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 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.





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.





Super Mario Lawyer – How to gamify a legal career

2 08 2011

There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about “gamification”. Now before you choke on your cornflakes and wonder what anything that has the word “game” in it has to do with a serious business like the law, let me first explain what it is.

This was a part of the partnership assessment centre that Simon wasn't expecting

The best definition I found was in a white paper from a company called Bunchball (which is well worth downloading if you want to find out more), which says:

“At its root, gamification applies the mechanics of gaming to nongame activities to change people’s behavior. When used in a business context, gamification is the process of integrating game dynamics (and game mechanics) into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign in order to drive participation and engagement”.

Cool huh?

Now while the gamification of legal services may be some way off, and undoubtedly there are certainly a load of “distress purchase” type services that it would be inappropriate to build some fun into, I can see the application of the concept working in some areas.

Could it be used to make a huge due diligence exercise more engaging for junior lawyers? What about a firm that works with clients on repetitive, volume instructions?

However, I suspect the serious business of injecting fun into legal work needs a little more thought, so for the blog I’m going to explore how a legal career might look as a video game, and in doing so, introduce some of the key concepts of gamification.

So learning, plus a little fun. Fits with the theme of the post?

So let’s start with some game mechanics. These are the triggers and actions that drive behaviours and contribute to motivation and engagement. Thinking about this in the context of a legal career is pretty important, because let’s be honest, there are plenty of easier ways to earn a living.

Starting out at University, the first game mechanic you’d encounter would be challenge. This is manifested in a number of different ways, from the intellectual horsepower needed (I remember thinking I’d never “get” trusts and equity!) to the maturity needed to start planning your career early, challenge is a dynamic which is likely to continue throughout a career in the profession, and in my view one of the reasons that being a lawyer can be such an enduring vocation.

Even before you get to university, you’ll have met another game dynamic which may also continue long into your working life – the concept of a leaderboard. Does law attract competitive people, or is it simply that you need to be able to survive (thrive?) in a competitive environment to succeed in the profession? The nature v nurture debate isn’t for this blog, but aim for a career in law and soon you’ll be stack ranked by A-level grades, outside interests and other achievements. The leaderboard continues through law school as the competition for training contracts and then jobs continues, at which point the challenge ramps up as you realise you need a whole new set of skills and competencies.

Being a gamer myself (first game console was an Atari with Space Invaders, Pacman and Asteroids!), the concept of “levelling up” is one that’s familiar to me and I absolutely get how addictive that dynamic can be. The concept of levels translates pretty well to what has to date, been a fairly linear career path followed by lawyers.

-          Get law degree (level up!)

-          Pass law school (level up)

-          Qualify as solicitor (level up)

-          Promoted to associate (level up)

-          Make junior partner (level up!)

-          Make equity (level up!)

Now I do think that as the profession changes at a structural level, this will change, but I think the concept of levelling up in some form or other will remain very applicable to the legal profession.

An interesting set of questions to ask, is then: what level do you want to get to? Why? What will it cost you? What are the benefits?

Shifting focus then to the game dynamics, the elements that drive motivation and reward, the application of these to a legal career is arguably even stronger.

Top of the list are reward and status. Two words often associated with the profession by non-lawyers, but also two words that many lawyers openly acknowledge as key drivers for them and dynamics that do keep them focussed on progress and continuing to work serious hours as they strive for partnership.

Aligned to that drive, and the fascination with the state of the profession’s leaderboard (just read the legal trade press to see how fascinated we all are with how firms are doing, how much other lawyers earn etc) is the competition dynamic.

I’ve written plenty about the competitive nature of the law firm market, and how that competitive intensity is growing as a result of the political, economic and forces now shaping the future. However within the firm is another hugely competitive environment, with players seeking to level up and accumulate points, often at the expense of their peers.

Much of this behaviour, which can often negate many of the benefits of collaboration which are critical to optimising a knowledge based organisation, are driven by the fact that there are limited opportunities to level up to equity partner.

Finally, there are some other game dynamics that also play a part in the lives of many legal professionals – achievement, self-expression and altruism, but these challenge many stereotypes that surround the legal profession, so I’ll leave those for another post.





