The legal market place – carnage or opportunity?

7 10 2011

When you look at the legal marketplace, what do you see?

With the implementation of the far reaching Legal Services Act finally happening in the UK (albeit with some fairly significant delays in related regulation), it seems the right time to step back and assess the state of the market.

Talking to people in the profession about this, from partners to in-house lawyers, business development directors to IT professionals, through to trainees and law students, one thing is clear.

There is no single opinion on the state of the market right now.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Opinions are strong and polarised.

Is the glass half empty or half full?

The world of pain

One group see the profession as an industry in decline.

Painful struggles with increasing firm overdrafts and personal debt are symptomatic of underlying structural problems with the profession, and the cash flow challenges facing many firms are just another indicator that it’s time to get out before the interest rates rise and bankruptcy looms large.

With lawyers at both small and large law firms working harder than ever, increasing competition from overseas firms and LPOs becoming more visible, and constant talk of a new wave of competition, does not fill them with hope that easier times are ahead.

Small firms worry about hyper efficient, large scale competitors with a resource base, national reach, consumer brand and technology platform  that they simply can’t match. Large firms worry about transactions being disaggregated and large chunks of profitable work being placed with legal service providers with a cheaper cost base. Mid-sized firms talk about being squeezed, with larger firms looking for work in new markets just to keep their associates busy while they weather the current economic storm, and about smaller, more agile firms  punching above their weight.

These people can often see the need for change, but despair of the pace of change in many law firms, pointing out that the culture and consensual nature of partnership often make decisions glacial when they need to be made at the speed of the digital world we now live in.

They look at the management of their firm, and question whether they have the right skills and experience to thrive in such a turbulent environment. Management themselves wonder how they can free themselves from operational fire-fighting to spend time focussing on the strategic questions that will define their firm’s future.

The lawyers lower down the pyramid see equity structures remaining in some firms that encourage low performing partners to sit back and coast, while the best talent works their asses off and often still finds it impossible to break into the club.

Below them are a generation of students who have made a huge financial and personal commitment to enter the profession, and are finding training contracts like gold dust. Those that are lucky enough to find work may be confronted by suggestions that the legal training system is in need of reform and is not equipping graduates with the skills they need to excel in the profession and exceed client and colleague’s expectation.

They may also be confronted with a linear career path, and find that if that’s one they are willing to follow, then the demands made by the firm are at odds with a generation Y philosophy that puts greater emphasis on work/life balance.

Those who see the world in these terms often point to clients showing less loyalty and who have ever increasing expectations in terms of service standards, yet in the same breath are looking to pay less for that service. A widespread rejection of the hourly rate billing model leaves many firms struggling to come up with a viable alternative and without the capability to re-engineer their business model to support these new fee structures.

The downward fee pressure squeezes profit margins further, and even after several rounds of morale-sapping restructurings and redundancies, with economic growth in the core western markets slow at best, there’s no end in sight.

Pretty grim huh?

Now those that know me know that I’m on balance, a pretty upbeat person, so let’s try and bring a bit of balance to the picture.

There are plenty of people out there in the profession who don’t think like that. Who see the current time of change as tremendously exciting. These are the people who see

A world of opportunity

First and foremost they see an incredibly profitable sector that has weathered an unprecedented recession and shown real resilience with relatively few high profile casualties.

They see businesses with the ability to offer a broad portfolio of services that add real value to clients at critical points in their lives or organisational existence. Many of these services are counter cyclical (helping manage difficult economic conditions) and many of which allow the lawyer to genuinely claim that coveted position of trusted advisor.

It’s not hard to point to law firms that have access to senior people at some of the best and biggest companies in the world and advise some of the most influential people who are shaping society.

For those in the UK, having a core competency in the English language and the common law system that underpins many other legal markets means firms are well placed to support global businesses and expand intro higher growth international markets (as indeed many UK firms have done very successfully).

While there would be an acknowledgement that the bar for client acquisition and retention is being constantly raised (particularly by increasingly sophisticated business development professionals and practices) this is raising standards in the profession and represents progress. There is still a huge opportunity to win by being ahead of this curve and setting the pace.

For those with one eye on the future, advocates of the profession will point out that the chance of a career offering not just the potential to earn big bucks, but one that can offer a lifetime of intellectual challenge and stimulation, will always attract its fair share of top talent, and that the training and development opportunities within law firms have improved massively over the last ten years.

