The writing on the wall #5 management complexity

15 12 2014

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Firms are getting bigger. Mergers and International expansion may be the main culprits in recent years, bit add the economy slowly returns to growth, plenty of other law firms face the challenges associated with getting bigger.
Some, like the competition for talent are frequently mentioned, but there is another that is less talked about and yet arguably harder nut to crack. It’s the management overhead. Aside from the difficulty and effectiveness of management, how can firms manage the spiralling cost and resource drain?

Whether it’s professional management cost or the time of the most competent partners, it’s easy for it to grow unchecked. What’s the story in your firm?





The writing’s on the wall #3 – resistance to change

11 12 2014

IMG_4954.JPGThere is no shortage of commentary about the need for law firms to change in what is the most significant transition in the profession in a lifetime. Theories from Darwin to Kotter are cited yet firms still struggle with the day to day reality of change.

Partners speak of their frustration that things don’t move fast enough and clients are increasingly outspoken about the growing gap between their expectations and the service delivery they receive.

So for your firm, what’s at the heart of the resistance to change, and critically what can you do to address it?





Why law firms need a CLO (chief listening officer)

12 08 2011

When I started my legal career in the mid/late 90s, no-one ever talked of the CEO or the CFO. There was a Managing Partner, probably a Senior Partner, and a Finance Director.

Eric's campaign for Managing Partner was based largely on the popularity of his beautifully formed ears

While looking at job titles may seem simplistic, it actually throws up some interesting trends (and I’m not repeating my rant about putting the words “equity partner” on your business card). In some firms, the adoption of the CEO and CFO titles genuinely represents a shift to a more corporate structure, where the executive have more authority. This was required as firms became more complex and more distributed – the slow, consensual nature of partnership was hampering firms’ ability to move at the pace required by the market, and a changing governance structure was one response.

Another interesting change was the emergence of the COO, showing in many firms a need to separate the day to day operations from the other issues such as people, strategy and technology. Strange thought it may seem now, twenty years ago it would not have been common for a firm to have an HR Director, a Business Development Director or an IT Director. These emergence of these new roles is partly a response to the increased scale of law firms, but also a recognition that to be successful in law these days, there’s more involved in the business than simply providing legal advice.

More recently still we’ve seen the rise of the CKO (chief knowledge officer) and CIO (chief information officer) in law firms, and also the CLO (chief legal officer) as an alternative to general counsel in the corporate world.

And this brings me to the title of the post – an alternative meaning for CLO. The answer comes in a post (set out below in italics) from the prolific and thought-provoking legal blogger, Julian Summerhayes about the role of the managing partner.

To my mind, listening, the critical skill Julian references, is critical for all lawyers, not just in their legal work, but also in their selling (see number one in my list of top lawyer sales fails). So whether you’re a managing partner or not, read on and reflect on how practising and developing this skill might help you:

Most managing partners that I have met describe their role as like herding cats.

You know the score: two lawyers can’t agree the time of day. And you magnify that up to include the plethora of issues, including the big one – PEP – and is it any wonder that poor old managing partner feels like s/he is dealing with a swarm of angry bees?

What do you think is the role of your firm’s managing partner? 

  • Leader?
  • Visionary?
  • Communicator?
  • Motivator?
  • Political strategist?
  • Tough negotiator?

I’ll give you my view:

CHIEF LISTENING OFFICER (CLO).

And not the sort of listening you normally observe which, at best, skims the surface and never really understands the issue. No, someone who is so intensely focused on listening to you that it is scary.

Scary in what sense?

Scary in the sense that you know they deeply care about you and your needs. They are not constantly scoping the conversation to make their point, or talk in firm speak or make you feel (like a lot do) that you are inferior to them (or at least your ideas).

People skills, being human and wanting you to succeed should be the only selection criteria for managing partners.

The problem for a lot of managing partners is that they take on too much.  Their focus is ameliorated to such an extent that they never get time to address the fundamental people issue.

Of course most large firms will have a Human Resources department but my experience of such departments is that they are more focused on making sure the correct procedure is followed than listening to people. In fairness they don’t really have the power to make a difference – they know that any major decision will be deferred to one of the partners.

Without wanting to name any of the managing partners that I worked under, the one that stands out was the one who took time to stop by whenever he was in the office, put his head around the door and simply say “Hello Julian. How are you?”

There was no agenda. He seemed genuinely interested, and didn’t automatically jump the fence and ask “Are you busy?” As if I was going to confess to surfing the Net all day because I was bored out of my mind doing crap work!

No, this managing partner made me feel, dare I say, special.

Listening is a strategic skill.

It should be taught at every level from undergraduate to senior partner.

As a skill set it is matchless.

How many courses have you attended on it? I have been on loads where you are taught the art of speaking but not listening.