The Tao Of Law Firm Strategy

14 07 2011

Differentiation is getting harder for law firms. We all know that.

Botchit & Co were delighted with the originality of their new logo - there was something fresh yet timeless about it

Clients constantly state that they want their lawyers to have deeper knowledge of their business and environment.

As the market changes, more and more firms are re-examining their business model and questioning how they are going to compete and win in the future.

Some think about doing more of the same. Some think about doing the same thing but cheaper. Some think about doing the same with a twist.

But how many think of doing less?

Actually stopping doing a lot of work types and focussing on a core that they can do better than anyone else?

  • Drop the unprofitable work.
  • Drop the work that doesn’t fit with the core.
  • Drop the work no-one likes doing.
  • Drop the work that can be done better or more efficiently or in other ways (automation, offshore etc).

What’s left? Could it work as a business?

With so much focus on consolidation in the market, who is looking for the gaps?

Where are the agile players that can really own market segments?

Finishing with a (very!) different approach to any I’ve done before. Inspired by verse 80 of the classic of Chinese culture, the Tao Te Ching (Ralph Allen Dale translation), I give you “The way of the niche”

Let us create small firms
With genuine specialists
Who, without stress, can produce
More than their clients expect
Who are so happy with their practice
They have no thought of moving elsewhere

Who forgo billing targets
Because they have no need of them
Who return to honest forms
Of serving clients,
And the simple enjoyments
Of practising law

Although these firms
May be so close to each other
That they hear the tapping
Of each other’s keyboards
And the ringing of each other’s blackberries,
Living profitably, they will have no need to invade each other’s markets.





The five skills of highly effective in-house lawyers

8 07 2011

I spent some time this week with a group of in-house lawyers facilitating a discussion around the skills and capabilities that corporate counsel need to be a success, particularly if they are just making the transition from private practice.

The advanced finance for lawyers class was not well attended

The group itself was very diverse, ranging from a FTSE100 GC to a very recent convert to in-house life, after six years at a magic circle firm. However, despite this diversity, a number of key messages shone through. These are the skills that you need to learn to make it in-house, and very few are taught comprehensively in law firms, fewer still during academic training. 

I’ve hacked, shortened, edited and distilled further to come up with the following magic formula…. 

1. It’s all about the business stupid!

At the heart of everything, is a genuine understanding of their own business. Plenty of private practice lawyers talk a good game about being commercial (and to be fair, some of them do have an excellent grasp of their clients’ businesses), but there are plenty who glaze over when faced with a discussion of what’s really important to their clients. I’m not talking about their views on IP ownership, or liability clauses, I’m talking about how the business makes money. What’s the difference between a really profitable deal and an average one? What activities drive the profit margin? Where are the big chunks of cost and how can they be managed?

The discussion highlighted that this business understanding has a number of different levels. Perhaps the most important is an understanding of the commercial basics of the business – in particular how it makes money. But wrapped around that, but subtly different, is an understanding of the business environment in which the organisation operates. This encompasses (amongst other things) competitors, customers and the supply chain. Some private practice lawyers who have a deep understanding of a vertical sector may well be able to demonstrate this, which is why true industry specialists really can add value by placing their advice in context. However, as I’ve written before, many law firms’ vertical strategies only run skin deep.

Two other types of business understanding which were highlighted were firstly a solid grasp of the operational or technical detail about what the organisation does (this will be important for commercial contracts and litigation) – this is the classic “the devil is in the detail”. The old approach of “we’ll leave the contract schedules for the commercial folks” no longer works when you are in-house, because you soon realise that when there’s a problem, the chances are that it’s the service credit schedule or the payment mechanism that’s at the heart of it, and claiming that you only drafted the front end of the contract simply won’t cut it.

Secondly, for more senior lawyers particularly, an understanding of the organisation’s strategy will be important. Not only will this help the legal function start to think ahead and assess the legal implications of the business’ plans, but it will also allow alignment of legal objectives with business objectives, which is critical if the legal team is going to maximise its value to the business.

