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!

 





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.

 





The epic failure of the world’s best presenter

30 05 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve been out and about in the legal community and seen a number of presentations from eminent QCs.

The verdict was in. EPIC FAIL!

Now for those of you outside the UK, Queen’s Counsel (QCs) are the creme de la creme of that part of our legal profession that performs in court.

As a result, they need to be super persuasive, brilliant communicators, and able to influence the toughest of judges and juries.

Now I have to admit, other than a trip to see the House of Lords (the judicial arm, not the political chamber) when I was a law student, I’ve never actually seen any of them live in action, as litigation was never my area of practice as a lawyer. That said, I have no reason at all to suspect their professional abilities are anything other than tremendous – I suspect the market for their services would have found them out well before they reached the top if they didn’t cut the mustard.

However, my recent exposure to their presenting abilities was not in the familiar setting of a courtroom, but the cold, harsh reality of the seminar circuit.

These, were very much “away” matches and not comfortable home fixtures.

The most astonishing presentation was from an eminent QC who had thoughtfully prepared for his audience a 90+ page summary of the recent developments in the law in his area of practice over the last twelve months.

“Great”, I thought to myself as I settled down before the seminar began, “this means I won’t need to take notes during the lecture, and I’ll be able to really concentrate on what he’ll say”.

As our presenter took the stage to applause, and the audience settled down in anticipation, my expectations were high. After a few brief, humorous anecdotes, it was time to get down to business.

Our presenter then produce his own set of notes, identical to the audience’s, but heavily highlighted and with a massive amount of post-it notes poking out all over the place. They looked like a giant, fluorescent hedgehog, and my spidey-sense began to tingle. Something was wrong.

“If you’ll all please turn to page 4 of your notes, we’ll begin with paragraph 16…..”.

The presenter then began to read his notes.

Yes. Really.

We then had, I kid you not, 75 minutes of this heavyweight QC reading his notes out to an audience of at least 200 delegates. It was truly painful. Did he not think we could read them ourselves? What value did he think he was bringing to the written material? Did he think about the audience at all? It was truly astonishing.

The other QC presentations (different events) were a marginal improvement, but continued on a central theme. All the others involved powerpoint (which as a tool can be very useful, but is often grossly misused IMHO) , and typically the presentations were built using a standard Microsoft template with the chambers logo hastily cut and pasted on the last slide. They all used bullet points and seemed to be a font size of about 16, which meant the writing was (just) legible for those at the back of the auditorium, but small enough so the QC could pack enough text on to simply read out for 30-45 minutes.

All of the presentations were, by today’s standards, epic failures of the highest order.

You’ll have gathered that nil points were awarded for presentation style. But on top of that, the content itself was so dry and dusty, cobwebs began to form on my ears as I listened. These people are often at the absolute cutting edge of legal developments in the areas they were speaking about, and so surely (surely!) must have had some practical examples they could have shared, some war stories to make the law seem a little more “real”? A little human warmth to bring things alive?

The other unifying theme through all of the presentations, and for me, the final nail in the coffin was the timing. Each of the presentations finished in a huge rush, with material at the end of the talk being either run through at a million miles an hour, or skipped entirely.

Now I appreciate there are undoubtedly times when time can be difficult to manage in a presentation – when you are presenting towards the end of a conference, other sessions have overrun, and as a result your time is compressed. Fine. Or perhaps if you are taking questions as you present, and either some really interesting debate arises, or you have a particularly difficult audience member.

But in the examples I’m describing, these factors weren’t present, it was just bad time management from the presenters.

What made this even more unforgivable, was that I saw two of the QCs take questions at the end of their presentations, and both were brilliant. Utterly fantastic.

They came alive – their personalities shone through, they were engaging and their mastery of their subject matter became crystal clear. Difficult questions were not brushed aside, but met head on with relish and grace. Stories and really useful hints and tips came tumbling from their lips.

It was like night and day.

In short, they became (as I expected from a QC), truly world-class presenters.

But, in my mind, this only made their performance during the main presentation even more surprising.

Let’s be clear, they are far from the only people who have given poor presentations. I know I’ve presented and not lived up to my own standards, and I also know there are plenty of people who present and do so either being absolutely terrified, or do so without being given appropriate training or experience.

