Why sorry is the hardest word

14 09 2011

I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday around a workshop he was facilitating for a fairly sizeable group of lawyers. As part of the discussion he asked the question “how many of you have ever been the subject of a client complaint”.

Our subsequent discussion centred around the fact that the solitary hand that was raised did not seem representative of the either the statistical probability of the number of complaints from the group (there was probably well over 150 years of cumulative PQE in the room) or the amount of unspoken discomfort in the room.

Adam readied himself to discuss his drafting mistake with the head of department

I’ve written before about why lawyers find it difficult to admit they are wrong (a training based on hiding weaknesses in your client’s arguments and exploiting your opponents, and a pathological fear of negligence claims), but the point I want to explore here is how much harder it is to deal with the consequences of a mistake, if you can’t admit it in the first place.

My starting point is that mistakes will happen. I don’t care how good you are as a lawyer or a law firm, while legal advice is predominantly a human activity (as opposed to automated or process based), the human factor remains fallible.

You, me, none of us are perfect.

Now of course you can minimise the risk of mistakes – quality checks, supervision, training, best practice etc, but at the moment I’ve yet to come across any law firm partner that can hand on heart tell me the firm has not made a single mistake in the past 12 months.

And as work becomes more complex and has to be done at ever increasing speed, the possibility of mistakes may well increase.

So mistakes are going to happen. The question is, how are you going to deal with them?

The majority of larger law firms and corporate legal departments have some type of relationship. Some are more transactional than others, but I’ll make an assumption that the mistake happens in the context of some type of broader relationship, not least because that’s when both parties are likely to care more about it.

My experience both in law firms and in-house tells me firms can deal with mistakes really well, or get it spectacularly wrong.

Let’s deal with some classic unhelpful responses ( Twitter would categorise these law firm #custservfails) first:

  • Refusing to the acknowledge the problem – “advising around it” – effectively providing remedial advice to sort out the problem before the consequences become significance (“I see your point, we’ll add some additional wording in here, just to clarify that”)
  • Blaming the client – implicitly or explicitly (“well, if they’d given us clearer instructions this never would have happened”)
  • Glossing over the problem (“lucky we caught that in an early draft”).
  • Sorting the problem out without any sign of good grace or contrition (“leave it with us”)

Perhaps my favourite example was a conversation I had with a law firm where I’d had a repeated breach of my company’s outside counsel policy (which explained among other things, who in the business could instruct external lawyers, and what involvement the legal department had to have with a matter). After the third clear breach since I drew the point to their attention, I asked for a meeting with the relationship partner to get to the bottom of the issue.

I have to admit to being amazed when the partner turned up with two of his peers from different departments, with a clear plan to try and turn the meeting into a cross-sell pitch. I was certainly expecting the “S-word”, but it wasn’t “sales”.

  • No apology.
  • No self-awareness.
  • No more instructions.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Several firms I worked with were very good at managing the occasional mishap.

One of the most telling signs was where the law firms brought a mistake to my attention, particularly as there was a chance the error might not have got noticed. For example, I’ve had that happen when there was no chance at all of me noticing, because the error arose as a result of a translation from Arabic (where the law firm had arranged the translation).

This builds a huge amount of confidence, and in every case where that has happened, the firm also presented an explanation of why the problem arose, and (critically) a plan to make sure it didn’t happen again. Viewed in this light, problems can be an opportunity to improve the service for the future, and build genuine trust with the relationship.

To me, as a client, that open dialogue is critical.

It works both ways too. Rather than bitch and moan about poor service (which can be more than a simple mistake, as it involves performance measured against expectations, which in some cases may not be explicit), I believe it’s in both parties’ interest for the client to raise the matter with a law firm, and to do so in a clear and specific manner which allows the firm to take action.

I’ve done that in situations where this has helped the law firm have difficult performance management discussions with under-performing staff and also improve processes that have benefitted multiple clients.

Now if this sounds like some sort of rose-tinted utopia, let me be clear – it’s not. Not all of these conversations are easy, (“Difficult conversations – how to discuss what matters most” is a great read by the way) and at times can be uncomfortable, but I do believe that putting in the effort beats the alternative for both parties – a dysfunctional relationship benefits no-one.

