Inside out lawyers?

29 08 2010

An inside out lawyer would be messy, no question. I’m not sure exactly what lawyers are made of, but I bet the middle is pretty gooey, and you certainly wouldn’t want that stuff on your carpet. But law firms are different, in fact I think they are usually inside out…..

Angie's attempt to turn herself outside in to help with product development ended in disaster

Over the past few years I’ve spoken with a number of people in the profession  about product development, and have met varying responses, ranging from “we sell services, not products, and legal services don’t change so we don’t need any development”, to “how do we do that?” and finally “it’s a great product with a strong value proposition, you should meet the product manager”. Ok, so I exaggerated the last one, but not by much.

I’ve written about the need for innovation in law firms a number of times, but here my message is different.  One of the challenges law firms have in the way they approach the market, is they think “inside out” i.e. what capabilities do we have that we can sell (never mind if anyone wants to buy them or not).  I’ve often wondered about the reason for this, and when I was hammering through the reading for my MBA dissertation on law firm strategy, I came across some suggestions that this may be because lawyers have traditionally prided themselves on the quality of their work, viewing this as the critical success factor in the profession as well as a source of intellectual pride, and as result were disproportionately internally focussed.

However, it wasn’t until I read Tuned in (by Craig Stull, Phil Myers and David Meerman Scott) that I realised this phenomenon was just as common (or at least nearly as common!) in plenty of other businesses.  The book (which is a good read) explains that good product development starts with “outside in” thinking, which in legal terms means with the client. This makes absolute sense to me; if you are developing a product, it’s surely best to develop one that meets a market need.

Let me give you an example; I can remember being in-house just before the credit crunch really took effect. Many large companies were looking at restructuring and were going to need employment law advice. The in-house lawyers knew they could pick up the phone and get the advice they needed from their regular employment law advisors (no doubt at a competitive hourly rate), but how many times did the phone ring with a law firm pro-actively offering a nicely packaged restructuring service?

I’m talking about a service that gave me the advice I wanted, nicely presented, with a clear defined price. A service that the person calling could concisely and effectively explain the benefits and crucially, how it was different from other advice I might get on the subject.

Needless to say the phone didn’t ring much. Or indeed at all.

Now I don’t pretend this is easy: it’s not. You have to be close to clients and understand their industry to spot the market need. You have to be prepared to fail: it maybe you have a great product, but don’t get to market quickly enough. Maybe you get the product right but the price wrong. But to quote a cognitive hypnotherapist I met last week “there is no failure, only feedback”.

The ever changing nature of the law can be a blessing in that new market needs arise frequently. Why not turn yourself from inside out to outside in, and see if you can spot one?





The curse of knowledge?

20 08 2010

But knowledge is power, right? How can it be a curse? The answer, is when it prevents simplicity, which is key for lawyers in both their professional practice and their business development.

The partner at Scratchit & Co was not worried by the curse of knowledge

The inspiration for this post came from an intriguing little book called “Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is about why some ideas stick, and get adopted, while others are easily forgotten. Which ideas are understood and change behaviour, and which fall by the wayside. The range of topics to which the principles can be applied are huge, but strange though it may seem to my legal readership, it doesn’t directly deal with the practice of law in any detail. However, whether you are trying to persuade a judge or jury of the strength of your argument (think “idea”!) or explaining your suggested way of structuring a deal (another idea!) to your client, many of the principles in the book can be usefully applied.

The key characteristics of sticky ideas are that they should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and use stories (acronym “SUCCES”), but it is simplicity that I want to focus on here. I particularly liked the idea of a relentless focus on prioritising and getting to the core of the idea. The Heaths  mention a lawyer making ten key points to the jury, and the jury not remembering any of them. With a piece of advice, what is the core message that you want your client to take away? Could you make it clearer or more central (or both)? Chip and Dan make the point that simple doesn’t necessarily mean short; they are not advocating empty soundbites. Rather, to make an idea stick you must be very, very clear on what the message is, and communicate that with clarity.

The curse of knowledge is investigated  when we try to understand why this simplicity is actually quite difficult. The idea is that the more knowledge you have about a particular subject, the more difficult it is to imagine what it is like not to know about that topic. Hence for a lawyer advising a client on intellectual property, a hugely experienced, “rocket science” type partner may have more difficulty than a more junior associate in communicating the basic issue in a way that is easy to understand. Now of course, communication skills play a big part in this too, but I think for lawyers (whether in practice or inhouse) considering the possible impact of the curse of knowledge is a useful discipline.