2. What language are you speaking? 

 The most fundamental rule that in-house lawyers need to learn early is the need to stop “speaking legal”. Using legal jargon and concepts is a sure-fire way to alienate business colleagues. Internal clients and other stakeholders are likely plenty bright thank you very much, but have not had the benefit (or pain!) of years of legal training, so rather than using legal shorthand because it’s quicker and easier for you, engage brain and translate into plain English. As with drafting, it’s harder and takes longer to begin with, but the end product is far more useful to a non-lawyer.

The sting in the tail is that in-house lawyers shouldn’t rely on their business colleagues to translate the “management bullshit” that permeates the corporate world (and let it be said, you can probably find a fair smattering of that in my blog posts, so I plead guilty!). A good working understanding of business terminology will make communication much faster and also facilitate communication with the consultants that will invariably appear on large projects. While easy to dismiss as “management speak” the widespread adoption of these phrases, particularly in large organisations, means in-house lawyers need at least a basic understanding to ensure key concepts are not “lost in translation”.

Aside from the actual language used, the presentation of the advice was also seen as being really important. As a general rule, avoiding really long notes of advice was seen as a good starting point, but there was also an acknowledgement that good in-house lawyers are able to tailor the presentation of their advice for their audience. This doesn’t mean compromising the advice in any way, rather that it is presented in a form that is appropriate for, and easy to understand by, the particular internal client.

One way in which the communication gap can be closed at a more general level is for the in-house legal team to train key internal groups on how to use a legal team effectively. This type of “soft” education may require an up-front time investment, but can pay dividends over the longer term and also help build relationships.

3. Cut to the chase!

A key point that emerged was that in-house lawyers need to have the ability to prioritise the issues. This helps their internal clients understand what is most important, but also if time is limited, will also make sure the lawyer focuses on the items that will have the biggest impact on the business.

The concept of “good enough means good enough” was discussed – the idea that in-house lawyers often do not have the time to do a “Rolls Royce” document review, and that there was a need for lawyers moving from private practice to become comfortable with the idea that it was better for them to spend 15 minutes looking at a document to highlight the key issues before a meeting, than either (a) for no-one to look at it at all; or (b) to wait for enough time to do a “proper job”, only to find that the business couldn’t wait for the advice and has gone ahead without any advice at all.

4. Get stuck in son!

Although not a skill, a can do, pro-active approach was seen as a valuable characteristic for an in-house lawyer. As one lawyer commented – “you’ve got get stuck in”. This might mean picking up more basic tasks that might be delegated in a law firm environment, or it might mean stepping out of the comfort zone to advise on an unfamiliar area of law, in both cases to allow the business to move faster.

For transactional lawyers, commercial expectations have risen and the in-house lawyer is now expected to have good project management skills and work collaboratively as part of a wider team (it might sound simple, but let’s not forget private practice lawyers often work in a very competitive environment, particularly when chasing partnership, and we all have stories of disfunctional cross-departmental teams). These are table stakes. The very good in-house lawyers can go a step further, and help really drive deals through, using a combination of sound transaction management, good commercial nous, and that “can-do” attitude.

5. Don’t bring me problems – they just make my head hurt

Good in-house lawyers, like the best private practice lawyers, are recognised by their businesses as problem solvers. By giving advice that is focussed on finding solutions and using their creativity to overcome roadblocks, lawyers can really help their internal clients. Making sure advice is practical and not too abstract helps achieve these goals, but it’s also a combination of many of the factors above that can lead to break-through solutions.

Take a good understanding of the business and the commercial context of the project, a pro-active attitude and the ability to prioritise the key issues, mix in the ability to communicate effectively and work collaboratively, and you’ve got in-house dynamite, capable of blowing away even the most stubborn legal problem!

Surely there must be more to it?

Well, yes, of course. There were plenty of other skills and capabilities mentioned, from understanding the organisation and its culture, through to stakeholder management, relationship building and influencing skills. But there was also recognition that if a lawyer didn’t get the five basics right, it may well be that their in-house careers wouldn’t last long enough to allow them to develop the additional skills that sees the very top in-house lawyers rightfully claim their seat at the top table of the world’s best organisations.





A shiny new law firm

30 06 2011

With deregulation of the market looming here in the UK, opinion varies wildly over what the likely impact will be.

