Partner Smackdown!

25 04 2011

Admit it. All of you who have worked in law firms have met one.

The head of Squiman's corporate team was not to be messed with

The partner you want to avoid in the lift. Perhaps she’s the one with the really (really) bad temper. The table thumper. Maybe he’s the one who makes trainees cry. Is it the one who seems to have avoided any sort of diversity training at all?

Lots of law firms have at least one of these stereotypes. Hell, maybe you’re one yourself!

What I’m investigating today is bad partner behaviour. I don’t think the behaviour really needs much in the way of explanation beyond that in the paragraph above – let’s just define it as behaviour which is inconsistent with the firm’s values and which most people would view as unacceptable.

But this isn’t unique.  This behaviour happens in corporate life too, and the public sector, so why focus on law firm partners?

I believe there are a number of factors that make this type of behaviour harder to stamp out in law firms than in other organisations, and that’s what I’d like to explore.

Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, cultural change can be particularly hard in law firms, and many of the reasons why organisational change is difficult apply equally to changing individual behaviour.  However, when it comes to large scale change, it maybe that to effect change firms dedicate resources and engage particular external expertise if they don’t have it in-house – This type of focus is unlikely to be applied to changing the sorts of behaviour we are looking at here.

But perhaps linking this type of behaviour with culture change is too abstract. Maybe it’s just a simple people management issue? Call in the HR team?

Alas, this is often not as straight forward as it is in a corporate environment. Firstly, the partnership structure of the majority of law firms means that the problem partner is likely to be an owner of the business, and as a result have a certain amount of weight (actual and perceived) that comes with ownership. By contrast it’s unlikely at the moment that the HR Director will have equal status, although this may change in the years to come.

In practical terms this can mean firstly that junior lawyers and support staff might be less likely to report the unacceptable behaviour. Secondly, it may mean that the HR team are not as empowered as their peers in corporate environments. One structural observation I’ve made in larger firms is that often the HR Director is a relatively senior professional, brought in to advise on strategic issues (such as talent management), but that they are supported by a relatively junior team on the operational side of matters. Thus the HR personnel at the “sharp end” of behaviour complaints can often be outgunned by the partner in question.

So if the HR department has challenges, how about peer group management? Surely the partnership as a whole will quickly identify and deal with the problem behaviour?

Maybe, maybe not.

It certainly depends on the firm (which circles back to the earlier link to the firm’s culture), but in my experience this is something that partners find very difficult. Perhaps again the partnership structure and the idea of relative equality among the equity partners plays a part, but I suspect more likely it’s that a large proportion simply prefer to avoid the conflict and hassle associated with peer-group people management, and critically that they haven’t been given the skills and tools needed to do the job effectively.

Given that exiting a partner does typically remain more complex than removing an employee (particularly if the law firm want to avoid any subsequent legal action and bad publicity), the last factor should not be underestimated. Law firm partners, even in the biggest firms, have often received a limited amount of management training, particularly when you consider that managing professionals is known to be among the most challenging categories of people management (good reads here are “When Professionals Have to Lead” by Delong Gabarro and Lees, and “Aligning the Stars” by Tierny and Lorsch).

The lack of training and reluctance to head into what might be a difficult conflict (another great read is “Difficult Conversations” by Patton, Stone and Heane) can be compounded by the fact that resolution may not be swift, and often partners get little credit for this type of non-chargeable activity, no matter how valuable it is to the long term health of the firm.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s not overlook the elephant in the room. Economics. In reality, the reason the unacceptable behaviour has carried on for so long is often that the perpetrator is a rainmaker. Huge billings = lots of power. While this may seem cynical, it might be that the firm management are aware of the behaviour, and are prepared to tolerate it to realise the revenue stream from the partner in question. In other firms it may be less overt, and the problem simply manifests through the fact that the high billing partner just has a lot of power.

Plenty of reasons not to deal with the issue, but I think we all know that’s not the answer. Aside from all the direct consequences of this behaviour (potential claims, loss of productivity, morale damage etc), it maybe that the junior assistant who walks out of the door, is the managing partner of the future.





The future of law firm sales?

17 04 2011

Inspired by a recent dialogue on Twitter between Mike Ames (@Mike_Ames_Flair) and I (@intchallenge), I was struck by the similarity of some of our messages to law firms on the thorny subject of sales (talking about “client development” is much easier…). After posting some linked blog posts, we decided it was time to experiment with a social media-sales-mash-up.

