The writing on the wall #4 – the commodity game

12 12 2014

 

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It seems that whatever the practice area, lawyers talk in hushed tones about their work becoming a commodity. Corporate law, employment law, technology law are among the areas where there is much gnashing of teeth and squeezing of margins.

Much of the debate focuses on whether to do the commoditized elements and if so how to do them profitably, but there is little discussion of what will replace that work at the high end. I suspect the implications of this will be felt in the not-too-distant future.





What’s the end game?

30 09 2011

I was with a group of law firm partners from different City firms this week, listening to them discuss a case study about super-profitable US law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Aside from their phenomenally successful business model and profitability (with the Amlaw100 reporting profit per partner of over $4m), one of the points that provoked most discussion was the idea that many of the partners would retire from the firm in their early forties.

Doris was overjoyed to hear she'd finally made partner

One response from the group was “that’s just coming into your lawyering prime”, which really got me thinking about careers in the legal profession, how they’re changing and ultimately what the end game is for many lawyers.

It used to be simple.

When I entered the profession in the mid/late nineties you joined a firm, did your training contract, hoped you’d get kept on, and if you did took your place on the conveyer belt. In the larger firms this often meant increasing specialisation and more often than not, increasing your hours.

In particular it was understood (albeit often unspoken) that the years between two and five years post-qualification were the proving ground. Where firms got to weed out those who were not suitable for partnership, and consequently lawyers were competing to prove they were up to the job.

This ethos, coupled with the leverage dynamic (with a smaller number of equity partners generating huge fees from supervising and managing junior lawyers) and chargeable hours model saw associates happily prepared to work all hours as they strived for partnership. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Every year their increased experience meant law firms could up their hourly chargeout rate, meaning in turn that as long as their chargeable hours stayed high, a nice chunky payrise was available, thus providing a short-term incentive for the associate to stay in the game.

Now this approach certainly had its faults, but it was largely understood and accepted and as a result it worked. Hell, early in my career I was certainly prepared to play by those rules.

But things have changed.

That model is breaking.

Firstly, the concept of work/life balance arose. Slowly, softly at first, it began to gnaw at some of the Generation Xers. Marriages came and went and at both points, people began to pause for reflection. Children brought matters into even sharper focus. None of these events were new, but society’s attitudes were changing and the legal profession was not immune from this.

With the emergence of Generation Y, the trend began to accelerate. I vividly recall a conversation with a managing partner of similar age to myself a couple of years ago, where he shared his frustration that many of his assistant solicitors wanted to leave work at 6pm. He understood this, but having put the hours in himself at that stage in his career, found this attitude difficult to reconcile with the drive and focus he expected from his young lawyers.

At the other end of the spectrum, change was also afoot. Many of those partners who had put in the hard yards and had been through the grinder were looking round and asking “is this it?”. Some had migrated into management as this was seen as the only upward progression, but either didn’t like it or weren’t suited with it. Others began to see the downside of their high levels of specialisation by craving a broader workload.

The model was also being tested by the market. A growing rejection of hourly rates, and more sophisticating procurement of legal services caused clients to question firstly whether hourly rates were suitable, and secondly, if they were, why they should be paying more for a particular resource than they paid a couple of months ago (simply because they had another year PQE and their rate went up) when the value delivered was exactly the same.

As the career model began to crack, the consequences began to emerge. Moves to in-house roles, into venture capital and private equity companies became more common, and law firms began to adapt by creating different career paths and non-partner senior roles such as “Of Counsel”, “Legal Director” and of course “Consultant”.

But with the structure of the profession fundamentally changing due to trends such as outsourcing, technology, commoditsation and globalization, is this enough?

While the supply of law students far outsrips demand, the answer I suspect is that the slow changes to the status quo will probably be sufficient in the short term, but ultimately as the profession reconfigures to meet the changing needs of the market, new and better career structures must emerge or I believe traditional law firms may begin to lose heavily in the global war for talent.

 





A shiny new law firm

30 06 2011

With deregulation of the market looming here in the UK, opinion varies wildly over what the likely impact will be.

