionate amount of time.

It’s possible to spend so much time reading, that experiencing life and reflecting on it can take a back seat.

I took some time to reflect on this challenge on a recent holiday, and realised that I was bombarding myself with information pretty much from the moment I open my eyes. Does some or any of this sound familiar…

  • Wake up. Check smartphone for urgent emails
  • Waiting for train – check news and sport headlines on smartphone, check twitter and facebook feeds
  • On train – read newspaper on Kindle, when done move onto ebook (usually business or personal development)
  • Work – check Google reader feeds, work reading, twitter while waiting for meetings, walking to get lunch etc
  • Train home – read ebook (business or personal development)
  • Before bed – read ebook or physical book (could be work or fiction)
  • Repeat.

Aside from the enjoyment I got from reading (an important factor not to gloss over in this discussion), it was apparent that my mind was whirring constantly from the moment the alarm went at 5am. My sense was that while this definitely had benefits in terms of the sheer amount of knowledge I was accumulating (much of which has been very useful), it was also draining a lot of mental energy and limiting the headspace I had for thinking and reflecting, and on balance the negatives were beginning to outweigh the positives.

As the Tao Te Ching says (verse 48) “learning is daily accumulating, the Way is daily diminishing”  (and yes I realise that’s a quote from a book!).

Sometimes less is more.

So I decided to do an experiment – I’d go on an information diet.

The first thing I did was cut out reading a daily newspaper. I’ve read a newspaper pretty much every day for the last twenty years. Give or take a few minutes, it takes me about 30 minutes to read the whole thing in my very methodical way. News headlines, sport, UK news, overseas news, business news, features and culture. Bish bash bosh.

Now giving this up might seem a small step, but psychologically I wondered what the effect would be – would it hamper my ability to hold conversations in the office? What about at social events? Would I go to meetings and find I didn’t know what people were talking about? Would this damage my personal competitive advantage? Would I become (perish the thought) less interesting?

The reality – important news found me. I didn’t have a complete news black out – quick checks on the BBC mobile news, trends from Twitter, and of course conversations have so far (four months and counting) brought me all the news I seem to need.

What I didn’t anticipate is that where I have needed to find out about something (and this has been very rare), simply asking the person who’s raised the issue to tell me what’s happened had led to some rich conversations and elicited opinions I might not have got if I’d already known the detail.

The other thing I noticed, is that when I pick up a newspaper, I now see how much news there is that really has no impact on my life (in any capacity), which is generally depressing, but which  I would have consumed anyway in my pre-information diet days.

On a similar note, a former journalist I met with last week mentioned that he was continually frustrated by his inability to block out which contestants are currently appearing on Celebrity Big Brother because despite his total lack of interest in the subject, it seeps into his consciousness through the media.

So far so good. I’d reclaimed three and a half hours of time per week (182 hours a year  sounds more impressive!). Assuming I used that time wisely, that was a real productivity boost.

The next step was to stop reading other books.

So for the last three and a half months, the only book I’ve looked at (which I mentioned in my post The Tao of Law Firm Strategy) has been the Tao Te Ching – the classic Chinese text which is best described as a cross between philosophy and poetry. Read for five minutes, ponder for an hour.

So for all intents and purposes, my reading has gone from say 3 hours a day, to zero. That’s over 1,000 hours a year. Or one and a half months.

Pretty drastic? Maybe.

Permanent? Don’t know.

One of the important points (in my eyes anyway) is that not only have I reduced the information I take in, but I’ve chosen not to replace that activity with another. It’s just white space and  I definitely appreciate the extra time I now have to think things through (work and personal) and also just be.

There are times when less is definitely more.

It’s also made me much more conscious of where I choose to focus – Davenport wrote a great book called The Attention Economy about the value of attention (related article  at Brainpickings if you’re interested), and having some extra time and space to allow you to step back and re-prioritise is surely a good thing.