James was not sure the practical sales training for lawyers was wholly relevant, but was willing to give it a try

Mike recently blogged about why lawyer’s don’t like the “S-word”, and I thought I’d add some of my thoughts to what I thought was a great post. It’s an interesting perspective, because while I’ve sold legal services, bought legal services and sold to law firms, I’m not an out and out sales person. Mike on the other hand has worked in business development for over 20 years, and has a history of both his own business development and coaching others to sell.

So, let’s mash (Italicised text is Mikes)!

Let me start by saying not all lawyers hate doing the “S” word. There are quite a few that I know who would prefer to do nothing but sales especially if meant getting away from all that tiresome law stuff and those impossibly demanding client-typesBut, whilst business development is an acceptable alternative phrase for sales (but not real work apparently) actually getting down to doing it is not top of the to-do list for most lawyers, but why?

Based upon my own coffee-house investigations (OK some of them weren’t carried out in coffee houses) these are my top 5:

  1. It takes too long – I just don’t have the time to fit it in. This is true, and the underlying cause is of course the tyranny of the chargeable hour. Maister talked years ago about the chargeable hour being today’s profit and the non-chargeable hour being tomorrow’s profit and nowhere is this truer than in the context of business development. How many other businesses would fail to recognise the importance of bringing work in to such a degree?
  2. It’s not my job – that’s what marketing are employed to do isn’t it? Sadly, the distinction between functions such as marketing communications, marketing strategy, pitch support and pure sales is often blurred in law firms, and thus the easy to understand link between sales and revenue often gets confused with other marketing-related activities that have much more difficult to calculate return on investment metrics.
  3. The law is more interesting – it’s what I was trained for and it’s what I want to do. This seems to me to be an entirely valid statement if you are working in a firm that can accommodate this approach. If not, then there may be a problem!
  4. I’m not sure what to do – I’ve had no real training or guidance. Definitely true at smaller and mid-sized firms. At the larger firms, I’d add a qualifier – the lawyers may well have had some training, but haven’t had the opportunity or encouragement to actually practice their skills and hone them. It might seem obvious, but selling is a skill – I remember first being taught Strategic Selling and SPIN selling as a circa 2 year qualified lawyer, but it wasn’t until I’d practiced them many times, often with an experienced business development professional at my side, that I began to internalise them and crucially, feel more comfortable using them.
  5. It’s just a bit grubby – I’m a professional not a used-car salesman. In my experience, while this attitude does exist, it’s dying out.

I’m not sure how close this to your own beliefs but they did crop up fairly consistently. By way of a response I would say: –

  • It is your job and is going to grow in importance. Accept it and move on. 
  • Sales is what makes the world go around – nothing happens until somebody sells something. If it helps consider yourself to be more of a facilitator. This is particularly true at the moment – you’ve cut costs, but revenues remain sluggish. Firms need revenue to grow. Of course it’s servicing the work that generates the revenue (and yes I know, managing WIP and aged debt are important too), but if you don’t sell effectively, the firm is unlikely to grow significantly – incremental growth of existing accounts in the current climate is unlikely to do the trick.
  • Like most things you can do it in a highly professional or decidedly sleazy way. You choose. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I’d go a step-further. If you are a lawyer with good client skills, the chances are you can be an excellent sales person. Professional, bright and good at asking questions, these are core selling competencies. Put some structure around them, season with a little theory, and then finish with a liberal serving of practice, and you’ve got yourself a rainmaker!
  • Once you have been trained it is easy and does not really take a lot of time. The sales cycle may vary depending on what you are selling, but importantly it will become a process that you can help shape, rather than just being on a treadmill of responding to client RFPs (requests for proposals).
  • It can actually be great fun, satisfying and very financially rewarding. Hell yeah. Closing a big piece of business can give a buzz that’s just as good as getting a deal signed, and you’re unlikely to have worked 48 hours straight to get it done!

I’m not a lawyer but I believe in the future the lawyers who get on most won’t necessarily be great at the law but they will be great at sales.

This I’d also agree with, but I’d also add some gloss. I think as more and more firms re-examine their business model, this will highlight the importance of the sales function. This may manifest as lawyers getting better at selling (more professional training, perhaps truly looking for sales skills and experience when recruiting), it may also result in the development of sales departments in law firms? Sounds a long way off? I’m not so sure. I’ve worked with firms who have business development managers who are very good sales people, and often accompany partners when they go out selling. This is a great model and it works very well. Where it falls short is of course scale, and for a large law firm (which is likely international), to have two or three really skilled sales people seems like an unnecessary restriction on revenue growth.