  • Some speak of decimation of the high street, and the end of the traditional law firm as we know it.
  • Others are more conservative and see a simple acceleration of the move from a traditional profession to a collection of more business orientated organisations.
  • Some see different changes in different market segments, underpinned by core drivers such as the increasing role of technology, globalisation, vertical market focus and more specialisation driven by a need to differentiate.
  • Finally, some bury their heads in the sand, unwilling or unable to contemplate large scale change in a profession that once was conservative and safe.

Simon paused a second to consider a future without his office in the most prestigious street in the City. Then he went back to work because the thought was just too horrible

So, against that backdrop, the question I ask you today looks at the changing market from a different perspective. If you were a new market entrant, free from the constraints and history of existing law firms, what would you do differently to build a successful legal service provider?

Here are some thoughts to get you started….

1. Real Estate

For a start, I wouldn’t invest vast amounts of capital in plush, city-centre offices. Sure, there’s definitely a need for an accessible meeting place both for internal and client meetings, and the space should be highly functional and consistent with the brand. But no massive atrium, no marble or fountains, and definitely not hundreds of expensive people crammed into premium real estate with the sort of eye watering rent that causes agonised soul searching within two years of every rent review.

I’m not saying all law firms should be virtual, and I’m not saying that firms should be central, but there are plenty of big, impressive organisations that work just fine without all their people in a building in a premium post code. A firm’s cost base matters, and people and property make up a pretty hefty chunk of a law firm’s cost base – avoiding the big numbers here could make a huge difference to long term profitability.

2. Technology infrastructure

Often years of under-investment, and a patchwork of applications and networking have meant maintaining and upgrading law firm systems is a nightmare. The ability to add a new application, device or method of access can be hugely time consuming and expensive. Being free of that legacy a new law firm could start afresh with proven, enterprise class software platform, that had an open architecture to allow maximum interoperability and future proofing.

The march to the cloud seems unstoppable at the moment, despite the fact that within the profession questions remain around resilience and security. Whatever the choice, a new entrant could have a fully functioning platform and a clean set of data to reside within it, all without the pain of a huge data cleanse and migration project.

3. Resource profile

Freed from the current business model of gearing and billable hours, a new law firm could sit back and work out what resources it really needed to service the work it was planning to generate.

How many partner level people does the firm really need? Are they managing client relationships, project managing or providing complex/strategic advice? If they are not doing the high grade legal work, are their other professionals who could do the work better or to a similar standard but cheaper? What is the right blend of junior lawyers? Would supervision and quality control be a separate function? What about training? What other skills would you bring to the organisation? Project management? Process expertise? Social media and digital marketing experience? Lower cost legal resource?

There are so many options, and the right combination would of course depend on the firm and the type and volume of work, but I think it’s fair to say that not many firms would start with a large number of equity partners, add a bunch of assistant lawyers and trainees to generate the fees to pay them, and then add a support infrastructure around them.

4. Corporate structure

The benefits of the partnership are clear. Consensual decision making, meaning everyone (well, the partners anyway) has a voice and feels heard. Sharing the profits gives not just a built in performance incentive, but a shared sense of ownership and responsibility. All this builds a tremendous sense of trust and an atmosphere that fosters collaboration.

What?

Your law firm doesn’t work like that?

Really?

Particularly as firms have got bigger and the pace of business has increased, the partnership model has begun to creak a little. Granted, some firms have it cracked, but I’d wager a lot more struggle. Slow decision making, turf wars, those at the top of the lockstep enjoying rewards that they perhaps haven’t fully contributed to and difficulties removing underperformers are not uncommon.

For a new firm I’d think very hard about keeping ownership and management separate, and use a structure that encouraged fast decisions and business agility. Incentives would follow the corporate model, and be performance based (which of course offers a huge amount of options, and can be tailored depending on what behaviours management wish to drive).

5. Sales force

Some lawyers can sell. They are really, really good at it. A great many however cannot.

I’m a huge fan of sales professionals – they generate the revenue that drives the business. Yes I know that other people do the delivery (lawyers in law firms), but first things first, you have to win work to do it.