So what’s the reading end-game for me?

Well, I think I will welcome books back into my life at some point, although I feel no rush to do it right now. When I do I think I’ll be more selective about what I read – to offer me greater benefit that the space I’ve freed up, it’s going to have to be quite a book!

So for busy lawyers, while I can’t free you from the tyranny of the timesheets (the market will do that in time…), by limiting the amount of information you take in outside the office, you might find yourself more productive.

Just don’t spend the time you’re freed up watching television. Please!

 





Lawyers – Just. Do. Something.

30 08 2011

It seems like there was some sort of psychic alignment in the UK legal blogging community last week.

James took a break from his corporate finance practice and went down to the firm's somewhat impressive atrium to think about what was happening in his market

As the news came rolling in on changes facing the UK market (Neil Rose’s site Legal Futures is often a good place to start), the Entrepreneur Lawyer   Chrissie Lightfoot wrote a great post about the disruption and fear facing the profession. Julian Summerhayes then followed up with a thought provoking piece on the need to avoid apathy in client relationships.

All the time my mind was whirring with two related themes – massive change, and the need to do something.

The first message that I really (really) want to get across is that change in the profession is happening NOW. I mean right now.

Many of the lawyers who are waiting for the full implementation of the Legal Services Act with a “let’s just wait and see” attitude are either deliberately burying their heads in the sand, or are sleepwalking through a time of significant change, leading to both opportunities and threats.

Just look at the recent headlines:

Take a step back and take a fresh look.

This is change that’s happening right now.

It’s not round the corner.

It’s not things that might happen.

It’s happening.

Now.

The other point that’s really important to grasp, is that the change is affecting the whole profession. It’s not just a B2C issue, there is fundamental change going on all through the profession. From the sole practitioner whose livelihood is threatened by consumers being offered quicker, cheaper and easier solutions from competitors that didn’t exist three years ago, to the multi-million pound law firm facing disaggregation of the large scale projects that used to be the foundation of the partner’s seven figure salary. The change is real and far-reaching.

Finally, please trust me when I say that there is much, much more going on which is not public at the moment.

Since I left practice as a lawyer, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in the profession in a number of different roles, including consultant and LPO provider. Some of the conversations I’ve had with law firms, in-house teams and other consultants have shown me that there is some really forward thinking going on in the background, leading to business models being re-engineered and investment being secured.

So why are so many firms not doing anything?

Well, putting aside the difficulty many law firms have with change generally (which I’ve written about before), and some of the negative behaviours driven by the hourly rate billing model,  I think there are a number of other reasons why it’s not top of mind for every law firm partner.

The first is that there are more pressing short term challenges. Cash flow being one of them. The last two to three years (depending on the make up of your practice) has been incredibly tough, and amidst the restructurings and insolvencies, there are plenty of firms that quietly weathered the initial storm but  are finding things getting harder and harder as the road out of recession continues to be a slow one. Whether it’s cash flow, refinancing or opportunities for consolidation, short term survival is often the top priority.

Another reason is that it’s just plain difficult. The market is moving at a tremendous rate now, with new competitors, new technology and regulatory change coming in waves. Just keeping on track of the environment is tough enough, let alone analysing it and working out how to respond. Many firms don’t have strategy experience in-house (and there was a great article this week on how forcing strategy work on non-strategic thinkers doesn’t often work out) and I suspect many just don’t know where to start.

But whatever the reason, now is the time to act. The speed of business these days is too fast to wait and see.

Much has been written about the change in the product development world and the speed to market imperative (“fail fast”) – how it’s no longer realistic to test extensively to get a product perfect before launching.

The parallel I’d draw here is that now is not the time to assess the market to nth degree, and then craft a perfect strategy over the coming months, before pulling together a detailed project plan and implementing through the annual budget cycle. All of these steps may well have merit, but given how fast the market is moving, it’s more than likely that by the time you’re done, you’ll be too late. The opportunities (of which I believe there are many) will have passed, or the threats manifested.