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of an approach called “Presentation Zen” by Gary Reynolds, but just following the presentation basics would have worked for the QCs in question.

Think of your audience. Build a story. Structure your message. Work out the timings. Practice.

You don’t need to be a QC to shine.





Why your lawyer’s not a social media ninja

23 05 2011

Let me start with a confession.

It took me a while to “get” Twitter. The first time I tried it (which I think was 2008), I just used it to consume information. It wasn’t great for a number of reasons – firstly, I didn’t put a lot of time in to work out who to follow (and in particular I didn’t discriminate between those companies or people who had anything interesting to say online and those  I simply had an interest in) and secondly, at that time it wasn’t as widely adopted as it is now, so there were simply fewer good users.

Sam in IT security did not mess around when enforcing the firm's policy

The next time I tried, I switched to “broadcast mode” and used it as a one-way tool to let the world know about my blog. Of course, because I had nothing else of any interest to say (or to be more accurate, if I did, I didn’t say it on Twitter), I got very little traffic as a result and soon gave up.

The third time was when I got it. A bit of experimenting, understanding the world of hashtags, retweeting and trending, and soon I found a community of likeminded folks (two of which have been featured on this blog in the past).

This of course led to the critical step – engagement, which is where the value comes from.

Now I have an established community, the news I get is both relevant and extremely timely. In terms of sharing my content, whether it’s this blog or other work-related content, the community are generally much more receptive and interested than simply broadcasting to the world at large. And of course the more I engage, the more that community grows and the more I gain.

What I don’t pretend to be, is some sort of social media guru, but I absolutely see the benefit from it.

Twitter, Linkedin and my Blog have all provided very tangible positive benefits to my professional life (Facebook I keep separate for personal use), and given the user numbers for social media, the valuations of the main players, and the newsworthy status of the platforms (super-injunction anyone?), at first look it seems strange that more law firms are not using social media effectively.

Scratch the surface, and the reasons are obvious. At least to me.

Perhaps the reason that’s most often cited is the perceived risk involved.

Trained to be wary of defamation, and qualifying into organisations which are (rightly) protective of their reputations, the more risk-averse partners in law firms can often see huge potential danger in allowing individual lawyers to express themselves in an informal and opinionated way.

This can lead to social media being simply struck off the agenda (“it’s just a fad anyway”), or so sanitised any communication simply resembles a bland summary of the firm’s press releases. zzzzzzzzzzzz.

If you want to test this, firstly check out the more forward thinking media and look at the amount of their engagement. Are they tweeting, blogging and active on discussion groups? Is their engagement commensurate with their brand and positioning?

Or in fact do the lawyers have to engage without mentioning the firm? Or does all the comment come with the health warning “views are the personal opinion of the author” (meaning if they generate goodwill and thought leadership, the firm will promote the content and benefit, but if they step out of line, they’re on their own and we did warn the reader it was nothing to do with the firm!).

Some of the other reasons are perhaps a little less obvious, but I have some theories for you to consider.

The first is the very restrictive IT security policies than many firms enforce. While I’ve written before about the deficiencies in many firm’s information security, the need to be seen to have all systems locked-down means as well as restrictions on employee internet use (which are becoming less Draconian over time) there are pretty stringent controls on which applications can be used on mobile devices. In the age of the app, this seems to come at the expense of productivity – I certainly do much of my Twitter use remotely while walking around the building or waiting for trains. Without the ability to exploit these micro-chunks of time, the busy lawyer will find it difficult to contribute meaningfully to the marketplace.

The biggest unwritten hurdle is of course time. When the primary method of measuring lawyer performance is the chargeable hour, anything outside that category, especially something where the return on investment is less tangible, is heresy. While those who know how to use social media and can demonstrate the profile and connections they build for the firm may get some leeway to invest some time, those who are new to the game are often denied the time and encouragement to try, and it remains a mystery and missed opportunity.

The related point is the need for timeliness, and again, when lawyers are chained to Microsoft Office and their practice management system, with one eye on the clock, grabbing five minutes to check what’s going on in their network, and respond in a timely fashion to questions and comments can be doubly challenging, putting the pressure on even the most adept online legal ninja.

Now just for the record, I’m not for one minute saying that interacting with social media should take precedence over client work and critical deadlines. Holding up closing a multi-million dollar aquisition because you are engaged in a juicy debate on liability clauses on twitter is not a bright idea.