Now other than the best of the best, the chances are that a lawyer is not as good at selling as a salesperson – and why would they be? The salesperson wouldn’t likely do much of a job advising on the TUPE provisions of an outsourcing deal. So surely if you accept the need to sell legal services, you’d get the best people to do it. It’s likely as well that not only might a salesperson have a lower base salary (although if good can more than make up for it through commission), but it would also free up the lawyers to do what they are best at, and generate the fees from the work that the sales people have won.

A law firm with a professional, well trained and motivated sales force would be a serious force to be reckoned with.

So what?

I know, I know – you’ve already got a law firm thank you very much. And you can’t relocate, rip out the IT and employ an awesome sales force. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t pause a minute to think about these issues, not just in terms of your own firm, but in relation to changes your competitors may make, or crucially what impact a well capitalised competitor might have if they adopted some of these ideas…..





The Profession’s Top Model?

23 11 2010

There have been a couple of interesting news items over the last few days that have got me thinking about business models in the legal profession. First, an article in the Law Society Gazette about client experience with the network of solicitors called “Quality Solicitors”, an attempt by a range of smaller law firms to pre-empt new market entrants when the market more fully deregulates in the UK next year.

The business model pondered the firm's business model

The article is here and the comments are perhaps more intriguing than the article itself.

The second development of note was the acquisition of Pangea3 by Thomson Reuters, of which there is an interesting discussion here:

To my mind, the second represents a far more fundamental challenge to the classic legal business model than the first, but I think the really interesting point is that it shows how no part of the profession is immune from the winds of change that are now blowing harder and harder through the market place.

For smaller firms in the High Street, there is no shortage of debate around whether “Tesco Law” will see the corporate behemoths enter the market for personal legal services, and clean up with a combination of powerful, trusted brands, efficient process, scale and automation.

Similarly, looking at the higher end, while the market for LPO services remains a relatively tiny proportion of the overall market for legal spend, few would doubt that there is a category of commercial legal work that can and will be commoditised, and that a significant chunk of this is likely to go to the LPOs.

So how to respond?

Well, there are of course many ways to approach this question, and the most appropriate will depend on a number of factors such as a firm’s size, service offerings, current market position, capitalisation and cash flow and the aims and aspirations of the partners and staff.

However, what I want to do today is get people thinking about their underlying business model. Many of the new market entrants will have a blank sheet of paper, and can design an organisation free of the history, politics, structure and financial constraints that burden many law firms.

While not disregarding those challenges, thinking afresh about a firm’s business model can open up new possibilities and avenues for competing effectively in the future.

A great, great read on this subject is a book called “Business Model Generation” by Osterwalder and Pigneur. The book gives readers a visual template for assessing and re-engineering business models.

A good place to start is key suppliers and partners. What are the key inputs into the business? These could be anything from recruitment agents who help identify and supply talent, to IT suppliers. Are these suppliers sufficient? How could the relationships be strengthened? If you were building a firm from scratch, would these be the suppliers you would select?

Next are key resources and activities. Resources covers physical,  human, financial and intellectual. How does the firm stack up in these areas? Are the premises fit for purpose? Do changing working patterns change the need for space? Do you have the right people in terms of quality and numbers? If not, what can you do about it? Do you have enough working capital? Is the business financed in the most efficient way?

Looking at activities, knowledge management remains a key question for law firms, and one that I’m not sure many firms have really cracked. What about training and supervision? Quality control? How is service delivery managed? Client care? Compliance? There are so many day to day activities that just continue ad infinitum, simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. The turbulent environment facing law firms can provide the perfect opportunity to revisit them.

Looking then at the outward facing parts of the business model, what are the key client segments and what is the value proposition that the firm offers to them? Do you know which are the most profitable clients? Are target clients clearly identified? Can all lawyers articulate their team’s value proposition to those clients and prospects? is the source of competitive advantage clear?

What about channels to market? Do you have any? Strategic partnerships with businesses selling complimentary services? What is the future of these in the world of Alternative Business Structures? Referral relationships? Are these working? Who are the partners you would select if you were starting afresh?

There are so many questions and also so many opportunities to do things differently and better.

Much of the debate in the UK at the moment centres around whether the deregulation offers a threat or an opportunity to the profession.  Ultimately I believe that question is academic – the market “is what it is” – it is for firms to choose how they respond, and the strategic challenge is to use the market changes to your advantage.