Monthly Archives: February 2011

Are lawyers impossible to coach?

Having been in the corporate world for the majority of the last seven years, I’ve been exposed to some great examples of coaching to improve individual and team performance. I’ve seen first-hand how a twice-a-year coaching index that operates as part of the performance management system really works (read it hits your pay packet!) and how coaching training for all managers benefits not just their teams, but also themselves.


The partners of Crevice & Co were slightly disappointed that the executive coach they were promised was not what they expected

But in law firms, I’ve yet to see the coaching culture really take hold, despite the fact that there is a wealth of research from the corporate world that the benefits are significant and measurable, not just in terms of employee performance, but also in the areas of employee engagement, motivation and retention. In the war for legal talent, that must count for something.

So why is this? Why don’t lawyers coach each other?

The most obvious reason is that they’ve not been taught to do it. While in most larger firms, there has, over the past twenty years or so, been an increasing recognition of the need for management and leadership training, in many cases this training (of which coaching could be an important component) is much less extensive than in other businesses, often because the individuals continue to be revenue producing assets first, and managers second (often termed the “producer/manager dilemma” in management theory).

Perhaps a further reason is that there is confusion over what coaching actually is, and it is often confused with mentoring. In fact, the non-directive nature of true coaching, where the answers come from the client rather than the coach, is a great fir for lawyers who often don’t like to be given advice (for the reasons for this, including their training and common characteristics, see my most popular post in “You are wrong, I am right”).

Another explanation is that it might be that spending time coaching colleagues (as opposed to formal supervision or training) doesn’t get much credit in the eyes of the tyrannical god of chargeable hours, who still rules most law firms with a rod of iron.

But I came across another idea recently that hadn’t crossed my mind. Maybe it’s that the best lawyers love their work too much…..

I know – you’re thinking of the City partner working a 75 hour week, but let me explain.

I was reading a blog recently from Nick Mayhew, who heads up the management consultancy team at a firm of accountants. Many of Nick’s consulting engagements include some form of executive coaching for the senior management teams, and I was intrigued by his thoughts on why high-flyers are hard to coach.

Nick kindly gave me permission to quote from his post, so have a think about this:

Common barriers affecting high flyers include fear of action, poor decision making and beliefs that do not support success. However, each of these is relatively easy to spot and there are good ways to work on them to get an impact.

Perhaps the hardest barrier to deal with is loving work too much. Here,  positive intentions collide and the appearance of success in every area distracts the executive from realising there is an even greater potential to reach.

What this means in practice is that personal success combines with a highly positive attitude leading the executive to focus only on what is achieved rather than what is not achieved (but could be with a different approach).

Who in the business is constantly challenging the executive to act with the greatest impact and focus?

Who is forcing them to take a step back and stay focused on a simple list of his or her greatest strengths?”

Now this really struck a chord with me for two reasons. Firstly, lawyers are often serial achievers, not least because the entry requirements for the profession typically require a high level of academic success before the would-be lawyer gets exposed to his first statutes and case law. The status of the profession (be it perceived or real!) reinforces this, and then to reach managerial level in the tough world of the modern law firm is another milestone to be ticked off. So the idea of high achievers concentrating on the success that they have achieved, rather than reflecting on what they could achieve really resonated with me.

Hell, I’ve done it.

More than once.

Secondly, the importance of peer challenge for senior lawyers interests me. Once a partner reaches the echelons of a firm, if the numbers are good, who will challenge that person and stretch them, both for the good of the individual and for the good of the firm?Arguably the firm management may do so if the person is acting in a way that is not consistent with overall goals, or being seen to underperform, but if it’s a question of ensuring a senior lawyer reaches their potential, that’s a different story.

So many possible reasons, but what’s the truth?

I suspect there’s no single answer, but I hope it gets you thinking. If you’ve not experienced coaching, take the time out to find out a bit more about it, even if it’s not part of the firm culture. I’ve certainly benefited from it, and if you’re a high achieving law firm partner who loves your job, maybe you could too…..

The lawyer’s cafe

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to facilitate a group of around 250 lawyers and legal information professionals, in an exercise to discuss, debate and create action in four areas that were key to the future of their FTSE100 business – employees, competitors, customers and products & services.

The senior partners wanted a suitably austere venue for their annual conference

Regular readers (bonus marks for you) may remember that last month, in my post “You are wrong I am right” I mentioned an idea called “The World Cafe”, which is a methodology for facilitating conversations that matter among large groups of people.

It was time to eat my own dogfood (as the saying goes!), it was time to create a monster cafe….

It proved a great opportunity to see if it could help lawyers collaborate and share information – something which *can* sometimes be a challenge!