At more junior levels of practice, a variation of this exercise can also help test your understanding of a subject. Try taking a legal concept or argument, and try explaining it to someone with no knowledge of the area (particularly if you role play and the subject can ask simple questions to clarify things), and it will give you a good feel of how well you really know the area. I had a fascinating conversation about 5 years ago when a phd friend of mine explained quantum physics to me. The light bulb flashed on and I was amazed I could grasp the concept so quickly. In my excitement I rushed to discuss the topic with a second friend later in the day, and the simple question he asked collapsed my pseudo-understanding like a house of cards, and I realised I didn’t grasp the topic at all.

So, the concept of simplicity of message can help with client communication, but what does it mean for business development? Firstly, in terms of communicating with a crowded, competitive marketplace, where attention is at a premium, to make your message stick, it needs to be simple. Certainly when I have had law firms selling to me when I’ve been in-house, I have been on the end of messages about firms, teams and services that have been less than clear, and none of them stuck.

The complexity may be the result of some detailed planning and analysis, but ultimately at some point before the message reaches the market, it needs simplifying. If it is a product or service, it needs a clear (one sentence?) value proposition. If it is a team or firm, can you sum up the core reason to engage them in a simple message? Better yet, make it memorable without being trite?

Want some more ideas? You could do worse than pick up the Heath’s book. It’s not a five minute read, and it will take some thought as to how best to apply the ideas to the legal environment, but if it makes your advice or your business development messaging stickier, I suspect it will pay the cover price pretty quickly…..





Smarter business development?

16 08 2010

One of my former commercial colleagues from corporate life was telling me the other day about an analysis they did of their business development spend. A huge proportion of their annual budget went into the team that responded to RFPs (requests for proposals) and yet their win rate for these opportunities was actually very low. The big deals came from existing clients, or through a network of trusted contacts and third parties that would allow the company to get visibility of the opportunity way before it went out to tender. Often, if the company could then show they could help the prospective client and had a strong value proposition for doing so, the buyer would see no need to go out to the market. If a tender was required, the company had often helped write the RFP or at the very least shaped the client’s thinking so the company was well positioned to win.

The chances of winning the work didn't look good

This then made me think about how much time lawyers spend being corralled into business development activity that is sub-optimal in terms of cost/benefit. In my experience, this plagues all stages of a lawyer’s career. From the trainee or newly qualified lawyer, forced to help compile a newsletter that goes out to a huge database of clients and prospects, but that very few people ever read (and let alone instruct the firm directly as a result)  to the specialist senior associate wheeled out in a pitch meeting to show expertise in an area that is really only on the periphery of the client’s needs, through to the partner spending  hours frantically pulling together a pitch document for a tender the firm has little realistic chance of winning. Surely there must be a better way?

What are the activities that really drive results when it comes to business development? Sadly law firms often lack the management information that help them make informed decisions in this area, and it may be necessary for individuals lawyers to think about this at an individual level.

While I don’t think there is a one-size fits all model, there are certainly lessons I can share from my own career, both as a buyer or seller of legal services. Written communications can have benefit depending on not just who they reach and how interesting they are to the audience, but what type of communication they are and how they are followed up. For example, while at a national firm I spent many hours writing a series of white papers on information security law topics. Making these freely available for download on the firm’s website would have limited value in my opinion, but working with our strategic partners to make hard copy versions a valuable “take away” from joint events, and using requests for electronic copies as a way of starting a sales dialogue to uncover prospect needs seemed to work well. Seminars were always great for increasing visibility in the markets, positioning my practice and making contacts, but it wasn’t until one of my business development mentors showed me how to take the contacts and add them to a sales pipeline that I really began to see tangible results from the activity.

Speaking as both buyer and seller, I’ve had some of my best business development results through investments in relationships. Whether it was strategic partnerships, solid account management, or the development of a personal relationship with a prospective client or intermediary, all have delivered in the end.  My personal learning from these situations is that the results have usually spun out of a genuine desire to learn about, and help, the other party in the relationship. It might sound idealistic or too altruistic, but it has certainly been true for me. By contrast many of the time-vacuums I mentioned early (newsletter editing, being dragged into pitches) often lack that personal connection and the ability to really understand the potential client’s needs.

Look at your diary over the next month: what are your business development commitments? Will that be time well spent? What are the items that are not in your diary but that are likely to appear at the last minute? What’s missing from your diary? Which key client or influencer should you be re-connecting with? Give them a call, and get some good karma by helping them solve a problem….





Your training was useless. Discuss.

3 08 2010

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

Discussion about the latest cases was encouraged in class

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

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

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

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

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