Now of course there are arguments that with professional services, clients are buying certain individuals, and to some degree I accept that. But even now there are challenges that can be made to that concept – when a partner pitches for work, will the client really be getting much of the partner’s time? The more efficient firms push work down to the minimum qualification level possible that will meet quality standards, and that will rarely be the partner. This of course helps keeps costs down, which translates into lower fees or higher profit margins, depending on the pricing structure.

In the IT industry, the concept of a pre-sales expert is common. This is someone with real technical knowledge who accompanies the sales force on prospect meetings to answer technical questions and demonstrate the company’s expertise. This model may need a bit of adapting for the legal profession, but I absolutely believe that the firms that invest in a highly skilled sales force, whether it’s lawyers, sales professionals or a mixture of the two, can really grow market share and win some serious business.

In that scenario, the losers? As Mike says, they’ll be those that turn their nose up at the S-word!

Mike’s website is here if you want to learn more about his approach to sales.





Beware – Psycho Lawyers!

10 04 2011

One of the defining characteristics of a psychopath is apparently a lack of empathy. Now I’m not saying all lawyers are psychos (although I’ve certainly met some I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley!), or even that lawyers lack empathy, but I’ve got an interesting idea for you to play with, that might just improve your practice.

Alongside the obligatory Mt Blanc pen, Howard the senior litigation partner often brought a more unusual accessory to meetings

In the world of marketing, many of the leading professionals have long been creating “buyer personas”. The idea of a buyer personas is to create a model of a typical buyer in a market segment, and by making this model increasingly granular, the organisation creating the buyer persona can get a much deeper understanding of the clients in these segments.

So why is this important?

I’ve talked before about the tendency of many law firms to be quite introspective, and as a result they often focus much of their energy on their own firm and what they are doing, rather than externally on the marketplace (clients and competitors). With the marketplace becoming increasingly competitive, it’s a good time to really start thinking about clients and what they need, to ensure you protect the ones you currently serve, and are in with the best chance of winning new ones.

This is where the empathy comes in.

To share the love, you need to understand what your client needs.

The starting point is to create one or more buyer personas for your target market. Let’s say for example you are a large, National law firm and you are developing a campaign to target new clients in the technology sector (because as I’ve written before, many law firms segment their markets by vertical). You may have done some further segmentation analysis, and decided that your resources and experience best match up with the IT security software sub-sector, and in particular those companies who have a turnover of between £50m and £500m and are headquartered in the UK.

To create the buyer persona, I always suggest starting with a name for the persona to personalise the experience. At a very practical level, if a team is doing this exercise, the name makes the persona sticky, and people will often refer to him or her long after the exercise is concluded.

So, let’s say that our buyer from one of these software companies is Hilary, the general counsel. By answering key questions about this fictional (but typical) buyer, we build the persona. For example:

  • How old is she?
  • How long has she been practising law?
  • What technical areas of law does she know best?
  • How long has she worked at the company?
  • Where does she live?
  • What’s her family situation?

Ideally, if you are profiling a buyer from a segment that already buys your services, then these answers should be grounded in reality, and based on the experience you have with similar clients.

Once you have the buyer persona, it’s time to show some empathy.

Now it’s time for empathy mapping…..

This is a technique I’d seen before, but was reminded of by the awesome book Gamestorming (Brown, Gray and Macanufo). I revisited it last week with some colleagues as we did some empathy mapping around a particular segment of in-house lawyers.

Start by drawing a quick picture (don’t worry, it needn’t be the Mona Lisa) of the buyer persona on a flip chart, and label them with their name and job title. Then divide the white space into five.

Label the spaces: Thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing and doing.

This is the creative part, which if done correctly, can generate some really powerful insight into buyer behaviour.

Pick one of the categories – for example “thinking”. Ask yourself what the buyer persona will be thinking on a day to day basis? What’s taking up their head space in work? What are they dwelling on when they travel home in the evening?  What’s the first work-related thing that they think of in a morning?

It’s a great way to collaborate, particularly if you get members from different teams within a firm to participate. For example the corporate partner might assume that the buyer is 100% consumed by the M&A activity the company has just engaged with, yet the competition partner may offer the fact that recent activity in the industry suggests that the board may have some real concerns that need to be addressed as a matter of priority. The business development director may volunteer some insights based on recent pitches, and perhaps an associate from the commercial team might suggest that actually the GC is worried about how the hours she is putting in managing the day to day team activity are harming her family life.

As the ideas emerge, note key words and phrases on the flip chart, and then move round the other sections. The exercise needn’t take long – 30 minutes is plenty to get quite a rich picture built up, although building up a number of more detailed profiles can easily take a day.

