Monthly Archives: July 2010

Making better decisions

Good management information is at the heart of the outsourcing industry. Having worked directly in this field, both as a lawyer and a commercial animal, for six years, I have seen plenty of spurious arguments and assumptions but to the sword by solid data. Where margins are slim, and operational efficiency is a must, having good quality management information is absolutely critical. Dashboards, and clear, real-time communication of data is a way of life, and decisions are made, if not purely on the data, at least supported by data.

The Partners were impressed by the dashboard, if not the information it was showing

Law firms are very different; many can produce plenty of data heavy spreadsheets showing chargeable hours, WIP levels and overdue debtors, but getting more meaningful information to both employees and clients can be more challenging. Profitability by matter (in real time) is not often seen by lawyers, nor is a team sales pipeline (showing forecast revenue, opportunities converted etc) and a profit and loss for specific services (for example showing cost of sale) is another one that would be very useful for law firms looking to evaluate their portfolio of services, but one that I’ve not seen much evidence of. From a client perspective, how about a report of who in a corporate client is calling the law firm, and what are the key issues triggering the calls? How about recurrence of questions: are some people asking the law firm the same question over and over? How could this information be used to highlight knowledge gaps or training needs? How about an analysis of employee tribunal claims over the last 12 months for a client, with some root cause analysis?

In this information rich world, there is so much more that can be done within the legal profession, yet unlike corporate life where the rise of analytics seems consistent across sectors, it seems to have passed many law firms by. Perhaps one reason is that many law firms still lack a Chief Information Officer. With management information sitting in the silos of finance or IT, perhaps without the skills to unlock it, the potential users of this rich seam of information may lack the awareness of what’s possible. A good CIO could help show them the “art of the possible” and also evangelise the benefits of good management information.

As law firms become ever more complex and distributed, arguably the need for good MI increases. For the firms that get it right, my belief is that it can create real competitive advantage; both directly in terms of delivering value directly to clients, and indirectly in terms of making lawyers more effective (in particular making sure they spend their time working on the right things).

So with that, go forth and create dashboards…..

Purple law firms

Not green law firms (sustainability is for another post), but purple law firms. The concept at the heart of Seth Godin’s excellent book “Purple Cow” is about being remarkable. I think that’s a great word, and today’s post is designed to make you think about how your firm, team or law department can be remarkable.

Purple Law Co and one of its remarkable lawyers

To be honest, it’s not a word that is usually associated with lawyers, which is not to detract from the profession. Many lawyers perform quiet miracles on a semi-regular basis; getting deals across the line against all odds, working crazy hours pre-trial to ensure their client wins, and working pro bono to help keep a charity afloat when times are tough. However, as service standards and client expectations rise, these heroics are not enough to be seen as remarkable. Remarkable requires something more, something different.

Perhaps “different” is where the problem lies. How many firms, how many lawyers, want to be different? Being different can be risky. Being different can mean failing. Publicly. But being different can also generate real competitive advantage, and it this intensely competitive world, that’s got to be worth shooting for, right?

Over here in the UK, Eversheds were recently in the legal press for creating an internal competition to reward the best business development idea (see the article here: and like them or love them, this is a firm that has been prepared to go out on a limb and do things differently over the years. Whether or not the competition will be successful, we’ll have to wait and see, but while the £20,000 prize looks appealing, in the context of the profits that could be generated by a breakthrough idea, it’s small beer.

So why aren’t all firms driving innovation? Indeed, arguably in a true culture of innovation, ideas would be shared freely and there would be an infrastructure to commercialise them quickly and effectively without the need for annual competitions, but in my experience this is far from reality in most law firms. The truth is, for management it’s often easier to cut costs to boost profit than invest time to generate future profits, and the tyranny of the billable hour often shackles junior lawyers.

One of the more unique challenges that law firm face in this context is that they are full of experts (they sell expertise, right?), and as Michalko notes in his creativity reference manual “Thinkertoys”, experts have boundaries around the limits of their expertise. As a result they tend to look for solutions within these boundaries, whereas breakthrough inventions often come from outside these limits.

Michalko goes on to suggest numerous ways of stretching thinking to overcome these limits, but one of my favourites (which is easy to try: throw it in your next department meeting) is a subset of his “Scamper” exercise, called “Magnify”. Here, think about a service your team offers its clients (internal or external). What new features or functions could be added? How could it be made faster or more frequent? Could it be made enormous? (I love that one – what a great question) What else could be changed to add or grow the value it offers? Simple questions, but the answers can be surprising.

Innovation and being remarkable isn’t just about having remarkable products and services. It can also be about the way those products and services are delivered. Everyone in an organisation can, and should, contribute to making it remarkable. How can you help unlock that creativity?

Time to call for Superlawyer?

Having a cup of tea recently with one of my former colleagues, I was struck by the genuine excitement he still feels for the rich challenge offered by his work, even after 20 years in the saddle. Talking about what the future holds, it was clear that the profession offers a long-term and stimulating path for him. I also suspect it is this fascination and enthusiasm that is at the heart of him being so good at that aspect of his job. He was undoubtedly one of the best legal technicians I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with; a kind of super legal ninja if you will.