There are also times where the scale of the screw up is so monumental, that the relationship simply can’t be saved (for example the reputation damage to the law firm within the client business is so great that the in-house lawyer would lose the confidence of his or her clients by using the firm again), but those cases are few and far between.

In most cases, starting an open, honest and productive dialogue is the best way forward, and saying “sorry” might be a good place to start.





How to find an extra 1,000 hours a year

6 09 2011

I have a confession to make.

The partners were surprised to see Fiona set fire to the firm's library in the name of productivity

I’m an information junkie. All my life I’ve been a voracious consumer of books, magazines and newspapers.

From burying my nose in novels as a child, through reading 3-4 books a week when commuting as a lawyer, to teaching myself to speed-read early in my legal career to keep on top of fast moving professional development, books have never been far away.

Indeed I wrote about how reading more widely can help a lawyer become more rounded and get a wider perspective that can enhance their thinking and advice (and I stand by that idea!).

So what’s the problem?

Well, the quantity, quality and ease of access to information  is so high these days, that reading can take up a disproportionate amount of time.

It’s possible to spend so much time reading, that experiencing life and reflecting on it can take a back seat.

I took some time to reflect on this challenge on a recent holiday, and realised that I was bombarding myself with information pretty much from the moment I open my eyes. Does some or any of this sound familiar…

  • Wake up. Check smartphone for urgent emails
  • Waiting for train – check news and sport headlines on smartphone, check twitter and facebook feeds
  • On train – read newspaper on Kindle, when done move onto ebook (usually business or personal development)
  • Work – check Google reader feeds, work reading, twitter while waiting for meetings, walking to get lunch etc
  • Train home – read ebook (business or personal development)
  • Before bed – read ebook or physical book (could be work or fiction)
  • Repeat.

Aside from the enjoyment I got from reading (an important factor not to gloss over in this discussion), it was apparent that my mind was whirring constantly from the moment the alarm went at 5am. My sense was that while this definitely had benefits in terms of the sheer amount of knowledge I was accumulating (much of which has been very useful), it was also draining a lot of mental energy and limiting the headspace I had for thinking and reflecting, and on balance the negatives were beginning to outweigh the positives.

As the Tao Te Ching says (verse 48) “learning is daily accumulating, the Way is daily diminishing”  (and yes I realise that’s a quote from a book!).

Sometimes less is more.

So I decided to do an experiment – I’d go on an information diet.

The first thing I did was cut out reading a daily newspaper. I’ve read a newspaper pretty much every day for the last twenty years. Give or take a few minutes, it takes me about 30 minutes to read the whole thing in my very methodical way. News headlines, sport, UK news, overseas news, business news, features and culture. Bish bash bosh.

Now giving this up might seem a small step, but psychologically I wondered what the effect would be – would it hamper my ability to hold conversations in the office? What about at social events? Would I go to meetings and find I didn’t know what people were talking about? Would this damage my personal competitive advantage? Would I become (perish the thought) less interesting?

The reality – important news found me. I didn’t have a complete news black out – quick checks on the BBC mobile news, trends from Twitter, and of course conversations have so far (four months and counting) brought me all the news I seem to need.

What I didn’t anticipate is that where I have needed to find out about something (and this has been very rare), simply asking the person who’s raised the issue to tell me what’s happened had led to some rich conversations and elicited opinions I might not have got if I’d already known the detail.

The other thing I noticed, is that when I pick up a newspaper, I now see how much news there is that really has no impact on my life (in any capacity), which is generally depressing, but which  I would have consumed anyway in my pre-information diet days.

On a similar note, a former journalist I met with last week mentioned that he was continually frustrated by his inability to block out which contestants are currently appearing on Celebrity Big Brother because despite his total lack of interest in the subject, it seeps into his consciousness through the media.

So far so good. I’d reclaimed three and a half hours of time per week (182 hours a year  sounds more impressive!). Assuming I used that time wisely, that was a real productivity boost.

The next step was to stop reading other books.

So for the last three and a half months, the only book I’ve looked at (which I mentioned in my post The Tao of Law Firm Strategy) has been the Tao Te Ching – the classic Chinese text which is best described as a cross between philosophy and poetry. Read for five minutes, ponder for an hour.

So for all intents and purposes, my reading has gone from say 3 hours a day, to zero. That’s over 1,000 hours a year. Or one and a half months.