But, if law firms are going to make the most of the social media revolution, then they need to find ways to allow their best people to experiment and engage which in turn will allow their stars to shine.

I’ve no doubt as the demographics of firms continue to change and more lawyers who have grown up with social media join and have a meaningful presence, the culture will of course change. The question is, which firms can get ahead of the curve and reap the benefits before their competitors?





The Balanced Law Firm

15 05 2011

Living in the corporate world, it’s easy to take scorecards, dashboards and metrics for granted. For those that recoil at management speak, they can become a one way ticket to snoozeville. For those who like to get down and dirty with data, browsing a realtime display of information can be the highlight of their week.

The Finance Director was very clear on how to measure partner performance

Most lawyers however, fall firmly into the “I prefer words to numbers” category, and so before you switch off, let me give you a 100%  money back guarantee that there will be no data analysis, spreadsheets, pie charts or pivot tables in this post.

It’s actually about how you measure and reward performance. Important in any business, surely?

I want to start with a term many of you may have heard, but perhaps not fully explored – the mythical “balanced scorecard”. Created by Kaplan and Norton, it started with the belief that traditional measurement of company performance was too one-dimensional, concentrating (as it did at the time in the mid-90s) on backward-looking financial data. The authors then developed a model that added three more areas of business performance to assess to give a much more holistic view of how the company was doing.

Now, before I go any further, take a second to pause and think about how your firm or team are measured.

What are the phrases that come to mind?

Chargeable hours? W.I.P.? Debtor days?

Don’t get me wrong, these metrics are all important. Understanding your costs and use of time are very important, and you’ll certainly never hear me criticise anyone for managing cashflow carefully……

But

There is more to a successful law firm than simply the financials. Surely the client warrants a mention? And perhaps the employees?

The Balanced Scorecard has four main categories of performance which are measured, and these are then fed in (possibly on a weighted basis) to the overall scorecard. The four dimensions are as follows:

  1. Financial performance – what is important for the partners (as the effective “shareholders” of the business)?
  2. Client performance – what is important for the firm’s clients?
  3. Internal process performance – how do our processes perform in delivering results for clients and partners?
  4. Learning and growth performance – how innovative are we and are we managing, developing and retaining human capital?

For the financial perspective, there is no shortage of common measures among law firms, but how many firms vary their metrics depending on the overall firm strategy, or departmental objectives? For example, in recent years controlling operating costs might have been a key firm-wide objective. However, if a particular team is charged with penetrating a new market, or demonstrating a tangible return on some investment, metrics like sales growth or pipeline growth may in fact be more valuable.

When looking at client metrics, client satisfaction is a measure which is only just starting to take hold in the law firm world, but to my mind is absolutely critical. Not only does it give some very clear feedback at face value, but the collection process can throw up some incredibly valuable insight that can be used to strengthen relationships and also present sales opportunity.

Another metric in this category that is common in the corporate world is NPS, or net promoter score, which essentially asks clients how likely they are to recommend the law firm to a friend. While there is a bunch of research behind this theory, for lawyers that have grown up being told of the importance of “word of mouth” marketing, investigating the use of NPS should seem like a logical step.

When assessing business processes, as readers of this blog will know, I believe there are plenty of opportunities for firms to sharpen up their operational efficiency through better processes.  There are lots of different ways to assess processes and measure improvements too – take a particular process (say drafting a consultancy services agreement), aspects that can be measured (and improved) could include the time the process takes (which doesn’t have to translate to price!), the number of defects (which might not be the same as complaints – defects might get picked up by an internal review), the number of steps in the process or perhaps the level of qualification/skill required to conduct various parts of the process.

Finally, learning and growth. Again, regular readers will know I’ve written quite a bit about the need for innovation in law firms, and it’s never been more important than in the current, highly competitive environment. New products and services, changes in operating models, adoption of new technology are all good examples of performance that can be measured by metrics that will support innovation.

Knowledge management is another critical area to investigate and could theoretically sit in either the business process category or here within learning and growth. The latter seems to me to be a better fit, but wherever it sits, it should be measured and form part of the performance management infrastructure at both a firm and an individual level given that law firms are knowledge businesses.