The World Café was born in 1995 from work by a group called The Intellectual Capital Pioneers. Two of the original members (Brown and Isaacs) went on to document their deep underlying research, the key principles and a host of great case studies in their book, “The World Café: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter”. You can get a flavour and more information from the website (which has some great free resources), but I do recommend the book if you are interested in exploring the idea further.

So what is it?

Well, the World Café is a process that promotes open dialogue, information sharing and accessing the collective intelligence of a group. Sounds lofty and aspirational? Well, maybe so, but the detailed case studies covering huge blue chip organisations, public sector groups and community based examples gave me a lot of faith it could work for the group I was working with, which had recently joined together as a new department (the over-arching goal was to become “One Team”).

I can think of a multitude of similar examples from my practice as a lawyer when this type of dialogue would have helped – moving from a practice area structure to sector-focused teams? Ideal. Want to get a team formed across different geographies? This will help. In-house and want to discuss key areas of risk with a variety of stakeholders? This approach can work. Working in a law firm with too many silos (surely not!)? Why not give it a try?

Its principles are deceptively simple – the group (and the idea has been used for groups of over 1,000 people!) comes together in a very informal setting, around cafe style tables that seat four or five. The book explains why tables of this size are optimal for creating an environment where all can both listen and contribute, and from experience I can confirm it worked really well. As I moved from cafe to cafe (we had four separate rooms to accommodate the large numbers), I was amazed by the buzz and general level of conversation in each room.

Each table has an individual host and is posed an open (and hopefully thought provoking) question on a topic that matters for the group. An example of one of the questions we posed (in the “employees” discussion) was: “What can we do to make this the best place you’ve ever worked”.

As well as a good supply of hot drinks and goodies to eat, the tables have paper table cloths and pens, with participants encouraged to capture their ideas visibly by drawing and writing. This might seem superficial, but putting ideas down on paper definitely helps thoughts develop, and the drawing is designed to help encourage creativity.

When I was planning the event, I talked to a number of people I knew who had hosted or attended these events. Interestingly a delegate at a workshop I was running in December for a large City firm mentioned that he had attended a World Cafe event at Hewlett Packard, and six years later he could still remember what was drawn and written on the table cloth. What a tremendously powerful testament.

After 20 minutes of discussion, the cafe host signals it’s time for a change, and all the participants at a table except one (the table host)  get up, split up from their current table mates, and move to another table to discuss a slightly different, but related question. The table host (who hasn’t moved) explains to the new table guests where the discussion has got to, and the conversation then continues with a new set of people, who add their own insights and of course drawings to the tablecloth.

What happens (and idea the whole point of the process), is that different people bring their own ideas and these ideas develop and cross-fertilise across tables. Individuals also get to meet and share ideas with many different colleagues, which in itself made a big contribution to the overall group aim of being “One Team”.

As part of the process our group did three 20 minute rounds of conversation, with approximately 15 minutes of introduction with the whole group in plenary, and then a 15 minute wrap-up (also as a large group), giving a total even time of just over 90 minutes.

To make sure to atmosphere was informal (an important principle of the World Café), the company creative team did a fantastic job bringing to life the four themed cafés. With artwork on the walls, real cafe tablecloths underneath the paper, and aroma machines pumping out realistic smells, the ambience was topped off by the cafe hosts who fully immersed themselves in their roles with appropriate dress, accents and in one case, a (temporary) tattoo!

In the plenary wrap-up session, people shared their experience and in addition to photographing the tablecloths, the insights and action points captured at the event, generated an incredible 250+ ideas that can be used to bring real improvements to the business, and the cafe organisers are already working on breaking these down into workstreams and getting these projects started.

In my experience, lawyers are usually pretty good at talking, but the informal, small groups really seemed to encourage the listening part of the conversation. The feedback from cafe hosts, table hosts and guests was incredibly positive, and I wouldn’t hesitate to run another event.

Given the change going on in the profession right now, I suspect there are many law firms looking to have conversations that matter with their teams, and this is a great mechanism to do it. The cafe theme and concept might sound a bit unorthodox, but with proper preparation (the logistics behind the simplicity do take time!) it can create magic.

Outsourcing Armageddon!!!

There’s no escaping the “o” word in the legal profession at the moment, and for the past 18 months, the stories in the UK legal press have just kept on coming. Lots of words, but what’s really happening? What’s going to happen?

A suitably shocking image was required for a discussion of the "O" word...

Does outsourcing spell armageddon for the legal profession? Will all the jobs be swept up and done offshore? Will process and technology decimate the practice of law? Or will the hype die down and the business model be exposed as simply not working for the legal profession? The outsourcers might find small niches, but not penetrate the mainstream?

I’ve been connected with the outsourcing industry for about twelve years. In practice I spent six years as a technology and outsourcing lawyer, and then spent four years in a global outsourcer as corporate counsel. I moved into the business for the same company and after I left, I spent a year leading the onshore team for the legal processing division of another global outsourcer. So now, with the news full of A&O’s support centre in Belfast, and the continuing story of Cameron’s large scale deal with Integreon, it seemed like the right time to offer my thoughts on the topic, particularly as lots of the comments flying around seem to me to be made by people who’ve never seen an outsourced operation, let alone have any understanding of the underlying business models.

