Tag Archives: law firms

Test your lawyer with a moment of truth

In the commercial world, cries of distress can often be heard. From corporate counsel, from HR directors, from CEOs. Every now and then, a big, bad and most of all URGENT problem arises. Maybe it’s a really important client contract going wrong, and somebody mentioned litigation. Maybe the IT team have found porn on the MD’s laptop. Maybe news of a top secret M&A deal has leaked and reached the market. Maybe one of the senior management team has been detained at an airport overseas for political reasons.

Sometimes when you need a lawyer, you REALLY need a lawyer

These are the moments of truth for law firms. When reputations, jobs and companies are on the line, this is the time to perform. And perform well. These moments can cement a relationship like no other. A law firm can spend a fortune wining and dining to impress clients and make them feel special, but if they don’t perform when it counts, then it’s money down the proverbial drain (which in the current climate is not a smart move). For the law firms that major on relationship management, even the strongest relationships  can be harmed in these situations. On the flip side, get it right, and I won’t say you have a client for life, but you will have made a major deposit in the trust bank account.

The challenge with these situations is that they might in some way be outside the usual scope of the relationship. It maybe a different work type, a different person in the client organisation calling, an unusual time or simply a bigger piece of work than usual. The question the law firm has to answer, is whether their operational model can deal with these requests effectively.

Often it’s not the legal advice that is difficult. If the call comes in out of hours, will it reach the right person in time? If it needs a different skill set, can the account partner get the internal resources allocated in time? If the firm needs external support (a forensic accountant for example), does the law firm have the relationships in place. If the key contact person is tied up, can the incoming message be effectively prioritised by someone else in the firm. If matters need escalating (either within the firm or within the client) can the law firm facilitate this?

Scenario planning is used often in the strategy departments of companies to ask the question “what happens if”, and to start analysing the implications of different scenarios on current plans. While a full scale planning exercise may not be necessary, asking the question “what happens if” and then discussing possible outcomes within the firm and indeed with clients can be helpful for lawyers. It’s a skill lawyers are good at, and a question they often ask clients when advising, but one that’s not often applied to day to day activity.

To finish on a positive note, the law firms I used during my time in-house did step up to the plate, and that’s one of the key reasons why I continue to recommend them long after I last instructed them.

When individuality is not all its cracked up to be

It’s great to be an individual, right? Creativity, expression, setting yourself apart? We celebrate these things in many areas of society, but in the business world, it’s not always so straightforward. Take law firms for example; individuality can help drive the creative streak of the business to break the mould. It’s pretty difficult to stand out as a law firm (take a look at a few websites to see what I mean!) and similarly (particularly in some larger firms) difficult to stand out as a lawyer. Individuality at firm or personal level can help you stand out and be distinctive, and when you think about the practice of law, there are many ways to do it. You can be super pragmatic, and just get things done, you be a technical master, whose contract drafting is a work of art, a master negotiator who gets clients a great deal, a tenacious litigator who fights to the death for clients; the list goes on. It’s very much horses for courses, but the point is, the law as a discipline and a career does offer opportunities for individuality, and many people and organisations don’t make full use of that.

What's up punk?

The flip side of the coin, the yang to the yin of individuality, is the need for consistency and a common approach. If a client engages with a particular law firm, while there will of course be variations between lawyers and work types, the firm will have a particular theme or ethos. If a lawyer is so individual that they regularly act outside these cultural norms, how can the client know what to expect from the firm? And therein lies the challenge for management. Lawyers are notoriously independent thinkers, and getting any sort of conformity to a particular practice or approach can be very difficult. This can be the case, no matter how compelling the reason for implementing a particular practice or following an approach. Consistency and conformity also have benefits; it may be standardisation reduces costs (translate into “higher margins” to make that seem more appealing), it maybe it gives more consistent quality, but if lawyers, and particularly partners, don’t play ball, dark clouds may gather.

Ok, so it maybe change management 101, but for the New Year, have a think about where you and your business (whether lawyers or not) fit on the continuum of individuality to conformity, and think about the pros and cons, it maybe there are some you hadn’t thought of.

Have a great 2010.

The advisor of last resort?

Speaking with the general counsel of a large multi-national recently, I was struck by the number of opportunities that her external advisors had to impress her. Many law firms often complain that it is hard to develop close, long term relationships with clients because the clients only contact them when they have a problem; the “advisor of last resort”.

Call for the advisor of last resort?

I think there are two key points to consider here. The first is that this highlights the fact that lawyers are largely used to solve client problems. Now this might sound like a no-brainer, but there are millions of companies worldwide trying to sell goods and services for which the client need is not so clearly defined. If a client has a definite problem, then the law firm has a distinct opportunity to help them. Note that “help” is the critical word. Buying and using the legal service shouldn’t be difficult for the client, and if done right can lead to a real sense of gratitude from the client. The bigger the problem and the better the service, the truer this is.

The second point is that many of these problems can be nipped in the bud early, or indeed prevented altogether, if the client has the right advice upfront. Rather than waiting for the client to arrive with a problem, law firms can sieze the advantage and proactively go and talk to clients and prospects about this, rather than sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. Note however there is a big difference between initiating a dialogue with a client about a problem they are facing or may be about to face, and going to talk to a client to tell them about a service the law firm can sell them. It may sound like semantics, but in reality it is about ethos and intention, and the law firms that get this right, have the opportunity to build trusted and enduring relationships with clients that many other suppliers and advisors would envy.

The size 0 law firm?

Sitting in an Entrepreneur’s group meeting at accountants Price Bailey on behalf of a client, the conversation (nicely facilitated by Nick Mayhew) turned to the concept of  “lean”, which took me back to the operations management module on the MBA. While at first sight many of the process improvements that have led to successful improvements in manufacturing may not seem applicable to the world of professional services, if we scratch beneath the surface, there is much to ponder.

A good starting point is perhaps that one of the key drivers for operational improvement in manufacturing organisations was the need to do “more for less” ie improve output (quality, volume etc) in return for less (revenue, margin etc). The same dilemma is now facing law firms in the world of deregulation and global competition. One of the ways law firms can compete more successfully in this increasingly competitive market, is to improve their “operational excellence” (to borrow a phrase from the Value Disciplines management model). In my experience, when law firms thinking about improving operations, the objective is often just to strip out cost. Managing cost is of course critical (particularly in the current economic climate), but it is far from the only aspect of operational excellence.

Small cog in a big machine? More importantly, are the cogs turning?

One other key improvement area is looking at the process of actually providing legal advice, and seeing how it can be improved. I think the historic hourly rate pricing structure for legal services has traditionally provided a reason not to focus on improving the process (if the client will pay for the inefficiency, why remove it?). Now pressure is forcing firms to adopt new pricing models, which is in turn squeezing margin. If firms can make their processes more repeatable, more efficient and performed using the right level of resource each time, I believe they have the opportunity to create a more consistent, higher quality product, at a lower cost. Which is where they need to be right now (more for less).

If we look at some of the legal sectors that have faced competition from outside the profession earlier (conveyancing, insurance claims etc), there are examples of this type of process improvement (which of course may include a technology component). Some may protest that high end work is very different (it is), but while the same degree of commoditisation might not follow so quickly, I believe it is very unwise to believe the process for providing that advice cannot be improved. Ignore operational improvements at your peril, embrace them and see what is possible.