The other dimension to learning and growth is of course the development of human capital. Employee satisfaction and retention metrics might be a good place to start, but what about training (received and delivered) and subsequent productivity improvements? How about aligning training with strategy – for example are there new competencies the firm (or a team) needs to develop? If so, can attainment be measured and rewarded?

Ultimately, for these measures to be meaningful, they need to flow down to the individual level. In the corporate world it’s common to have a corporate scorecard that flows down to a business unit, which in turn flows down to a department, a team then an individual. The idea being that each of these levels “rolls up” to contribute to the scorecard of their parent unit.

In my experience of law firms this process happens, but only in terms of the financial data. Chargeable hours and utilisation rates roll up, but training targets and client metrics stay with the teams (if they exist at all).

This is a time when many firms are examining their strategy, their organisation and their operating model. Taking a broader perspective to performance management can provide the data to support making changes, but critically can support the introduction of changes by driving the behaviour that’s needed for successful implementation. It’s a cliche, but “if it’s not measured, it doesn’t matter”.





What lawyers can learn from the U.S. Navy SEALs

9 05 2011

The politics, morality and socio-economic consequences of Osama Bin Laden’s death will undoubtedly be discussed for years to come, and this blog is certainly not the place for that debate. I would however like to stake my claim to being the first commentator to raise the issue of what lawyers can learn from the incident, and in all seriousness, there are some great lessons in there.

The senior partner wasn't really convinced that the seal was up to the job of providing security for the new Docklands office

As regular readers of this blog will have spotted from various book references I’ve made before (“On War”, “The 33 Strategies of War” and of course, the management consultant’s favourite “The Art of War”, I’m a bit of a fan of military history, and I have certainly read my share of special forces memoirs. I’m constantly impressed by the ability of elite forces to defy the odds and accomplish mission objectives which often seem impossible if not downright suicidal.

Now, admittedly comparing the theatre of war to the legal market place may be a stretch, but I do think that there are strategies and tactics that lawyers and law firms can learn that can help them compete and win in what is an increasingly unforgiving environment.

In particular special operations success can often be defined in terms of “relative superiority” – that is the ability of a smaller attacking force to gain a decisive advantage over a larger or well defended enemy. Let’s be honest – not all law firms have the resources (financial or otherwise) of the Magic Circle or Wall Street behemoths, so perhaps there are lessons that smaller firms or teams can use to win in their own markets.

To analyse the mission, I went to a book which is significantly less popular than those I listed above, but is likely to become more so since recent events – “Spec Ops; Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice”, written by William H McRaven, the architect of SEAL team six‘s mission in Abottabad.

The basic framework he uses to analyse the case studies has three basic elements: planning, preparation and execution. To cover all three here would take way too long, so let’s take a look at planning to see how a law firm might measure up to the special forces.

Arguably, this phase of the Bin Laden mission had been underway since 2001 (when in December he escaped from the caves of Tora Bora), but for the purposes of this post we’ll assume planning started in August last year when the compound he was found in was put under 24/7 surveillance. The intelligence gathering was both comprehensive and intensive, which are words which are often not front of mind when it comes to law firm planning.

Too often in my experience, strategic and tactical initiatives are based on the lawyer’s existing perception of a situation, be that a general awareness of what’s going on in a particular market, some second or third-hand insight into what a competitor is doing, or perhaps an interpretation of client needs without any real probing or testing. Hard facts and recent data is often in short supply.

If I contrast that with my experiences in the corporate world, where competitive intelligence is harvested from multiple sources, consolidated and analysed. Client insight is a specialist function, often carried out by a “voice of the customer” type function, whose job it is to really get underneath the skin of clients and prospects and understand their needs.

Now of course, particularly for smaller firms and teams, it might not be realistic to expect to call on these resource, but it is feasible to replicate their functions. There is a huge amount of insight available out there, both qualitative and quantitive, which is accessible and free. Client surveys (perhaps part of a key client quarterly review programme), market surveys (perhaps using a tool like survey monkey), reading the annual reports of clients, setting Google alerts for the names of your competitors and targets. Pulling together hard, factual information, synthesising and analysing it, can make a tremendous difference in the robustness of your plans.