Pretty drastic? Maybe.

Permanent? Don’t know.

One of the important points (in my eyes anyway) is that not only have I reduced the information I take in, but I’ve chosen not to replace that activity with another. It’s just white space and  I definitely appreciate the extra time I now have to think things through (work and personal) and also just be.

There are times when less is definitely more.

It’s also made me much more conscious of where I choose to focus – Davenport wrote a great book called The Attention Economy about the value of attention (related article  at Brainpickings if you’re interested), and having some extra time and space to allow you to step back and re-prioritise is surely a good thing.

So what’s the reading end-game for me?

Well, I think I will welcome books back into my life at some point, although I feel no rush to do it right now. When I do I think I’ll be more selective about what I read – to offer me greater benefit that the space I’ve freed up, it’s going to have to be quite a book!

So for busy lawyers, while I can’t free you from the tyranny of the timesheets (the market will do that in time…), by limiting the amount of information you take in outside the office, you might find yourself more productive.

Just don’t spend the time you’re freed up watching television. Please!

 





Lawyers – Just. Do. Something.

30 08 2011

It seems like there was some sort of psychic alignment in the UK legal blogging community last week.

James took a break from his corporate finance practice and went down to the firm's somewhat impressive atrium to think about what was happening in his market

As the news came rolling in on changes facing the UK market (Neil Rose’s site Legal Futures is often a good place to start), the Entrepreneur Lawyer   Chrissie Lightfoot wrote a great post about the disruption and fear facing the profession. Julian Summerhayes then followed up with a thought provoking piece on the need to avoid apathy in client relationships.

All the time my mind was whirring with two related themes – massive change, and the need to do something.

The first message that I really (really) want to get across is that change in the profession is happening NOW. I mean right now.

Many of the lawyers who are waiting for the full implementation of the Legal Services Act with a “let’s just wait and see” attitude are either deliberately burying their heads in the sand, or are sleepwalking through a time of significant change, leading to both opportunities and threats.

Just look at the recent headlines:

Take a step back and take a fresh look.

This is change that’s happening right now.

It’s not round the corner.

It’s not things that might happen.

It’s happening.

Now.

The other point that’s really important to grasp, is that the change is affecting the whole profession. It’s not just a B2C issue, there is fundamental change going on all through the profession. From the sole practitioner whose livelihood is threatened by consumers being offered quicker, cheaper and easier solutions from competitors that didn’t exist three years ago, to the multi-million pound law firm facing disaggregation of the large scale projects that used to be the foundation of the partner’s seven figure salary. The change is real and far-reaching.

Finally, please trust me when I say that there is much, much more going on which is not public at the moment.

Since I left practice as a lawyer, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in the profession in a number of different roles, including consultant and LPO provider. Some of the conversations I’ve had with law firms, in-house teams and other consultants have shown me that there is some really forward thinking going on in the background, leading to business models being re-engineered and investment being secured.

So why are so many firms not doing anything?

Well, putting aside the difficulty many law firms have with change generally (which I’ve written about before), and some of the negative behaviours driven by the hourly rate billing model,  I think there are a number of other reasons why it’s not top of mind for every law firm partner.

The first is that there are more pressing short term challenges. Cash flow being one of them. The last two to three years (depending on the make up of your practice) has been incredibly tough, and amidst the restructurings and insolvencies, there are plenty of firms that quietly weathered the initial storm but  are finding things getting harder and harder as the road out of recession continues to be a slow one. Whether it’s cash flow, refinancing or opportunities for consolidation, short term survival is often the top priority.

Another reason is that it’s just plain difficult. The market is moving at a tremendous rate now, with new competitors, new technology and regulatory change coming in waves. Just keeping on track of the environment is tough enough, let alone analysing it and working out how to respond. Many firms don’t have strategy experience in-house (and there was a great article this week on how forcing strategy work on non-strategic thinkers doesn’t often work out) and I suspect many just don’t know where to start.

But whatever the reason, now is the time to act. The speed of business these days is too fast to wait and see.

Much has been written about the change in the product development world and the speed to market imperative (“fail fast”) – how it’s no longer realistic to test extensively to get a product perfect before launching.