So buckle up, here we go…. (my blogging guide did suggest being controversial – how am I doing?)

Let’s start with the observation that the fundamental principle of contracting with a third party to provide services that are non-core to your business is pretty well established. Whether it’s finance and accounting, payroll, logistics, manufacturing or customer services, many of the largest companies in the world have outsourcing well established as a critical part of their business model. It’s been going on a long time, and the long-term success of the big global outsourcing providers suggests that this approach does work.

With providers leveraging both lower costs from economies of scale and labour arbitrage and providing the service using highly specialised staff, best practice process and technology the business case can be compelling. On the other hand of course concerns about data privacy, potential loss of control, cultural differences, brand damage and the political and social implications of outsourcing jobs appear to make the decision less clear cut.

So while the underlying business model clearly has pros and cons, with the profession having been hit hard by the recession, with traditionally high labour and property cost-base, and incumbent providers of legal services potentially facing a new wave of competition as a result of deregulation, it’s surely no surprise that outsourcing has finally become a reality.

Where I think the most interesting questions lie, are not around the question of whether outsourcing will succeed, but what types of work are most suitable for outsourcing and will provide the biggest benefits for law firms.

To investigate this, a bit of clarity is required about what actually constitutes legal process outsourcing (or LPO). I wrote in an article for Managing Partner magazine last year that one of the problems with the hype surrounding outsourcing in the legal profession is that any outsourcing gets labelled as LPO, when in fact, many deals don’t actually include the outsourcing of legal work.

A helpful place to start is to think of the firm in terms of back, middle and front office, terms that are often used in the financial services industry. The term “back office” means those parts of the law firm that run the business, but are largely invisible to the client – accounts, human resources etc. By contrast the meaning of “middle office” is a little more fuzzy, but I think of that as those support functions which either directly support the provision of legal advice (such as legal research, knowledge management) or are in other ways visible to clients (business development etc), but are not the actual service that the client pays for. Front office work is much clearer – the actual provision of legal advice.

So, with a sprinkle of added clarity (that if a law firm outsources some of its finance function, it’s not LPO in my book), what do I think are the prospects for outsourcing in the profession?

If we start with the back office, this at first glance would seem the obvious place to start. Generally speaking, it’s non-core and won’t provide much in the way of competitive advantage (in fact, by contrast there are plenty of firms that have challenges with billing) for law firms. The challenge is however, that for all but the largest firms, the scale of the accounting function is not large enough for the economics to make sense on a dedicated outsourcing project.

The answer of course would be a shared service, that law firms could simply plug in to. The difficulty here is that law firm IT systems are incredibly diverse, and a lot of them have been customised and patched together over the years, so simply moving to a new (outsourced) platform will not be easy.  I’m sure this conundrum will be cracked, but am not sure whether anyone is there at the moment.

Looking then at the middle office, the raft of deals among UK firms at the moment suggests there is appetite for outsourcing here, and looking at parallel operations in other sectors, there’s no question the model can work. At the BPO provider where I was working last year, their research and analytics function had over 1,500 employees, 70% of whom had advanced degrees (MBAs, PhDs etc). The quality of their output was excellent, and they provided comparable services (pitch support, business intelligence, research etc) for blue chip corporates, investment banks and management consultancies. The team was led by someone who set up McKinsey‘s knowledge management centre in India, and I certainly felt confident that a lot of that team’s expertise was transferrable.

The final area is of course the legal work itself, and this is perhaps the most emotive area for lawyers. There is a huge split of opinion here with, on one side, service providers who are selling, keen to make the most of their credentials, and confidently talking of their ability to “move up the value chain” (by which they mean demonstrating they are capable of taking more and more complex work). On the other side, are many lawyers who, having spent many years working hard to join and progress in the profession, do not believe their work can be done by less qualified personnel, especially those outside the jurisdiction.

So what’s the truth?

Well, I think the starting point is to establish that in the world of volume legal services (think conveyancing, remortgages, personal injury litigation etc) legal work has been successfully outsourced and off-shored for sometime. Undoubtedly if you had asked the question ten years ago whether this would have been possible, the majority of the profession would have shaken their heads and exchanged knowing glances.

These days, my experience is that talking to lawyers, many now see how an outsourcing model could work for certain types of legal work, “but mine is too complex/specialised/personal”!

My view is that their is a spectrum of complexity for legal work, and at the very bottom end (low complexity) more of this can and will be automated – seeing some of the latest document assembly tools is a good reminder of progress here.