Another thing that the special operations community do well at the planning stage is building in some independent challenge. In his book The Operators, Mike Ryan explains how the first stage of planning is typically for an IAP (Immediate Action Plan) to be drawn up – this is a basic outline that can be executed quickly if the need arises. It also then forms the basis of the more detailed OPLAN (Operational Plan), where the team assess multiple options before narrowing down and then ultimately deciding on the way forward. At this stage the plan is then passed to  an independent board for review – the reviewers will be people from a similar backgound to the planners, but removed from the mission itself so they can give a sensible, but independent critique.

This seems to me to be a very sensible sanity check, but again how few firms and teams reach out to others elsewhere in the firm for an independent review? In all fairness, I suspect that one of the very pragmatic restrictions on law firm’s ability to plan effectively is the fact that planning itself is not a chargeable activity, and thus gets pushed down the list of priorities. If planning itself is not given much weight, it’s easy to imagine that critiquing another team’s plan isn’t going to get much head space.

In weighing up the potential effectiveness of plans, Mcraven highlights two factors that I think are worth pulling out here. Firstly, simplicity of objectives. While the Bin Laden mission was far from simple, its primary objective was very clear. The operatives were not having to take decisions in the heat of combat to prioritise objectives or work out what was required for the mission to be a success. Contrast that with some law firm strategic or marketing plans that talk obliquely about their aims and goals, but lack the clarity for the lawyers and support staff tasked with executing them to be absolutely clear about what is required.

Secondly, Mcraven talks about the need for surprise and in particular the role of creativity in planning missions to generate this. I’ve written before about the need for creativity in law firms, but I think it’s instructive that even in such a rigid and formal planning environment as military special operations, the critical role of creativity is acknowledged. For those lawyers who believe that creativity has no place in the cold, hard world of legal practice, my suggestion would be to think again about this assumption.

There are of course a host of other reasons why special forces soldiers can achieve what they do – aside from the preparation and execution phases of the missions that I mentioned earlier, there’s no doubt that selection and training play a massive part in their success. Those are topics for another day, but if you implement some of the special forces discipline in your planning, I have no doubt that relative superiority in your market place can be achieved.

Now lock and load. (sorry, couldn’t resist that)





The crowd in the cloud

2 05 2011

These days, your knowledge is not enough to stand out from the crowd. But before I explain why that’s the case, and what you can do about it, let me quickly explain how this post came to be…

Charlotte, the senior partner in the Family law team spent hours gazing at the clouds trying to guess the weather for the department picnic

One of the benefits of Twitter is connecting with a whole heap of like-minded people, and one of those that I follow most closely is Julian Summerhayes who like me, is a former lawyer who continues to serve the legal profession in a different capacity.

Julian is also a prolific blogger, who posts great content on a daily basis, and (as with my previous mash-up post on law firm sales) I’m delighted to be able to add my thoughts to his recent post “what you know makes all the difference“.

The text in italics is Julian’s.

You know your area of law really, really well – that badge ‘Expert’ suits you nicely. The knowledge, wisdom and expertise that you have gathered would fill a small house (there may even be a best seller lurking somewhere beneath all that baggage).

Your clients, once they find you, are prepared to pay handsomely for your advice, and you have contributed, in your time, to some stellar billing at your firm. You would like to feel that you are one of the best in your field.

But the market doesn’t feel or look right. When you last did a Google search for your area of law, there were, surprisingly, quite a few more lawyers than you anticipated, espousing a degree of knowledge or calling in your specialist area.

Here’s where my take on the problem comes in. Communicating technical quality is pretty tough. In a crowded marketplace, an individual or firm trying to differentiate on quality can have a tough time being heard. For a start, as I’ve written before, the definition of “quality” is not always easy to pin down when we are talking about legal services.  However, putting that issue aside for a second, one of the big problems is that legal services really need to be experienced to be judged, and so simply telling prospective purchasers about quality is often not effective.

If a buyer strippers away all the generic language from the websites and brochures, how can they really assess quality without buying the service? Directories have their place, but having been interviewed by them (both while in private practice and in-house), I don’t think they are sufficiently placed to accurately assess the quality of legal services in any real detail.

What I would be more inclined to rely on, would be a personal recommendation from another in-house lawyer I trusted – perhaps the reason why word of mouth recommendations have long been the gold standard for law firm business development.