Once the empathy map has been completed, the contributors should have a much greater understanding of buyer needs in their chosen sector, and can begin to consider what this means for their firm, its services and the way in which they interact with existing and prospective clients.

Most importantly though, it’s potentially a very small amount of time to invest, but forces the lawyers to focus on what matters most – the client.

If you like the sound of the exercise, why not try it out in your next team meeting? You can read a bit more on the gamestorming blog.

If you suggest it and one of your colleagues objects, perhaps check their desk drawer for sharp objects next time you are working late…..

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Presentation Shock and Awe

6 04 2011

Ever sat through a truly awesome presentation? Seen one on TED?

 

Hardkins & Partners were determined to show the client all 114 of their slides in the allotted 45 min presentation slot

What about during a law firm pitch?

 

As a reader of this blog, you’ve probably had some experience of pitches. Been on the receiving end? Starred in one? Orchestrated one? Been shoved in one at the last minute as a “subject matter expert” or simply to make up the numbers?

In today’s post I’ll share an interesting technique that might liven up your pitch experience, but first let me tell you why I think it might be useful.

In my experience both as a buyer of legal services and during my time consulting with law firms, I saw a surprising variety of approaches to pitches to win work. Some presentation formats were prescribed by the potential purchaser, but more often than not the law firm were often left to their own devices. The results (in my experience) ranged from expectation-bustingly good to a straight up car crash.

The good firms had really thought things through, probably got some insight from people at (or at least who know) the prospect, and maybe had used a pitch consultant.

Those that hadn’t turned up, usually mob handed to cover ever possible question the client may ask (ostensibly to “show commitment”) and armed with a battalion of powerpoint slides to pummel the prospect into submission.

Here’s a slide showing where all our offices are in the world.

Here’s a slide with some client logos.

Here’s a slide with some directory quotes (which I’ll read out loud to you).

You get the impression.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of overly complex (particularly text heavy) powerpoint slides.

Who is?

Yet why (oh why!) do a large number of sophisticated, multi-million pound law firms still use them as the back bone of a pitch?

But wait.

Not all powerpoint is bad.

Far from it.

Powerpoint can be beautiful.

My bible in this area is Beyond Bullets by Cliff Atkinson, but Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen design (both by Reynolds) are also inspirational and can fundamentally change the way you use the tool to communicate.

But today I want to talk about an approach called Pecha Kucha. This is a presentation methodology that emerged from the Japanese design industry in 2003. The format is breathtakingly simple. Twenty slides (I Like to select powerful visuals for my slides, and I don’t think this approach requires anything different), each with a time limit of twenty seconds before it auto advances.

20×20.

Six minutes and fourty seconds.

Beautiful.

It forces the speaker to be concise, ideally entertaining, and to know his or her material. Critically, it encourages flawless delivery, which must be the aim for an important pitch, right?

Always keen to “eat my own dog food” I tried this earlier this week, with a small audience of around 25 people comprising lawyers (from in-house and private practice backgrounds), sales professionals, editors, conference organisers, training specialists and marketeers.

Here’s how I did it.

I started by identifying the key messages I wanted to deliver, and then ordering them among the 20 slides so I told a coherent story. I then pulled out three key points for each message and bullet pointed them. At this point I searched for images to bring them for life, and once complete I had the basics of my structure. I then did an approximate run through (without the auto-timing on), and then used the flow to write the text for each slide. Five lines of text seemed about right.

Next I set the auto-timing part (much harder than it should be on Powerpoint 2007, thank you very much Microsoft!) and did a timed run through to tailor the text.

Finalise text, repeat. Practice.

It took me around 3 run throughs to learn the material (given the work I’d already put in to building it, which undoubtedly primed my memory). The delivery was fine (but not, by my standards perfect – always good to learn what I can do better), and most importantly the feedback universally positive.

Now it’s definitely not going to be appropriate for all situations, audiences or presenters, but why not add it to your armoury?

How about using it as a tool to see if you can summarise what your law firm is all about in 20×20? What if you got several different successful salespeople to do it and see how similar (or different) the messages were?

If you used it in a pitch situation, how could you use the time you’ve saved to create more value from the meeting for the prospective client? (Suggestion: ask more questions, create a real dialogue).

Could you get five different lawyers to sum up the recent activity in their practice areas in 6min 40 and present to each other as a form of “show and tell”. Great way to update teams without sending them to sleep!

It’s a deceptively simple technique, but one that to my mind has a great number of powerful applications.

Why not give it a go?

I’d love to hear how you get on.