Isn’t it wonderful when you come across someone who intensely listens? Someone who focuses their attention on you.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post the people we find most interesting are the people who are most interested in us.

Try it for yourself. Next time you meet with someone just listen.

Don’t do anything else.

Try not to focus on what you think they are about to say.

Don’t steer the conversation in any one way.

Let one question follow on from the next.

Be humble.

Be patient.

And don’t finish the conversation until the other person has finished what they have to say.

Summary

If you still want a managing partner then fine but how about changing the job specification to include CLO?

Slow down and listen.

Find out something new about your staff and remember it. Better still act on it, if there is something to act on.

It is the small detail (if you can call listening ‘small’) that can often make the biggest difference.

 





When good people leave

8 11 2010

Talking to a legal recruitment consultant recently (and no, before you ask I’m not looking to return to lawyering!) he mentioned that while there are undoubtedly a high number of candidates on the market at the moment, they are not always what the recruiting firms are looking for. The sharper firms have opted to retain their top talent and protect their investment in the best people.

The staff door out of Briggins & Partners was less inviting than the client entrance lobby

This got me thinking about why people do choose to leave firms, and why when they do, so many law firms manage departures very badly (particularly when they have a large chunk of the office is occupied by specialist employment lawyers!).

One of the really interesting projects I did as part of my MBA was to look at attrition in a specific part of a multi-national business. The senior management team had identified attrition as a problem and wanted to understand it and fix it. I started with a mixture of primary research (talking to staff, line managers, senior managers, the HR team etc) and secondary research (reading exit interview forms, looking at internal data and industry stats and then ploughing through published literature on the subject).

There were two things that I really took away from the project. The first was that despite management perception, while staff attrition had definitely increased within the part of the company I was examining, it wasn’t particularly high when compared to the industry at large. Given the internal focus on many firms, this highlights the benefit of challenging internal perceptions, particularly on sensitive issues when partners may want to keep a discussion within a closed group.

By comparison I also found some parts of the business where attrition was so low, that itself was a problem. Typified by a number of long term employees (“lifers”), this team lacked new blood and the ideas and enthusiasm that new joiners can bring. Characterised by a resistance to change and the management challenges that come with that attitude, while it wasn’t the subject of my investigation, it was clear that this was actually a larger problem for the organisation than managing attrition in the other part of the business.

How many law firms or in-house legal teams might this be true of? For example, while it might be the high turnover corporate team that get the attention of management, and the support of the HR teams, could it be “steady Eddie” in the property team, with his or her long term band of supporters, who resists change and frustrates management initiatives, who actually is more problematic.

The second interesting conclusion I drew from the project was that the root of the attrition in this case actually lay in the company’s recruitment practices. The company was typically recruiting at short notice to meet pressing, short-term capacity problems. As a result, it was short-cutting the standard competency-based recruitment processes and getting candidates that were not well matched for the company’s long-term needs. It seemed counter-intuitive to me for recruitment to be causing attrition problems, but the evidence was pretty conclusive.

Now in my experience law firms but quite a bit of time and effort into recruitment, but this is often focussed on getting the right fit for the current need. I wonder how many associates subsequently move on because it becomes apparent that their medium term prospects are compromised for some reason (team structure or partnership prospects for example) that could have been foreseen and addressed at the point of recruitment. Creating different career paths within law firms is a subject that has got considerable attention within the last five years or so, but firstly I’m not sure how transparent these schemes really are to existing assistants, let alone to potential recruits.

I don’t have any magic solutions in this area, but  wanted to stimulate thinking about the link between people joining and leaving.

Finally, before I depart, a quick word on law firm departures. One of the things that struck me about the different between life inhouse and life in a law firm is how many more acrimonious departures there seem to be in law firms. Perhaps some of it is tied up with the consensual and to some degree more personal nature of partnerships as a business structure. Maybe some of it is that lawyers in practice invariably move to a competitor. Possibly some of it could be put down to the competitive (combative?) nature of many lawyers.

But really, is it in anyone’s interest to part on bad terms? Both parties have a reputation in the marketplace and will likely cross paths again in the future. Time and time again organisations like the big four accountancy practices and the top tier management consultancies show the value in their alumni network. Would this be possible if a huge percentage of leavers left under a cloud?

While corporate departures may not be a bed of roses, I’ve certainly seen much less animosity, and also much better communication (both internally and externally) than with some law firms. I remember one conversation when I was in-house counsel, when a partner I’d never met before called to tell me that one of the key lawyers I instructed had left the firm, and that he had covenants in his contract that meant he would not be able to act for me for the next six months, but of course that the current firm would be happy to help me out if I needed assistance. Needless to say I didn’t use them again…..

