The writing on the wall #7 – location, location, location

18 12 2014

Location, location, location...

Let’s for a moment put aside the discussion as to whether an investment by a law firm into premium real estate makes sense. Let’s assume that clients don’t object to funding acres of marble and an atrium full of lush vegetation. This question is about where your firm’s offices are, not what they are.

The location question is very personal. For some firms it might be simply be about growth – we are outgrowing our current premises – do we just need a bigger office, or should we open a second office (and if so, where). For other firms it might be about national expansion, or response to an existing or future competitive threat. However for many firms the stakes are higher, and it’s about international expansion.

It may be an understatement, but international strategy is not easy. Aside from the economics, the cultural, regulatory and language differences, suddenly the complexity and management overhead increases dramatically. Whether the market entry strategy is through acquisition, merger  or lateral hire, you can then throw a whole host of political and personal factors into the mix.

With that in mind, opening a new office seems like a decision to be made thoughtfully, but in a fast moving market that is changing more than ever, how can you make the time you need to really assess where the right locations are for you?

 





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.





The writing’s on the wall #3 – resistance to change

11 12 2014

IMG_4954.JPGThere is no shortage of commentary about the need for law firms to change in what is the most significant transition in the profession in a lifetime. Theories from Darwin to Kotter are cited yet firms still struggle with the day to day reality of change.

Partners speak of their frustration that things don’t move fast enough and clients are increasingly outspoken about the growing gap between their expectations and the service delivery they receive.

So for your firm, what’s at the heart of the resistance to change, and critically what can you do to address it?





The writing’s on the wall #2 – scale back your offices?

9 12 2014

Given property is often the second biggest cost of a law firm behind head count, I wonder what the impact would be of scaling back prestigious offices and reinvesting some of the capital in technology that would make a real difference for clients.

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Excuse me, I think your pricing is broken

28 10 2011

I was pleased to read the post on 3 geeks about value billing as this is definitely a topic that needs exploring further, not least because I’m astonished by the number of law firm partners who continually tell me that it’s for clients to find a pricing model that works for the firm’s services.

Caroline the Finance Director had the new pricing model absolutely nailed

The common refrain from private practice lawyers (especially those who know how I feel about hourly rate billing) is that in-house lawyers who talk about value based billing really just want to pay less, and are not really interested in concepts like sharing risk. Opening a dialogue about pricing is simply an exercise in getting the law firm to do the same work for less money.

I my have missed the point, but of course they want to pay less!

The fact that the firm hasn’t developed a model that really meets their needs, or if they have the firm can’t communicate it in a compelling model does not turn this into the client’s problem. It’s the private practice lawyer’s problem. It’s the firm’s problem. It’s the profession’s problem.

The market has changed.

Forever.

Except for those highly differentiated firms that have unique or otherwise genuinely marketing leading skills and expertise, law firms are shifting to being price takers rather than price setters in the market. As barriers to entry in the legal market fall, and new models of legal service delivery emerge, clients have more choices about how they resource work:

  • Big firm, small firm?
  • Global firm or international network?
  • Insource, outsource?
  • Disaggregate, multisource?
  • Onshore, offshore, nearshore?
  • Automate?

Fewer and fewer GCs respond well to a conversation with a law firm that starts at a notional rate card, which of course is all great news if you’re a firm with some creativity and innovation.

To me, understanding value starts with a conversation with the client.

Too many firms assume that clients all want the same thing, but in my experience the range of client needs and expectations are almost infinitely variable.

Organisations of a similar size in the same vertical industry may look similar on the outside. They may have similar sized legal teams which do similar types of work. But actually the underlying businesses may have different operating models, different shareholder expectations, different objectives, different risk tolerances and of course different legal budgets. What they want from their internal and external lawyers may be very different, in fact it might vary significantly across the business.

There are a whole host of client needs that might emerge from a well structured conversation, implemented through some good questions.

The challenge for the law firm is then to define the service that would best meet those needs, identify the variables, work out what the cost implications of those variables are on the overall cost of service delivery and then stitch the whole thing together into a great value proposition at a compelling price.

Some of the variables might include turnaround times, the style of advice (who is the ultimate recipient – business person or in-house lawyer?), the  level of detail, different types of relationship management (dedicated team?) and the hours of operation/availability for the external lawyers.

Thinking about how these factors help the client’s business, as well as the needs of the inhouse legal team, can provide a deeper understanding of value – for example will a quicker response time allow a deal to be completed more quickly? If so, what does that mean for the business?

From this baseline understanding, the firm can get creative, but to do so also needs to ensure they really understand the cost and benefit to the firm of moving these “levers” (i.e. changing the variables).

Cost is often not simply the employee cost, but also may encompass opportunity cost or the cost of holding WIP for specific periods of time. The flip side is that the benefits to the firm can be broader than simply revenue – improved cash flow, client referenceability, employee retention (if the work is prestigious or interesting), replicability (the ability to reproduce the output for other clients at lower cost/higher margin) are all benefits that have value and can be quantified.

With all these factors to play with, plus of course the dynamic of genuinely sharing risk and reward with a client, I would be amazed if a firm couldn’t find a pricing mechanism that works for both the client and the firm. Once some pricing options (hint: that last word is a useful one in these conversations), the overall value proposition for the service offering can be pulled together and communicated. Law firm BD has become increasingly sophisticated, and there are plenty of skilled professionals who can ensure the resulting proposal is truly compelling and is tightly tied to the value it will deliver.

So I’ll grant you this – it’s more effort than simply negotiating percentage discounts on an hourly rate. It requires you to understand the client’s business in more depth, but also your own. But surely both of those are worthwhile steps in any event.

And if you do get a client who is genuinely not interested in this type of conversation (assuming you are not in the commodity market where the price genuinely will be just about lowest price), then maybe they’re not the right fit for your practice?

Or maybe you need to go back and tweak the model some more…..





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?





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.