Those who see opportunity see the ability to innovate as being a genuine source of competitive advantage, and are looking at technology, process and efficiency as ways of maintaining and indeed improving profitability in a fast changing market. The ability to change quickly is a key enabler, and they recruit the people with the ability to adapt and thrive to make this a reality.

They also see that market consolidation can offers opportunities. Low price acquisitions, the ability to pick and chose individual teams, to make strategic acquisitions of particular clients or relationships, and the clearing out of some of the noise in the market place.

Yes clients are demanding “more for less” but that’s a common refrain across all business these days – the change facing the profession is not unique and in  many other industries there are organisations that came out as big winners.

A somewhat simplistic categorisation, but I urge you to reflect – which messages resonate most, and critically, what are you going to do about it?





The Tao Of Law Firm Strategy

14 07 2011

Differentiation is getting harder for law firms. We all know that.

Botchit & Co were delighted with the originality of their new logo - there was something fresh yet timeless about it

Clients constantly state that they want their lawyers to have deeper knowledge of their business and environment.

As the market changes, more and more firms are re-examining their business model and questioning how they are going to compete and win in the future.

Some think about doing more of the same. Some think about doing the same thing but cheaper. Some think about doing the same with a twist.

But how many think of doing less?

Actually stopping doing a lot of work types and focussing on a core that they can do better than anyone else?

  • Drop the unprofitable work.
  • Drop the work that doesn’t fit with the core.
  • Drop the work no-one likes doing.
  • Drop the work that can be done better or more efficiently or in other ways (automation, offshore etc).

What’s left? Could it work as a business?

With so much focus on consolidation in the market, who is looking for the gaps?

Where are the agile players that can really own market segments?

Finishing with a (very!) different approach to any I’ve done before. Inspired by verse 80 of the classic of Chinese culture, the Tao Te Ching (Ralph Allen Dale translation), I give you “The way of the niche”

Let us create small firms
With genuine specialists
Who, without stress, can produce
More than their clients expect
Who are so happy with their practice
They have no thought of moving elsewhere

Who forgo billing targets
Because they have no need of them
Who return to honest forms
Of serving clients,
And the simple enjoyments
Of practising law

Although these firms
May be so close to each other
That they hear the tapping
Of each other’s keyboards
And the ringing of each other’s blackberries,
Living profitably, they will have no need to invade each other’s markets.





The five skills of highly effective in-house lawyers

8 07 2011

I spent some time this week with a group of in-house lawyers facilitating a discussion around the skills and capabilities that corporate counsel need to be a success, particularly if they are just making the transition from private practice.

The advanced finance for lawyers class was not well attended

The group itself was very diverse, ranging from a FTSE100 GC to a very recent convert to in-house life, after six years at a magic circle firm. However, despite this diversity, a number of key messages shone through. These are the skills that you need to learn to make it in-house, and very few are taught comprehensively in law firms, fewer still during academic training. 

I’ve hacked, shortened, edited and distilled further to come up with the following magic formula…. 

1. It’s all about the business stupid!

At the heart of everything, is a genuine understanding of their own business. Plenty of private practice lawyers talk a good game about being commercial (and to be fair, some of them do have an excellent grasp of their clients’ businesses), but there are plenty who glaze over when faced with a discussion of what’s really important to their clients. I’m not talking about their views on IP ownership, or liability clauses, I’m talking about how the business makes money. What’s the difference between a really profitable deal and an average one? What activities drive the profit margin? Where are the big chunks of cost and how can they be managed?

The discussion highlighted that this business understanding has a number of different levels. Perhaps the most important is an understanding of the commercial basics of the business – in particular how it makes money. But wrapped around that, but subtly different, is an understanding of the business environment in which the organisation operates. This encompasses (amongst other things) competitors, customers and the supply chain. Some private practice lawyers who have a deep understanding of a vertical sector may well be able to demonstrate this, which is why true industry specialists really can add value by placing their advice in context. However, as I’ve written before, many law firms’ vertical strategies only run skin deep.

Two other types of business understanding which were highlighted were firstly a solid grasp of the operational or technical detail about what the organisation does (this will be important for commercial contracts and litigation) – this is the classic “the devil is in the detail”. The old approach of “we’ll leave the contract schedules for the commercial folks” no longer works when you are in-house, because you soon realise that when there’s a problem, the chances are that it’s the service credit schedule or the payment mechanism that’s at the heart of it, and claiming that you only drafted the front end of the contract simply won’t cut it.