  • Some speak of decimation of the high street, and the end of the traditional law firm as we know it.
  • Others are more conservative and see a simple acceleration of the move from a traditional profession to a collection of more business orientated organisations.
  • Some see different changes in different market segments, underpinned by core drivers such as the increasing role of technology, globalisation, vertical market focus and more specialisation driven by a need to differentiate.
  • Finally, some bury their heads in the sand, unwilling or unable to contemplate large scale change in a profession that once was conservative and safe.

Simon paused a second to consider a future without his office in the most prestigious street in the City. Then he went back to work because the thought was just too horrible

So, against that backdrop, the question I ask you today looks at the changing market from a different perspective. If you were a new market entrant, free from the constraints and history of existing law firms, what would you do differently to build a successful legal service provider?

Here are some thoughts to get you started….

1. Real Estate

For a start, I wouldn’t invest vast amounts of capital in plush, city-centre offices. Sure, there’s definitely a need for an accessible meeting place both for internal and client meetings, and the space should be highly functional and consistent with the brand. But no massive atrium, no marble or fountains, and definitely not hundreds of expensive people crammed into premium real estate with the sort of eye watering rent that causes agonised soul searching within two years of every rent review.

I’m not saying all law firms should be virtual, and I’m not saying that firms should be central, but there are plenty of big, impressive organisations that work just fine without all their people in a building in a premium post code. A firm’s cost base matters, and people and property make up a pretty hefty chunk of a law firm’s cost base – avoiding the big numbers here could make a huge difference to long term profitability.

2. Technology infrastructure

Often years of under-investment, and a patchwork of applications and networking have meant maintaining and upgrading law firm systems is a nightmare. The ability to add a new application, device or method of access can be hugely time consuming and expensive. Being free of that legacy a new law firm could start afresh with proven, enterprise class software platform, that had an open architecture to allow maximum interoperability and future proofing.

The march to the cloud seems unstoppable at the moment, despite the fact that within the profession questions remain around resilience and security. Whatever the choice, a new entrant could have a fully functioning platform and a clean set of data to reside within it, all without the pain of a huge data cleanse and migration project.

3. Resource profile

Freed from the current business model of gearing and billable hours, a new law firm could sit back and work out what resources it really needed to service the work it was planning to generate.

How many partner level people does the firm really need? Are they managing client relationships, project managing or providing complex/strategic advice? If they are not doing the high grade legal work, are their other professionals who could do the work better or to a similar standard but cheaper? What is the right blend of junior lawyers? Would supervision and quality control be a separate function? What about training? What other skills would you bring to the organisation? Project management? Process expertise? Social media and digital marketing experience? Lower cost legal resource?

There are so many options, and the right combination would of course depend on the firm and the type and volume of work, but I think it’s fair to say that not many firms would start with a large number of equity partners, add a bunch of assistant lawyers and trainees to generate the fees to pay them, and then add a support infrastructure around them.

4. Corporate structure

The benefits of the partnership are clear. Consensual decision making, meaning everyone (well, the partners anyway) has a voice and feels heard. Sharing the profits gives not just a built in performance incentive, but a shared sense of ownership and responsibility. All this builds a tremendous sense of trust and an atmosphere that fosters collaboration.

What?

Your law firm doesn’t work like that?

Really?

Particularly as firms have got bigger and the pace of business has increased, the partnership model has begun to creak a little. Granted, some firms have it cracked, but I’d wager a lot more struggle. Slow decision making, turf wars, those at the top of the lockstep enjoying rewards that they perhaps haven’t fully contributed to and difficulties removing underperformers are not uncommon.

For a new firm I’d think very hard about keeping ownership and management separate, and use a structure that encouraged fast decisions and business agility. Incentives would follow the corporate model, and be performance based (which of course offers a huge amount of options, and can be tailored depending on what behaviours management wish to drive).

5. Sales force

Some lawyers can sell. They are really, really good at it. A great many however cannot.

I’m a huge fan of sales professionals – they generate the revenue that drives the business. Yes I know that other people do the delivery (lawyers in law firms), but first things first, you have to win work to do it.

