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.





Do you want to win?

4 10 2010

Last week I started reading what is probably the second most famous text on military strategy (after Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War“); Carl von ClausewitzOn War“. I’ll be honest – it’s not an easy read.

Thawson & Partner's new aggressive strategy made quite a splash in the legal press

My reason for reading was not that I was plotting any sort of immediate show of armed force (although if I was, I promise you’ll read about it here first!), but to look for lessons that could easily be applied to strategy in the law firm arena. While it was a fascinating read, I struggled to apply many of the concepts, and turned instead to Robert Greene‘s “The 33 Strategies Of War“.

Much easier.

In fact the first chapter immediately grabbed my interest, it was titled “declare war on your enemies: the polarity strategy”. There’s quite a lot of depth to the chapter, but one of the key messages is to know your enemy.

Sounds simple?

I’m not so sure. Although the market is ultra-competitive, many firms struggle to know who their competitors really are. When I was undertaking my primary research for my MBA thesis on law firm strategy, one of the questions I asked the CEOs and managing partners was “who are your competitors?”. Answering was much more difficult than I anticipated. A huge number of variables came up: what geography was I talking about? which practice area? in which industry did I mean?

These  are undoubtedly good questions and show a good understanding of the need to segment markets, but it does make me think about the benefits of good, old-fashioned, competitive spirit. It might be that you can find “enemies” that compete in 80% of the firm’s markets, or it might be key teams have their own “public enemy number one”, but I do believe finding a key competitor to focus upon can bring real benefits.

I remember when I was in private practice, there was one firm I absolutely wanted to beat. In the area of law I practised they were generally ranked slightly higher than my firm, they had a slick brand, nicer offices, were reportedly more profitable and they paid better. I had a huge amount of respect for the firm, and on a human level, liked a great many of their lawyers. But boy, did I want to beat them! If we were ever responding to the same request for proposal, I would want to go the extra mile to make sure we were at the top of our game.

Now this response might be unique to me, but I suspect  having a handful, of clearly identified competitors could help galvanise a firm (or team) and focus it on winning? Could a common firm-wide “enemy” help break down silos within the firm?

Could having a clear idea of an “enemy” help the law firm define itself? If you know what you don’t want to be, might that help you identify differences? It might be that this polarisation helps clients identify more clearly what they are looking for in advisors.

As Greene says “see yourself as a fighter, an outsider surrounded by enemies. Constant battle will keep you strong and alert”.

Another benefit to focussing on competitors, which I discovered  in corporate life, was that commercial and sales people can then  think more broadly about the impact of their actions on the market place. For example, “if we hire Mr X, will it hurt company Y?”, “If we launch this new product at a price that undercuts Z co, what will it do to their margins?”. Without a clear idea of competition, it is hard to benefit from this type of thinking.

To me, competition is a key part of strategy. It should be about winning in a market place. A clear view of who your competitors are must help this process. It’s not always easy (I’ve written before about the benefits of collaboration among law firms, so there are undoubtedly multiple perspectives to think about here), but I do believe it’s worth thinking about. The one cautionary note is that it shouldn’t be done at the expense of losing focus on the client.

So, this week’s message? Find an enemy, have a fight. You might feel better for it….