The parallel I’d draw here is that now is not the time to assess the market to nth degree, and then craft a perfect strategy over the coming months, before pulling together a detailed project plan and implementing through the annual budget cycle. All of these steps may well have merit, but given how fast the market is moving, it’s more than likely that by the time you’re done, you’ll be too late. The opportunities (of which I believe there are many) will have passed, or the threats manifested.

So to wrap up, now’s the time to act. Block out an afternoon and at least do some thinking, or if you’re not at the thinking stage, some sensing to find out what’s happening in your market segments. Then take the lead and turn thinking and dialogue into action.





Lawyers – ask why they buy, not why they didn’t

22 08 2011

Have you ever thought about the reason people choose to buy legal services from a particular firm?

Sure, if you’re a lawyer in practice (or a business development professional at a law firm) you may have spent some time debriefing why you lost a tender, but have you actually talked to some clients to find out why they chose to use you in the first place? If you have, do you know why they continue to instruct you?

The firm's sophisticated accounting system registered another sale for the IP litigation practice

I was pondering this as a post from Mike Ames really reminded me of some of the timeless  fundamentals of the buying process that it’s good to revisit. It’s perhaps easier to look at the reasons why you don’t make the sale than the reasons that you do. The post addresses this imbalance, and is set is below in italics, and you can find the original post along with more solid business development ideas on Mike’s blog.

Strange really. We all buy things every day whether it’s a sandwich at lunchtime, petrol for your car or a £4m computer system the process is pretty similar but what makes us do it?

  1. Need. If you think about the obvious starting point is having a need that is either immediate or anticipated. Sometimes we may not be aware of that need (which is why the advertising industry exists, in case you ever wondered) and it needs to be brought to our attention.
  2. Capability. Who is going to buy anything that is not fit-for-purpose? Well actually loads of people but nobody does it willingly. So as a business developer you must demonstrate that your offering can meet all of the client’s needs. This can be tricky; a sort of a catch 22 – they won’t hire you until they know and they won’t know until they hire you. These are the ways round this dilemma: references; case studies; testimonials; site visits; risk and reward work; what you have said and written; you!
  3. Beliefs. People tend to buy from people who match the same beliefs as they hold (for more on this watch this brilliant TED video of Simon Sinek). It’s how all great brands work. They convince us that their beliefs are the same as ours and we buy. What do you believe in I wonder?
  4. Differences. Let’s face it if we were confronted buy two offerings that we could not differentiate between in any meaningful way which one would we select (drum roll) the cheapest of course. This is how commodities work: something that is purchased solely based upon its price. A nasty place to be and one to be avoided at all costs. Now being different is easy but being different in a way that benefits our clients is a lot harder however, dear readers, this is exactly what we have to do. We must show we are different from our competitors and that these differences somehow provide tangible benefits to the client. or we could just be the cheapest I guess.
  5. Value. We don’t always buy the cheapest but we all buy according to our own cost/value equation. Audi cars are brilliant: reliable, stylish, hold their value and make us feel cool but they are definitely not cheap and yet we still buy them by the boat-load (quite literally in fact). The reason is that Audi have provided those people who have sufficient money with a balanced cost/value equation – basically they are worth the money. We must do the same.
  6. Trust. Occasionally we are forced to buy from people we don’t trust. We don’t like it but we do it when we need to. What we really like though is to buy from people we trust so if you can build trust you increase the chances of getting a sale. Here are a few ideas: always deliver on your promises no matter how small; be open and honest at all times even if this is not in your best interests; be consistent. There are other contributories but these are the most powerful.
  7. Rapport. Probably not as important as you might think but having rapport with a buyer can swing the deal your way when its a close call. A lot of rapport stems from trust of course but try smiling more (recent research by Bangor University proved you will sell more if you do)  and just be you. When the American businessman Lee Iacocca was asked by a group of students what his best piece of advice was he answered “don’t fake it”.
So there you have it. To be successful at sales, find a client who has a need you can satisfy, demonstrate your credentials, show how you are different and how these differences can benefit the client, establish common beliefs and present your offering in such a way as the benefits outweigh their investment. If they trust you and there is a rapport between you start and draw up the engagement letter.