So if good people are leaving, my suggestions are firstly to take the time to find out why they are going (by which I mean have a REAl conversation with them, don’t just read the notes of their exit interview) and try and manage their departure sensibly. On the other hand if nobody is leaving, perhaps you should ask yourself if this is causing any hidden problems.





Strategy without creativity?

1 11 2010

Walking towards Holborn yesterday I looked up at a building to see the statement “strategy is nothing without creativity” plastered across the window. My instinct was to file it away in the “I agree” compartment of my head, and, as the song says, “walk on by”. The more I thought about it however, the less easy I found it to compartmentalise my response in that way.

The energy team's market strategy was lacking detail

Perhaps betraying my origins as a lawyer, I thought the best place to start the discussion was by getting clear on what I’m talking about when discussing strategy. A key distinction is between “corporate strategy” and “market strategy”.

By corporate strategy I think about the high level decisions of what markets a business will compete in, and possibly (depending on factors such as how disparate those markets are), a broad set of principles on how the business will compete.

By market strategy I mean how the business will compete in its chosen markets.

It is in this arena I want to examine the role of creativity,  however in my experience, there are more fundamental questions that many law firms need to ask themselves about their market strategies before creativity comes in to play.

The first is whether market strategy actually exists. Often firm strategy (essentially the corporate strategy mentioned above)  is set by the management and then “rolled out” to the partnership, practice areas, industry sectors etc. At the market level, often the business planning that happens is purely financial in nature; usually as part of the budgeting process. Targets are set, and teams then work out how they are going to deliver those numbers. This then leads into a very tactical discussion; perhaps looking at how to grow major accounts or penetrate particular prospects.

The market strategy layer is, not always, but often, completely missed. And as a result, firms often struggle to articulate their positioning in the market (one of the key outputs of market strategy) and when asked about their strategy for a particular market often end up talking about their experience or resources, which may well be relevant, but means the lawyers often lack the clarity of a well defined strategy that they can articulate.

Another benefit of having a market strategy, is a deeper understanding of what the competition are doing. When the day-to-day pace of life is so fast, it’s easy to get by with a cursory understanding of what other firms are doing in the market, relying on what’s in the legal press, and what you hear from clients and contacts. However, the benefits of actually analysing competitors, working out how they are different from you and your practice, what they do well, are significant and can shape the way you think about your own practice (and crucially how you present it to clients and prospects).

So, in a roundabout way, this brings me onto creativity. There’s no doubt in my mind, that at the market strategy level creativity can bring tremendous benefits, and create the sort of breakthrough strategies that could help a firm really win in the marketplace. However, if many firms don’t really have a market strategy, then I think there are opportunities for those firms who do have one to reap significant benefits simply from implementing their strategy well and communicating it clearly (both within the firm and to the market place).

Implementing and communicating strategy are both huge topics worthy of their own posts, so I’ll leave those for another day. However, the point I’ll finish on is just to mention that creating a winning market strategy doesn’t have to be a laborious, bureaucratic process – in Strategy SafariMintzberg lists a whole host of ways in which strategy can be formed (from emergent and entrepreneurial strategy through to more formal planning and design processes).

My bet is that if market strategy is something your team has done before, a small time investment would pay big rewards.

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Do you want to win?

4 10 2010

Last week I started reading what is probably the second most famous text on military strategy (after Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War“); Carl von ClausewitzOn War“. I’ll be honest – it’s not an easy read.

Thawson & Partner's new aggressive strategy made quite a splash in the legal press

My reason for reading was not that I was plotting any sort of immediate show of armed force (although if I was, I promise you’ll read about it here first!), but to look for lessons that could easily be applied to strategy in the law firm arena. While it was a fascinating read, I struggled to apply many of the concepts, and turned instead to Robert Greene‘s “The 33 Strategies Of War“.

Much easier.

In fact the first chapter immediately grabbed my interest, it was titled “declare war on your enemies: the polarity strategy”. There’s quite a lot of depth to the chapter, but one of the key messages is to know your enemy.

Sounds simple?

I’m not so sure. Although the market is ultra-competitive, many firms struggle to know who their competitors really are. When I was undertaking my primary research for my MBA thesis on law firm strategy, one of the questions I asked the CEOs and managing partners was “who are your competitors?”. Answering was much more difficult than I anticipated. A huge number of variables came up: what geography was I talking about? which practice area? in which industry did I mean?

These  are undoubtedly good questions and show a good understanding of the need to segment markets, but it does make me think about the benefits of good, old-fashioned, competitive spirit. It might be that you can find “enemies” that compete in 80% of the firm’s markets, or it might be key teams have their own “public enemy number one”, but I do believe finding a key competitor to focus upon can bring real benefits.