Ninja Lawyer prepares for another victory for his client

My thoughts then turned to other legal super heroes I’ve known. Some of them I’ve worked with, some of them have advised me, others have been competitors, but all have had legal “super powers” that in my mind mark them out as special. How many of these types do you know? In your firm? In your in-house team?

The first legal hero that springs to mind is “Client-Advocate”. Always focussed on the client, every timeline, piece of work or other deliverable is scrutinised with the client in mind. Will they be delighted with it? Will it help them on a personal level? I remember working with a lawyer like this during my training contract, and when reviewing a fairly basic letter I had drafted for example, they were always looking for areas it could be improved and making me think about how the client would feel when they read it: “if you had paid £200 for this letter, and the name of your company was not spelt correctly, how would that make you feel?”. These are the lawyers I would want managing my account and learning about my business. These are the people that clients find it easy to follow and hard to leave, and often have strong personal relationships with.

The second is “The executioner”. Not because of a ruthless attitude to litigation, but rather a single minded focus on, and commitment to, the discipline of execution. Getting things done. These legal giants can be found in many different arenas, from large scale corporate deals to complex litigation. These are the guys and gals that drag the ball over the line. They are the ones who when confronted with roadblocks outside their immediate control (be it a less than helpful partner in another team, an errant sales person on a deal or a particularly difficult or incompetent lawyer on the other side) will not sigh and point to the cause of the delay, but will just find a way to get things done. Often found motivating their teams when the heat is on and the hours are long, these are lawyers that clients turn to when they need a high value matter sorting out and just want to know it will get done, and get done right.

The next is “Planet Brain”. Many lawyers like to think of themselves in this category, but in my experience the real stars in this category stand out from the masses (many of whom are of course very bright) by a mile (and just for the record I was definitely not in this class!). There are different strains of this hero. Some are just phenomenally fast; so quick to grasp new ideas and come up with answers that they seem to operate in a different dimension. I used to work with a couple of lawyers like this and often they seemed to have digested what I’d said, before I’d actually said it. However, being patient and good listeners, I always got to finish what I was saying and never felt rushed, despite the fact I sensed that they were always two or three steps ahead. The other category of Planet Brains are those that think so deeply about things (which doesn’t necessarily mean slowly) that they are capable of penetrating insight which can often stop a meeting or negotiation in their tracks.  Some of their output (whether oral or written) can blow you away it is such high quality. These are the people that in the right context, the £500 per hour you could pay for them would represent tremendous value for money.

Finally, a category that is in my experience rarer than the rest. These are “Talent Growers”. Lawyers that think and care about succession and personal growth. The people who go way beyond their line responsibilities to supervise and train colleagues. The people who will coach and mentor colleagues and clients alike. I have had the good fortune to work with a number of these, but perhaps the most striking message was one former boss who told me very early on in our relationship “I expect you to spend at least 20% of your time developing your people. If you don’t do that, you will fail me”. I thought that was a tremendous message and it empowered me to act in a way that was consistent with that approach. I was also held accountable for my own development and grew phenomenally as a lawyer and a person while we worked together.

So, there you have it. A collection of legal super heroes. There are undoubtedly more (suggest some in the comments below if you like), but hopefully these should get you thinking. The message I’d like to leave you with is that in these increasingly competitive times, all lawyers need to think about why clients (be they external clients for private practice lawyers or internal clients for in-housers) choose to work with them. Once this has been identified, how can you enhance this? Make it more different? Make it more widely known?

You don’t need to put on a cape or wear your underwear over your trousers, but you can reveal your super powers.

A law firm’s immune system

In his book “Your Next Move” (which is excellent by the way) Michael Watkins introduces the concept of the corporate immune system. The idea is that organisations develop unspoken systems to protect their culture when threatened by a “foreign body” inside them. This is examined in the context of a new person joining the company, and exhibiting behaviours that are so different to the way things are typically done; these are unconsciously seen as a threat and the company responds accordingly. However, it wasn’t the recruitment of lawyers that got me thinking about the implications of this, but instead what it meant for an organisation’s ability to change.

Wasn't the partnership immune system supposed to stop this?

In my experience, many of the larger law firms put a strong emphasis on cultural fit with their recruitment, reducing the need for this corporate (or partnership) immune response (as they are less likely to recruit people likely to exhibit very different behaviour than that found in the firm). Given that the majority of lawyers will come from other law firms that will be fairly well known to the recruiting firm, the chances of any radically different behaviour from the new recruit are reduced further.

What though, does this mean for a law firm’s ability to change? If it is recruiting like-minded people, has been in existence for a very long time (as most firms have) and developed a strong culture, has a consensual decision making process, and is populated with people drawn to a conservative, risk-averse profession? Now of course I’m making some generalisations here, but in my experience managing change is an area many firms really struggle with; and there is no shame in that. Managing change is messy, difficult and time consuming, and this is true whether you are a law firm, large corporation or public sector body. It’s tough because it’s fundamentally about people, and this means that the process can’t be neatly packaged up and done as a “paint by numbers”.