The Internet has been both a blessing and curse when it comes to communicating with prospective clients both. It  offers a multitude of ways to communicate cheaply with buyers all over the planet. Messages can be tailored, and a combination of traditional websites, social media and email communication allows the type of dialogue with prospects that even ten years ago would have been unthinkable. On the flip side, if all your competitors are doing the same, it makes standing out from the crowd in the cloud even more difficult.

And to you, what once felt special, now feels like every other area of law – a commodity. Of course, this is no different to the life-cycle of any product. You only have to look at the electronics industry to see a clear correlation. If you are feeling that you area of law is just another run of the mill service then the situation is likely to get a lot worse.

Commoditisation of legal services is another topic I’ve written about before. While working with the legal process outsourcer last year, the extent of this trend was very apparent. While we’ve seen certain areas of law like residential conveyancing move in that direction for years, what’s fascinating is that there are now plenty of  areas of commercial law which are starting to commoditise around the edges – due diligence (corporate work), discovery (litigation) etc.

As legal services become more commoditised, particularly where there is a blend of commodity and bespoke service (for example, consider a piece of commercial litigation where evidence is organised by some cool software from a vendor like Autonomy, the discovery exercise is largely undertaken by an offshore LPO, and the litigation strategy and trial work is run by a top-end commercial law firm), communicating the difference between service providers will become even more challenging.

For the commodity part, the difference may come from speed (faster!), price (cheaper!) or availability (24×7 online access to documents), yet for the bespoke part the competitive advantage may still come from the skill of the individual lawyer (better!). For the commoditised part of the service, there are likely to be hard metrics that can be used to describe the benefits of the service in clear terms, yet for the unique, more complex elements, we return to  the challenge of how to communicate this skill in such a crowded marketplace.

In a moment when more services are driven on line, the client will begin to disassociate the brand solicitor with the delivery of legal services. They will not assume that you know anything more than the legal portal through which they engage. Now is the time to consider how, and in what form, you should leverage those short-cuts and silver bullets that have saved your clients time and money.

Here I think Julian’s post highlights one of the differences between the business and consumer legal markets. In the world of commercial legal services (with which I am most familiar), there are some pretty well established brands which will be recognised and understood by the buying community the world over – Baker & McKenzie and Clifford Chance spring to mind as examples. The consumer market is very different, and much more fragmented. Other than perhaps Eversheds and Irwin Mitchell, I struggle to think of many domestic legal firms that have created a strong brand nationally that helps consumers identify them as a provider of legal services and also communicate the quality of their offering.

Your gut instinct is to keep things locked down: “These are my most prized pearls of [valuable] wisdom” but you are missing a huge trick. In Web 2.0 world, with the plethora of free legal information, you can expect that most clients will be informed to a greater extent than ever before, and what was once locked away amongst a secret cabal, is now out in the open.

As Carl Shapiro wrote in Information Rules (a book that applies economic theory to the information and technology industries – a good read) information (in price terms) tends to free. The combination of technology, globalisation and deregulation is making basic legal information far more widely available than ever before in history. Of course much of the profession’s skill is in how that information is applied and used effectively, but over time much of that knowledge will again become more widely available.

So, as Fat Boy Slim might say, “right here, right now”, what can you do about it?

If you truly want to steal a march on your competitors, and that includes your on-line bedfellows, then you need to consider how you can package your intelligence in such a way that clients feel obliged to stay with you or new clients instruct you. This means going beyond the ubiquitous free download that has become common place, the tired question and answer and understand that information would truly float your clients’ boat. It may be a White Paper, a survey or even some intelligence that repackages a case or two, but you need to consider the idea of giving away for free something that has true value.

My take on this would be to really put yourself in your prospect’s shoes? What is it you can do to help them? Is there a cost effective way you can provide them some benefit and also get them to experience your service? It’s not new, but I’ve certainly seen “free” workshops do this very well – the workshop itself provides some really useful guidance and helps identify and raise awareness of a problem. The remedial work requires support from external lawyers – surely those that ran the workshop are best placed to provide that advice? It’s not a guaranteed sale, but it’s a business model that management consultants have successfully used for years and can be adapted for many different scenarios.

Don’t lose sight of your knowledge and skill – that’s the price of entry to the game these days, but do think hard about how you communicate it in a crowded marketplace, and remember that the best way of communicating it is for the client to experience it for themselves!








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 175 other followers