Secondly, for more senior lawyers particularly, an understanding of the organisation’s strategy will be important. Not only will this help the legal function start to think ahead and assess the legal implications of the business’ plans, but it will also allow alignment of legal objectives with business objectives, which is critical if the legal team is going to maximise its value to the business.

2. What language are you speaking? 

 The most fundamental rule that in-house lawyers need to learn early is the need to stop “speaking legal”. Using legal jargon and concepts is a sure-fire way to alienate business colleagues. Internal clients and other stakeholders are likely plenty bright thank you very much, but have not had the benefit (or pain!) of years of legal training, so rather than using legal shorthand because it’s quicker and easier for you, engage brain and translate into plain English. As with drafting, it’s harder and takes longer to begin with, but the end product is far more useful to a non-lawyer.

The sting in the tail is that in-house lawyers shouldn’t rely on their business colleagues to translate the “management bullshit” that permeates the corporate world (and let it be said, you can probably find a fair smattering of that in my blog posts, so I plead guilty!). A good working understanding of business terminology will make communication much faster and also facilitate communication with the consultants that will invariably appear on large projects. While easy to dismiss as “management speak” the widespread adoption of these phrases, particularly in large organisations, means in-house lawyers need at least a basic understanding to ensure key concepts are not “lost in translation”.

Aside from the actual language used, the presentation of the advice was also seen as being really important. As a general rule, avoiding really long notes of advice was seen as a good starting point, but there was also an acknowledgement that good in-house lawyers are able to tailor the presentation of their advice for their audience. This doesn’t mean compromising the advice in any way, rather that it is presented in a form that is appropriate for, and easy to understand by, the particular internal client.

One way in which the communication gap can be closed at a more general level is for the in-house legal team to train key internal groups on how to use a legal team effectively. This type of “soft” education may require an up-front time investment, but can pay dividends over the longer term and also help build relationships.

3. Cut to the chase!

A key point that emerged was that in-house lawyers need to have the ability to prioritise the issues. This helps their internal clients understand what is most important, but also if time is limited, will also make sure the lawyer focuses on the items that will have the biggest impact on the business.

The concept of “good enough means good enough” was discussed – the idea that in-house lawyers often do not have the time to do a “Rolls Royce” document review, and that there was a need for lawyers moving from private practice to become comfortable with the idea that it was better for them to spend 15 minutes looking at a document to highlight the key issues before a meeting, than either (a) for no-one to look at it at all; or (b) to wait for enough time to do a “proper job”, only to find that the business couldn’t wait for the advice and has gone ahead without any advice at all.

4. Get stuck in son!

Although not a skill, a can do, pro-active approach was seen as a valuable characteristic for an in-house lawyer. As one lawyer commented – “you’ve got get stuck in”. This might mean picking up more basic tasks that might be delegated in a law firm environment, or it might mean stepping out of the comfort zone to advise on an unfamiliar area of law, in both cases to allow the business to move faster.

For transactional lawyers, commercial expectations have risen and the in-house lawyer is now expected to have good project management skills and work collaboratively as part of a wider team (it might sound simple, but let’s not forget private practice lawyers often work in a very competitive environment, particularly when chasing partnership, and we all have stories of disfunctional cross-departmental teams). These are table stakes. The very good in-house lawyers can go a step further, and help really drive deals through, using a combination of sound transaction management, good commercial nous, and that “can-do” attitude.

5. Don’t bring me problems – they just make my head hurt

Good in-house lawyers, like the best private practice lawyers, are recognised by their businesses as problem solvers. By giving advice that is focussed on finding solutions and using their creativity to overcome roadblocks, lawyers can really help their internal clients. Making sure advice is practical and not too abstract helps achieve these goals, but it’s also a combination of many of the factors above that can lead to break-through solutions.

Take a good understanding of the business and the commercial context of the project, a pro-active attitude and the ability to prioritise the key issues, mix in the ability to communicate effectively and work collaboratively, and you’ve got in-house dynamite, capable of blowing away even the most stubborn legal problem!

Surely there must be more to it?

Well, yes, of course. There were plenty of other skills and capabilities mentioned, from understanding the organisation and its culture, through to stakeholder management, relationship building and influencing skills. But there was also recognition that if a lawyer didn’t get the five basics right, it may well be that their in-house careers wouldn’t last long enough to allow them to develop the additional skills that sees the very top in-house lawyers rightfully claim their seat at the top table of the world’s best organisations.