Being faced with two really interesting projects recently, I was soul searching as to which was the right opportunity for me. One of the key factors in my decision was how much the project would challenge and stretch me. Now those of you that know me would perhaps not be suprised by that (never one for an easy life!), but I also know there are plenty of people who don’t like being stretched and who, in my opinion, stay in their comfort zone way too long. Often for years!
Stretch for growth
I’m a great believer that personal growth occurs in these areas where people are stretched (a great book on the subject is Flow, the psychology of peak experience, by the utterly unpronounceable Csíkszentmihályi). What allows me to really create value today, is the things I’ve learnt and the experiences I’ve had where I’ve been engaged on new projects, worked with new people and experienced different environments. It’s almost like increasing my own personal diversity of skills and competencies.
So what does this mean for lawyers? Well, I think one of the interesting questions is how many opportunities more senior lawyers get to challenge themselves on a regular basis. One of the great things about the law as a career path is that it can offer a great variety of intellectually challenging problems that keep the job fresh and interesting. Particularly in private practice, there are new clients, new laws, new jusrisdictions and of course new circumstances, so there is often plenty to think about. This is without doubt a healthy environment for an active brain and keeps the technical skills evolving.
But should we look more widely at the idea of challenge and growth? Is this technical growth enough? How much is it allowing the lawyer to fulfil his potential? After 10 years specialised in a particular technical field or 5 years in house working on a particular company’s deals, then looking at the bigger picture, is it REALLY challenging? One of my mentors commented recently that he thought any good job or project should make you feel a tiny bit scared. Similarly a leadership development specialist I know suggests closing your eyes, visualising the next project, and experiencing both how excited it makes you feel, and also how comfortable or uncomfortable it makes you feel.
Ultimately there are no right or wrong answers, but it is easy to forget about personal growth and get sucked up in the day to day “doing”, especially if the doing is varied and stimulating. Perhaps over Christmas the question to ask is whether “varied and stimulating” is enough to allow you to grow?
From my days as a project lawyer, I remember hearing “it’s just a question of scope. Or time. Or money”; the three key project variables. Of those, it’s time and money that are occupying my thoughts this week. In particular, the need to strengthen the link in lawyer’s minds between what they do (day to day) and making money for the firm.
Coming out of a listed company, that reports revenue and profit figures quarterly, the laser focus on those numbers was fresh in my mind (along with cash flow management in the current environment). This undoubtedly had some downside (in particular I think quarterly reporting encourages overly short-term thinking) but one strong upside was that people’s minds were focussed on helping the company make money. It might not be quite the same as creating shareholder value, but it was a good start.
Contrast this with a standard law firm. Lawyers may well be under serious pressure to meet chargeable hours targets, and team leaders exhorted to drive up utilisation rates, but to me that is one step removed from making the link between work and revenue. I think there are a lot of lawyers who don’t have a strong connection between what they actually do (be it chargeable work, bringing in new clients, training junior lawyers) and the money their firm makes.
Got my mind on my money and my money on my mind?
Given this is an observation, rather than a criticism, I’ve been mulling over the causes. Of course, at the heart of this is arguably the chargeable hours model of pricing work, which encourages a focus on hours worked, not on value delivered to the client (and thus the price the client will pay for it). However, I think there are also cultural factors at work in the English profession as a whole which have their roots deep in history and can perhaps explain why lawyers don’t like talking about money. Except of course when it comes to talk of salary or drawings, when many lawyers can prove to be highly articulate, very up front about expectations, and the link between effort and reward is strongly made in their minds!
Speaking with the general counsel of a large multi-national recently, I was struck by the number of opportunities that her external advisors had to impress her. Many law firms often complain that it is hard to develop close, long term relationships with clients because the clients only contact them when they have a problem; the “advisor of last resort”.
Call for the advisor of last resort?
I think there are two key points to consider here. The first is that this highlights the fact that lawyers are largely used to solve client problems. Now this might sound like a no-brainer, but there are millions of companies worldwide trying to sell goods and services for which the client need is not so clearly defined. If a client has a definite problem, then the law firm has a distinct opportunity to help them. Note that “help” is the critical word. Buying and using the legal service shouldn’t be difficult for the client, and if done right can lead to a real sense of gratitude from the client. The bigger the problem and the better the service, the truer this is.
The second point is that many of these problems can be nipped in the bud early, or indeed prevented altogether, if the client has the right advice upfront. Rather than waiting for the client to arrive with a problem, law firms can sieze the advantage and proactively go and talk to clients and prospects about this, rather than sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. Note however there is a big difference between initiating a dialogue with a client about a problem they are facing or may be about to face, and going to talk to a client to tell them about a service the law firm can sell them. It may sound like semantics, but in reality it is about ethos and intention, and the law firms that get this right, have the opportunity to build trusted and enduring relationships with clients that many other suppliers and advisors would envy.