Why law firms need a CLO (chief listening officer)

12 08 2011

When I started my legal career in the mid/late 90s, no-one ever talked of the CEO or the CFO. There was a Managing Partner, probably a Senior Partner, and a Finance Director.

Eric's campaign for Managing Partner was based largely on the popularity of his beautifully formed ears

While looking at job titles may seem simplistic, it actually throws up some interesting trends (and I’m not repeating my rant about putting the words “equity partner” on your business card). In some firms, the adoption of the CEO and CFO titles genuinely represents a shift to a more corporate structure, where the executive have more authority. This was required as firms became more complex and more distributed – the slow, consensual nature of partnership was hampering firms’ ability to move at the pace required by the market, and a changing governance structure was one response.

Another interesting change was the emergence of the COO, showing in many firms a need to separate the day to day operations from the other issues such as people, strategy and technology. Strange thought it may seem now, twenty years ago it would not have been common for a firm to have an HR Director, a Business Development Director or an IT Director. These emergence of these new roles is partly a response to the increased scale of law firms, but also a recognition that to be successful in law these days, there’s more involved in the business than simply providing legal advice.

More recently still we’ve seen the rise of the CKO (chief knowledge officer) and CIO (chief information officer) in law firms, and also the CLO (chief legal officer) as an alternative to general counsel in the corporate world.

And this brings me to the title of the post – an alternative meaning for CLO. The answer comes in a post (set out below in italics) from the prolific and thought-provoking legal blogger, Julian Summerhayes about the role of the managing partner.

To my mind, listening, the critical skill Julian references, is critical for all lawyers, not just in their legal work, but also in their selling (see number one in my list of top lawyer sales fails). So whether you’re a managing partner or not, read on and reflect on how practising and developing this skill might help you:

Most managing partners that I have met describe their role as like herding cats.

You know the score: two lawyers can’t agree the time of day. And you magnify that up to include the plethora of issues, including the big one – PEP – and is it any wonder that poor old managing partner feels like s/he is dealing with a swarm of angry bees?

What do you think is the role of your firm’s managing partner? 

  • Leader?
  • Visionary?
  • Communicator?
  • Motivator?
  • Political strategist?
  • Tough negotiator?

I’ll give you my view:

CHIEF LISTENING OFFICER (CLO).

And not the sort of listening you normally observe which, at best, skims the surface and never really understands the issue. No, someone who is so intensely focused on listening to you that it is scary.

Scary in what sense?

Scary in the sense that you know they deeply care about you and your needs. They are not constantly scoping the conversation to make their point, or talk in firm speak or make you feel (like a lot do) that you are inferior to them (or at least your ideas).

People skills, being human and wanting you to succeed should be the only selection criteria for managing partners.

The problem for a lot of managing partners is that they take on too much.  Their focus is ameliorated to such an extent that they never get time to address the fundamental people issue.

Of course most large firms will have a Human Resources department but my experience of such departments is that they are more focused on making sure the correct procedure is followed than listening to people. In fairness they don’t really have the power to make a difference – they know that any major decision will be deferred to one of the partners.

Without wanting to name any of the managing partners that I worked under, the one that stands out was the one who took time to stop by whenever he was in the office, put his head around the door and simply say “Hello Julian. How are you?”

There was no agenda. He seemed genuinely interested, and didn’t automatically jump the fence and ask “Are you busy?” As if I was going to confess to surfing the Net all day because I was bored out of my mind doing crap work!

No, this managing partner made me feel, dare I say, special.

Listening is a strategic skill.

It should be taught at every level from undergraduate to senior partner.

As a skill set it is matchless.

How many courses have you attended on it? I have been on loads where you are taught the art of speaking but not listening.

Isn’t it wonderful when you come across someone who intensely listens? Someone who focuses their attention on you.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post the people we find most interesting are the people who are most interested in us.

Try it for yourself. Next time you meet with someone just listen.

Don’t do anything else.

Try not to focus on what you think they are about to say.

Don’t steer the conversation in any one way.

Let one question follow on from the next.

Be humble.

Be patient.

And don’t finish the conversation until the other person has finished what they have to say.

Summary

If you still want a managing partner then fine but how about changing the job specification to include CLO?

Slow down and listen.

Find out something new about your staff and remember it. Better still act on it, if there is something to act on.

It is the small detail (if you can call listening ‘small’) that can often make the biggest difference.