So to wrap up, now’s the time to act. Block out an afternoon and at least do some thinking, or if you’re not at the thinking stage, some sensing to find out what’s happening in your market segments. Then take the lead and turn thinking and dialogue into action.





Lawyers – ask why they buy, not why they didn’t

22 08 2011

Have you ever thought about the reason people choose to buy legal services from a particular firm?

Sure, if you’re a lawyer in practice (or a business development professional at a law firm) you may have spent some time debriefing why you lost a tender, but have you actually talked to some clients to find out why they chose to use you in the first place? If you have, do you know why they continue to instruct you?

The firm's sophisticated accounting system registered another sale for the IP litigation practice

I was pondering this as a post from Mike Ames really reminded me of some of the timeless  fundamentals of the buying process that it’s good to revisit. It’s perhaps easier to look at the reasons why you don’t make the sale than the reasons that you do. The post addresses this imbalance, and is set is below in italics, and you can find the original post along with more solid business development ideas on Mike’s blog.

Strange really. We all buy things every day whether it’s a sandwich at lunchtime, petrol for your car or a £4m computer system the process is pretty similar but what makes us do it?

  1. Need. If you think about the obvious starting point is having a need that is either immediate or anticipated. Sometimes we may not be aware of that need (which is why the advertising industry exists, in case you ever wondered) and it needs to be brought to our attention.
  2. Capability. Who is going to buy anything that is not fit-for-purpose? Well actually loads of people but nobody does it willingly. So as a business developer you must demonstrate that your offering can meet all of the client’s needs. This can be tricky; a sort of a catch 22 – they won’t hire you until they know and they won’t know until they hire you. These are the ways round this dilemma: references; case studies; testimonials; site visits; risk and reward work; what you have said and written; you!
  3. Beliefs. People tend to buy from people who match the same beliefs as they hold (for more on this watch this brilliant TED video of Simon Sinek). It’s how all great brands work. They convince us that their beliefs are the same as ours and we buy. What do you believe in I wonder?
  4. Differences. Let’s face it if we were confronted buy two offerings that we could not differentiate between in any meaningful way which one would we select (drum roll) the cheapest of course. This is how commodities work: something that is purchased solely based upon its price. A nasty place to be and one to be avoided at all costs. Now being different is easy but being different in a way that benefits our clients is a lot harder however, dear readers, this is exactly what we have to do. We must show we are different from our competitors and that these differences somehow provide tangible benefits to the client. or we could just be the cheapest I guess.
  5. Value. We don’t always buy the cheapest but we all buy according to our own cost/value equation. Audi cars are brilliant: reliable, stylish, hold their value and make us feel cool but they are definitely not cheap and yet we still buy them by the boat-load (quite literally in fact). The reason is that Audi have provided those people who have sufficient money with a balanced cost/value equation – basically they are worth the money. We must do the same.
  6. Trust. Occasionally we are forced to buy from people we don’t trust. We don’t like it but we do it when we need to. What we really like though is to buy from people we trust so if you can build trust you increase the chances of getting a sale. Here are a few ideas: always deliver on your promises no matter how small; be open and honest at all times even if this is not in your best interests; be consistent. There are other contributories but these are the most powerful.
  7. Rapport. Probably not as important as you might think but having rapport with a buyer can swing the deal your way when its a close call. A lot of rapport stems from trust of course but try smiling more (recent research by Bangor University proved you will sell more if you do)  and just be you. When the American businessman Lee Iacocca was asked by a group of students what his best piece of advice was he answered “don’t fake it”.
So there you have it. To be successful at sales, find a client who has a need you can satisfy, demonstrate your credentials, show how you are different and how these differences can benefit the client, establish common beliefs and present your offering in such a way as the benefits outweigh their investment. If they trust you and there is a rapport between you start and draw up the engagement letter.







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