I remember when I was in private practice, there was one firm I absolutely wanted to beat. In the area of law I practised they were generally ranked slightly higher than my firm, they had a slick brand, nicer offices, were reportedly more profitable and they paid better. I had a huge amount of respect for the firm, and on a human level, liked a great many of their lawyers. But boy, did I want to beat them! If we were ever responding to the same request for proposal, I would want to go the extra mile to make sure we were at the top of our game.

Now this response might be unique to me, but I suspect  having a handful, of clearly identified competitors could help galvanise a firm (or team) and focus it on winning? Could a common firm-wide “enemy” help break down silos within the firm?

Could having a clear idea of an “enemy” help the law firm define itself? If you know what you don’t want to be, might that help you identify differences? It might be that this polarisation helps clients identify more clearly what they are looking for in advisors.

As Greene says “see yourself as a fighter, an outsider surrounded by enemies. Constant battle will keep you strong and alert”.

Another benefit to focussing on competitors, which I discovered  in corporate life, was that commercial and sales people can then  think more broadly about the impact of their actions on the market place. For example, “if we hire Mr X, will it hurt company Y?”, “If we launch this new product at a price that undercuts Z co, what will it do to their margins?”. Without a clear idea of competition, it is hard to benefit from this type of thinking.

To me, competition is a key part of strategy. It should be about winning in a market place. A clear view of who your competitors are must help this process. It’s not always easy (I’ve written before about the benefits of collaboration among law firms, so there are undoubtedly multiple perspectives to think about here), but I do believe it’s worth thinking about. The one cautionary note is that it shouldn’t be done at the expense of losing focus on the client.

So, this week’s message? Find an enemy, have a fight. You might feel better for it….





Your training was useless. Discuss.

3 08 2010

I asked an experienced law firm partner recently what percentage of his academic training he had used in his career as an outsourcing lawyer. The answer? Less than 10% Now I know that here in the UK, there has been debate for a number of years as to whether the vocational training given on the Legal Practice Course was sufficiently tailored for the large commercial firms, and as a result, the choice of provider and course content has widened, which is undoubtedly a good thing. That, as you might expect, is not the thrust of this post.

Discussion about the latest cases was encouraged in class

Firstly, the classroom based elements of a lawyer’s training take four years via the traditional law degree route. However, non-lawyer graduates can cram those three years into a single year with the CPE conversion course. This raises a number of questions. If it can be done in a year, why take three? I’ve heard hypothetical arguments that CPE students don’t have the same understanding of the law as law graduates, but I’ve never heard of any practical consequences of this. More critically, I would challenge anyone to work with a selection of five-year qualified lawyers and identify those that did the CPE rather than a law degree. I have however come across lawyers who have excelled because their first degree was something else relevant to their practice (a science, a language), and certainly if I had my time again I would have done a business or economics degree and then the CPE course before qualifying.

So, if the core “black letter law” can be covered in a year (albeit a hard one!), why not spend a chunk of those two “spare” years on the law degree either giving more depth in the areas that are of more interest to the students, or create different learning experiences to create a richer understanding of the topics? For example, for the commercial modules, why not teach the students to apply the principles to real world examples (rather than hypothetical problems)? Why not broaden their business understanding with some more commercial knowledge? For aspiring family lawyers, why not give a broader understanding of the emotional dynamics that create a context for a lawyer’s work? Why not arrange the type of six month work experience placements that are common on business degrees?

The second area to examine is the on-the job training. My belief is that the practical experience and supervision that young lawyers get is actually a critical component of their development, and for all the talk about investment in people, once a young lawyer gets on the chargeable hours treadmill, this can often come second to revenue generation. Now to be fair, there are many firms that take their trainee development seriously and do an excellent job at it, but I suspect even the best firms can (and should) strive to be even better. Think world class. Technical training. Commercial (or other context-specific) training. Interpersonal skills. Project management training. Financial acumen. Management training. Leadership training. Mentoring. Coaching.

Finally, with all this focus on effective training for young lawyers, what about those who are “fully formed”? Is training then off the agenda? Is every year another last minute struggle to rack up some CPD points by going to a nearby seminar and working on the blackberry while waiting for lunch to be served and then the event to finish? In my experience some of the best lawyers are those that never stop learning. Always curious, whether it’s a new area of law, a client’s business, a new technology or a new business development opportunity. This life-long learning should be celebrated, not least because these people can be great role models for the younger lawyers, and because they create new intellectual capital for the firm and new value for clients.

To finish, training comes with a cost. But so does attrition and recruitment. While the credit crunch has ensured that recruitment of bodies is not the problem it was a few years ago, the war for the best talent hasn’t gone away. If the training you or your team received in your academic years was not as effective as it could have been, what can you do now, to keep your learning fresh?








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