However, the factors at the start of the previous paragraph conspire to make it more difficult still for law firms. Combine that with the fact lawyers are often independent thinkers, with a propensity to challenge and question, and the organisational capacity to change falls further. If, on top of this, the firm recruits in its own image, where will the change come from? Who will challenge the status quo?

I believe this issue needs addressing, and addressing quickly. Lawyers are facing massive changes in their profession, coming from a number of different drivers from deregulation to globalisation to technology. The ability of a firm to change will, be a significant factor in their ability not just to win in their marketplace but to survive.

Getting in external change support can certainly help, but I believe these are skills that law firms do and will need in-house, and not just in token numbers. Another idea, is helping all employees (and I include partners in this context) becoming more change adaptive. When in-house, my employer put all director-level employees and above through a change agility programme called “The New Reality”. Reaction to this varied (I loved it: my favourite quote “today is the slowest life will be. It will only get faster”), but one thing it did do was create a common vocabulary and baseline understanding that certainly helped with future changes.

Change is coming. The incremental change (while it might not have felt like that!) of the last decade may not be enough in future. What can you do to adapt and facilitate change in your organisation?

Can your lawyer read?

Dickensian lawyers were inseparable from their books. Noses always pressed into some dusty, leather-bound tome, everyone knew lawyers loved to read. Subsequent TV and film portrayals of lawyers  reinforced this image, with the hot-shot  New York lawyer seen pouring over books for hours, before leaping up (Archimedes style) with the fact or theory that would win the case and save the day.

Maude couldn't get enough of the latest equity and trusts text

But in the ever-accelerating, information-rich days of the “attention economy” (interesting read by Davenport BTW), how many lawyers actually get the time, or indeed have the inclination, to read more than is absolutely necessary?

Before I explore this area, I need to pin my colours to the mast. I’m a huge reader. I probably read 75-80% non-fiction, but also love a good novel (Shantaram by David Greggory-Roberts is a top read). Around ten years ago I read a few books on speed-reading (I’d recommend Buzan or Kump as authors in this area) and taught myself to do it. This meant for example that for the year I spent commuting I could easily get through 3 paperbacks a week.

There are a whole host of myths around speed reading, but the important thing to realise is that you need to read at a pace that’s appropriate for the material you are reading. For example, if I had 30 min to read a stack of industry reports, I would use a faster pace than I would if I was reading an important  judgement in a relevant area of law.  There’s very little magic in speed reading, but if you are going to read a lot, it’s worth investing a small amount of time in understanding the principles and techniques, then you can incorporate any parts you find useful into your reading.

The example I used above (reading a stack of industry reports in 30 mins) summarises one of the challenges that lawyers face, both in practice and in-house. There is a huge amount of material to get through that falls into that difficult “important but not urgent” category (classification from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – a “must read”). It’s the type of material that, in private practice, might for example show you are a bit more up to date than your competitors in following your client’s industry. In-house it might allow you to have a discussion with a senior commercial colleague about the legal implications of a particular product development. Unfortunately this material is also the type which gets piled on a desk (or the electronic equivalent) with good intentions, and slowly ages and loses its value before it either gets read or (more likely)is  moved to the big bookshelf in the sky.

The view I’ve taken with this type of material for the past 10 years, is that it’s better to read it quickly and take on board a % of the key points (if indeed there are any; there may not be), than not read it all because I don’t have the time to do so thoroughly. If I do speed read an article and realise it’s particularly important or rich in some other way, I can of course return to it when I have more time.  Using the Pareto principle (80% of the value will come from 20% of the resource) speed reading helps me identify where best to spend my time.

When I was in practice and in-house I used to block out small but regular periods of time each week to work through these type of articles. If you are free of other distractions, it’s amazing how much you can get through in 30 minutes. I don’t claim to have kept every single diary appointment clear, but generally I did manage to fit enough of these sessions in to feel I was keeping on top of things. I’m sure scheduling them early, before most clients and peers were operating helped me.

As with many things in these fast-moving era, time management is an important aspect of managing this challenge (Getting Things Done is a very popular book in this area at the moment, although the system didn’t work for me), but speed reading can give you a useful tool to maximise the time you do have available.

The other area I think is important is the breadth of material that is read.  When I was in practice as a technology & outsourcing lawyer, I used to read lots about the technology itself, not just the market. Aside from product info from my clients, web resources like Wired and Slashdot, supplemented with a liberal dose of “gadget porn” (like T3 magazine) helped me speak to clients in their language and understand the culture of their core customers. When in-house, the aggressive reading schedule (120hrs per month) of my MBA introduced me to a host of great business authors that I hadn’t read before (Mintzberg and Porter being two of my favourites) . While I might have come across some of these authors’ theories before, reading their work first hand added a new depth to my understanding and definitely increased the richness of the conversations I could have with my commercial peers.

In both cases, I believe that this wider understanding allowed me to be a better lawyer too. Advice is of course not delivered in a vacuum, and while reading isn’t the only way of getting that broader knowledge, it’s certainly a good start.

Happy reading.