At the next layer of complexity, there is a huge scope for the application of process to make the legal work more efficient. Having done some process mapping engagements for law firms, I can confidently state that when you get a process standardised and down on paper, the opportunities to improve it are many.

Improving process is not of course synonymous with outsourcing, and I expect in the next few months there will continue to be a huge rise in process re-engineering engagements at law firms (and in in-house departments) without perhaps those firms being ready to outsource.

This work will ultimately be capable of being outsourced (mapping and documenting a process makes outsourcing much easier), but whether or not this happens will depend very much on the individual firms, their cultures, their business models and their financial situations as well as the sales reach and delivery capacity of the service providers.

At the top level, there is of course highly specialised work that does not lend itself to process standardisation or outsourcing. With the blurring of the boundaries between the professions, the opportunities for top-end lawyers to provide advice that is strategic in nature, but perhaps not technically legal advice, will grow.

Finally, as one of the people leaving comments on the Legal Week article on Susskind’s appointment to Integreon’s client board noted, all outsourcing deals have to go through transition before they then stabilise and start delivering to service levels and providing the expected value. Even at this stage, it takes time to realise the full benefits and so expect a raft of noise in the media if some of the deals experience a few wobbles to begin with.

Personally speaking, having had the privilege of having been to several offshore outsourcing centres in Asia (as well as UK operations) and seen them in action, I would have a lot of confidence that long term, back and middle office services could be delivered effectively by the top outsourcing providers. For the front office work, I suspect success will depend much more on the type of work being outsourced and the provider’s experience.

To wrap up, I’m not saying that outsourcing is the right or wrong choice for any firm. I do believe that the business model has been proven in other industries and that certain functions in a law firm are sufficiently similar to other industries that there’s no reason why the profession should be any different. In one flavour or another, outsourcing is here to stay – watch this space to see how it evolves.

The Specialist Generalist

Participating in a panel event for in-house lawyers last week, I was struck by the versatility of the corporate counsel that were taking part.


Keen to demonstrate the depth of her specialism, Lisa the construction partner parked her new car carefully at the front of the firm car park


In-house lawyers are so much more accessible to their clients than lawyers in law firms, and this, coupled with the incredible range of business (and personal!) questions that can come across their desk in a day’s work, really does highlight the ability to answer a broad range of questions.  While larger in-house legal teams of course have specialists (employment law, M&A etc.) I suspect that even these lawyers  get called on to advise outside their niche more often than their private practice counterparts.

So the question that sprung to mind, was if many corporate counsel need generalist skills, what does this mean for their relationships with their advisors, particularly given most large law firms start lawyer specialisation so early in their careers?

Building on my observation that the variety and accessibility of in-house positions, and taking into account that many in-house lawyers have built up a degree of experience before they move into an organisation, it’s likely that generalist skills can be found in abundance in the legal team. Is it therefore the case that when corporate counsel instruct external lawyers, they are doing so because they need specialist advice? Given the pace of change and breadth of the law these days, particularly if the business is operating internationally, at first glance this would seem sensible, because no lawyer (however good) could hope to keep up-to-date across the board.

My instinct however is that there are no hard and fast rules here, as the client’s needs will  vary on the situation. Some clients will need specialist advice because they don’t have the skills in-house (or perhaps they do, but they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the particular matter). Others may want a generalist “replica” of an in-house lawyer who can simply add capacity to the in-house team and interface directly with the business people. Some may just pick up the phone and “phone a friend”, and care less about who actually does the resulting work.

The choice of external counsel is however heightened on high-stakes matters. Does the client choose a top-drawer “name” specialist, ranked in directories from here to Timbuktu, or do they go for a more seasoned “trusted advisor” type who may require specialist support from elsewhere around the firm, but can provide much wider support around things like  stakeholder management and communication?

Personally, I believe both types of lawyer can add tremendous value and have their place. I do wonder though, to what extent the “trusted advisor” role will change as the next generation of senior lawyers are those who have spent their entire careers advising on fairly narrow areas of law.

One final observation I have is that there are relatively few true industry specialists. In reality, a specialist technology sector lawyer is really a specialist IT lawyer; a specialist entertainment lawyer maybe a licensing expert. Perhaps this is the way that the “trusted advisor” role could develop. Lawyers who have deep industry experience, acting for many different clients (perhaps at different stages of an industry value chain) in the sector, with this knowledge meaning that they advise on many different areas of law in addition to their core specialism.

So, why not take a look at who else your clients instruct? Are you the only firm or team in the game, or is there a panel (formal or informal)? Who, if anyone, gets the generalist work? Is specialisation getting you the instructions and clients you want? Can you do a gap analysis to show the skills & experience that you have compared to the profile you would like to develop?

And finally, what would you do if you were in-house and the C.E.O. walked into your office needing immediate advice on how he could save his dog, Beefcake, from the legal consequences of taking a bite out of the postman…..