Now other than the best of the best, the chances are that a lawyer is not as good at selling as a salesperson – and why would they be? The salesperson wouldn’t likely do much of a job advising on the TUPE provisions of an outsourcing deal. So surely if you accept the need to sell legal services, you’d get the best people to do it. It’s likely as well that not only might a salesperson have a lower base salary (although if good can more than make up for it through commission), but it would also free up the lawyers to do what they are best at, and generate the fees from the work that the sales people have won.

A law firm with a professional, well trained and motivated sales force would be a serious force to be reckoned with.

So what?

I know, I know – you’ve already got a law firm thank you very much. And you can’t relocate, rip out the IT and employ an awesome sales force. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t pause a minute to think about these issues, not just in terms of your own firm, but in relation to changes your competitors may make, or crucially what impact a well capitalised competitor might have if they adopted some of these ideas…..





So you’re an equity partner – big deal!

22 06 2011

Last week I was given a business card by a lawyer I was talking to. On the card, underneath their name, was written “Equity Partner” in a fairly bold, not-to-be-missed font.

Tony showed the proof of his "Legal Jedi Master" card to the managing partner more in hope than expectation

It struck me, that were I ever to hit those heights in a law firm (I bailed out of private practice before putting those magic words in my email signature) I’d probably be pretty pleased with myself. And rightly so. It’s a position many people strive for and certainly for those in the upper tiers of the legal world, can be very lucrative and rewarding.

The title marks you out as an owner of the business and as a result conveys a certain status within the firm which undoubtedly provides very practical assistance in getting things done quickly through the firm’s support infrastructure.

But, the question that troubled me was the message that the title communicates to someone outside the firm.
I posed the question on Twitter, and got some fascinating comments back.

adds pomposity and confuses clients

I think it’s wrong. Many clients don’t know what it means, in the real world.”

It’s a badge of seniority but non-lawyer clients might not know what it means. Also = unlikely to do much of your actual work.”

” It would make me think, “Ah, so you’re the reason for my large bill”

The theme that stood out strongly for me was the internally-focused nature of the title.

Of course for fellow lawyers in private practice, and for in-house lawyers, the title and connotations will be understood. However, aside from the fact that there a huge number of purchasers and influencers who may not know what it really means, I wonder if there is an opportunity lost in not using a job title that is more aligned with the lawyer’s actual role.

There are a number of ways that could be approached. For a start, as I’ve discussed before, a market strategy that is structured around a client’s vertical industry sector is quite common. Would reference to specialism in a vertical sector as well as a practice area (or even instead of…) make sense? What about an alternative based on a description of the relationship with the client, so for example separating out relationship managers (I know the “s” word is maybe a step too far), technical specialists, project leads etc. For large scale project work this delineation of responsibility could also add credibility to the project management ethos espoused by many of the top firms.

Another driver that could force to revisit job titles is the changing career structures that have been emerging over the past five years or so. Many firms now have a senior designation for those lawyers who want to stay with the firm long term, but do not want the additional commitments (time, financial or management) that go with partnership. As the next generation of lawyers move through the ranks with their different cultural approach to work, life and career, will the old hierarchical, largely tenure-based titles still prove effective?

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for fresh thinking in this area (at least here in the UK) comes from the influx of new competitors into the market when the winds of deregulation blow through the profession over the coming months. Much has been written about the potential impact on law firms serving consumers, but make no mistake change is afoot in the world of commercial law too.

Aside from further consolidation, which I believe will be driven globally as well as in response to our own market conditions, the emergence of the LPO model and flexible resourcing models such as those from Axiom or BLP‘s lawyers on demand, will challenge incumbent firms to revisit their business models. This will invariably have implications for resources and career paths, and presents the perfect opportunity to revisit job titles.

While it may seem trivial, job titles do usually matter both to the holder, and in some contexts, to clients and prospects. A new entry to the law firm market will have the chance to think about this afresh, not restricted by history or tradition.
My sense is that these organisations will not default to titles like “Assistant”, “Associate” or “Equity Partner” and in using something a bit bolder and more relevant, will be able to send a signal to the market, both to potential clients and potential employees!








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