 





Super Mario Lawyer – How to gamify a legal career

2 08 2011

There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about “gamification”. Now before you choke on your cornflakes and wonder what anything that has the word “game” in it has to do with a serious business like the law, let me first explain what it is.

This was a part of the partnership assessment centre that Simon wasn't expecting

The best definition I found was in a white paper from a company called Bunchball (which is well worth downloading if you want to find out more), which says:

“At its root, gamification applies the mechanics of gaming to nongame activities to change people’s behavior. When used in a business context, gamification is the process of integrating game dynamics (and game mechanics) into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign in order to drive participation and engagement”.

Cool huh?

Now while the gamification of legal services may be some way off, and undoubtedly there are certainly a load of “distress purchase” type services that it would be inappropriate to build some fun into, I can see the application of the concept working in some areas.

Could it be used to make a huge due diligence exercise more engaging for junior lawyers? What about a firm that works with clients on repetitive, volume instructions?

However, I suspect the serious business of injecting fun into legal work needs a little more thought, so for the blog I’m going to explore how a legal career might look as a video game, and in doing so, introduce some of the key concepts of gamification.

So learning, plus a little fun. Fits with the theme of the post?

So let’s start with some game mechanics. These are the triggers and actions that drive behaviours and contribute to motivation and engagement. Thinking about this in the context of a legal career is pretty important, because let’s be honest, there are plenty of easier ways to earn a living.

Starting out at University, the first game mechanic you’d encounter would be challenge. This is manifested in a number of different ways, from the intellectual horsepower needed (I remember thinking I’d never “get” trusts and equity!) to the maturity needed to start planning your career early, challenge is a dynamic which is likely to continue throughout a career in the profession, and in my view one of the reasons that being a lawyer can be such an enduring vocation.

Even before you get to university, you’ll have met another game dynamic which may also continue long into your working life – the concept of a leaderboard. Does law attract competitive people, or is it simply that you need to be able to survive (thrive?) in a competitive environment to succeed in the profession? The nature v nurture debate isn’t for this blog, but aim for a career in law and soon you’ll be stack ranked by A-level grades, outside interests and other achievements. The leaderboard continues through law school as the competition for training contracts and then jobs continues, at which point the challenge ramps up as you realise you need a whole new set of skills and competencies.

Being a gamer myself (first game console was an Atari with Space Invaders, Pacman and Asteroids!), the concept of “levelling up” is one that’s familiar to me and I absolutely get how addictive that dynamic can be. The concept of levels translates pretty well to what has to date, been a fairly linear career path followed by lawyers.

–          Get law degree (level up!)

–          Pass law school (level up)

–          Qualify as solicitor (level up)

–          Promoted to associate (level up)

–          Make junior partner (level up!)

–          Make equity (level up!)

Now I do think that as the profession changes at a structural level, this will change, but I think the concept of levelling up in some form or other will remain very applicable to the legal profession.

An interesting set of questions to ask, is then: what level do you want to get to? Why? What will it cost you? What are the benefits?

Shifting focus then to the game dynamics, the elements that drive motivation and reward, the application of these to a legal career is arguably even stronger.

Top of the list are reward and status. Two words often associated with the profession by non-lawyers, but also two words that many lawyers openly acknowledge as key drivers for them and dynamics that do keep them focussed on progress and continuing to work serious hours as they strive for partnership.

Aligned to that drive, and the fascination with the state of the profession’s leaderboard (just read the legal trade press to see how fascinated we all are with how firms are doing, how much other lawyers earn etc) is the competition dynamic.

I’ve written plenty about the competitive nature of the law firm market, and how that competitive intensity is growing as a result of the political, economic and forces now shaping the future. However within the firm is another hugely competitive environment, with players seeking to level up and accumulate points, often at the expense of their peers.

Much of this behaviour, which can often negate many of the benefits of collaboration which are critical to optimising a knowledge based organisation, are driven by the fact that there are limited opportunities to level up to equity partner.

Finally, there are some other game dynamics that also play a part in the lives of many legal professionals – achievement, self-expression and altruism, but these challenge many stereotypes that surround the legal profession, so I’ll leave those for another post.





The in-house law firm – the future of corporate law departments?

20 07 2011

I’m a big fan of Tom Peters. Not just because he genuinely interacts with his followers on Twitter, not just because he’s passionate about what he writes about, and not just because he presents (presentations, books) in some pretty cool ways. I’m a fan because he has some great ideas.

Corporate counsel Sedgwick took his boss' advice to "be a rock star" seriously as he began to address the board meeting

If you look back to his book “Re-imagine, business excellence in a disruptive age”, which was written nearly a decade ago, so much of it remains fresh and inspiring (and you should buy a copy if you’ve not seen it – it was required reading by my General Counsel when I was an in-house lawyer!).

But there’s one concept, right at the heart of the book, that seems more appropriate than ever in the legal marketplace right now. Tom describes the principle as “From cost centre to stardom – the professional service firm (PSF) transformation”.

Let me outline some of the detail behind this principle, and then I’ll tell you why I think it’s SO relevant right now.

Tom starts by ranting (his words!) that aiming to improve departmental efficiency and effectiveness is no longer enough. Heard about effectiveness and efficiency in the context of corporate law departments recently? It’s the opening paragraph of pretty much every report about General Counsel these days. Hell, I’ve written about it myself!

He goes on to assert that working 50 hour weeks in a cost centre is not sustainable – rote work will be outsourced  and the core that remains will be the traditional domain of the PSF – the accumulation and application of creative intellectual capital. With the amount of publicity the legal process outsourcing business is getting these days, this shouldn’t seem far fetched for General Counsel either.

So what’s the solution? Tom breaks it down into the following four key parts, to which I’ve added a law department spin.

  1. Outsource it – if the work can’t be done economically or the law department isn’t demonstrably great at it, outsource it.
  2. Now in a legal department this might be “volume work” which can be systemised and done off-shore cheaply, or it might be more complex but the legal team doesn’t have the skills in-house to do a great job, in which case the work might be passed to a retained law firm (or even another internal department).
  3. Productise it – if the work can be done in-house, break it into a “product” that someone will pay for. Now for lawyers care needs to be taken here as while there are certainly plenty of tasks that internal clients will pay for (doing deals, litigating etc), there are some jobs where the key beneficiaries may be the shareholders who won’t have a notional budget to cross-charge. The key point to me however is that the work creates real, demonstrable value for the organisation.
  4. Web-ify it – Tom challenges us to put everything (policies, procedures, contracts) on the web. Now many lawyers will no doubt be holding up their hands in horror here, but the reality is that this concept is already starting to take hold in the more progressive corporate legal departments. Use up a lot of bandwidth drafting standard sales contracts for the business? Take instructions, do a first draft, internal client reviews and makes changes, lawyer reviews changes, lawyer clarifies, lawyer redrafts, internal client reviews….. you get the picture. How much time has that taken? What’s the internal client satisfaction score looking like? Never mind that of the lawyer or the external client. By contrast, how about this – automate the document, internal client follows online guidance and prepares good quality first draft, lawyer reviews and amends, internal client sends document out.
  5. If it’s great, celebrate it. This to me has two important themes. The first is about communicating value to the business. There are plenty of legal departments that are really good at this, and are highly valued by their business colleagues. But there are plenty who don’t communicate success and value, and in my view they need to start. The second theme Tom mentions is more interesting – if an in-house legal team can become genuinely world class, could they start to provide services outside their company?
This is the idea that got me starting thinking about this topic.
With the Legal Services Act allowing non-lawyer ownership of law firms, is it conceivable that some in-house teams might think of converting to a law firm?
At a recent conference for in-house lawyers, the very progressive GC of a company with a global brand indicated that he was thinking using this type of framework to provide legal services to the company franchisees. Another GC joined the debate and floated the idea of pooling compliance resources with other companies in the industry – sharing the overhead for work that was mandatory but provided the company with little competitive advantage.
This is a time when radical thinking is possible. Sure, there are undoubtedly regulatory questions to answer, and professional ethics issues to resolve, but what is clear is that the future can look very different.
The obvious question is how this might it affect your legal team? Tom talks about “Exciting [legal] departments selling their creative services far beyond the company’s border”.
The more interesting question is how might it affect law firms? Will they find themselves competing with their clients? What about collaboration opportunities.

As Tom would say – to improve is not enough, now is the time to transform.