The value of discipline (sort of)

28 12 2010

With the New Year approaching, given the title of this post, you may be expecting a post on all he productivity benefits that can flow from self-discipline coupled with some suggestions for New Year’s resolutions. But no. I’m combining the D-word with one of my favourite words, “value”, to bring you a little morsel that I hope you can chew over until 2011.

Bertie was not impressed with his owner, the managing partner's, approach to discipline and didn't think the partners in the law firm would respond well to offers of dog treats

Value Disciplines is a model created by Treacy and Wiersema, and as well as being one of my favourites that I studied at B-school, it is one which I have found really resonates with lawyers and law firm management (their book is called “the discipline of market leaders” and is well worth a read).

In very simplistic terms, the theory asserts that an organisation can succeed in its market place by excelling in one of three “value disciplines” (ideally coupled with also practising the other two value disciplines to the market standard).

The first value discipline is operational excellence.  In their original Harvard Business Review article (available here), they define this as “reliable services at competitive prices delivered with minimal difficulty”. This is an interesting model for law firms, as in my experience few law firms really look to compete on this basis (operational excellence is not simply about having low prices) and indeed as I’ve discussed previously, hourly rate billing has often encouraged inefficiency – arguably the polar opposite of operational excellence.

However, with the emergence of LPOs and the increasing number of law firms hiring Lean Six Sigma specialists, plus of course the imminent entrance in the UK market of alternate business structures, I think operational excellence is a strategy that is going to have increasing relevance to the legal profession, and the bar that represents the market level of operational excellence, is definitely going to rise.

The second value discipline is “product leadership” which is all about getting the leading edge services in the market. Here speed to market is critical, and as we saw with a plethora of Bribery Act offerings in the UK market, both from law firms but also the larger consultancies, some firms do this better than others.

As with operational excellence, I believe the discipline of product leadership is of growing importance to law firms as the market increases in competitive intensity. The struggle to differentiate is recognised and discussed by many management teams in law firms, and having a kit bag full of unique products and services, each with a strong value proposition, is a real asset in this battle.

The third value discipline is “customer intimacy”. Organisations that excel here have strong client relationships and are able to customise products and services to meet their precise needs. Now while this blog has *occasionally* suggested law firms could do more to listen to their clients (hey, I’m only trying to help!), I actually think this is the value discipline that many law firms practice well.

What this means in practice however, is that the benchmark for the industry in this value discipline becomes higher, and the challenge for firms who want to dominate their industry, is how to raise the bar and really become the market leader in client intimacy. One way to think about this is to investigate how far the client intimacy ethos permeates the firm’s entire operating model – in my experience often there are pockets of excellence in a firm, but often other areas where the standards are not so high.

However, one thing to ponder, is that one of the firms that I think does this best of all (a smaller City firm) is also the firm that put together the highly tailored tender response I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago on excellent responses to RFPs (requests for proposal)  for legal services. This suggests to me that the firm starts REALLY thinking about the client’s needs before they are even a client of the firm, which I think is a pretty good demonstration of really living that value discipline and the benefit it can bring the firm and its clients.

 

Related posts:

Are you high quality?

The size 0 law firm





Law firm elves (the missing skillsets)

20 12 2010

As snow continues to bathe the United Kingdom in its cold fluffiness, and our transport infrastructure predictably fails to cope, I’ve had plenty of time  to think up a suitably Christmassy post for this festive week.

The business analyst's office was a little off the beaten track

Now Santa Claus(e) is pretty busy at this time of year, arguably busier than even the most stressed managing partner. Sure, cash flow and chasing WIP may not be an issue, but he has millions of presents to procure and wrap, and then a logistics nightmare to contend with. His relentless focus on execution is impressive, but he certainly couldn’t deliver on time and on budget alone. The reindeer may get the media plaudits, but the unsung heroes are undoubtedly his legion of elves. Working quietly in the background, they make sure his ambitious plans are carried out, deal with last minute changes and generally keep things ticking over.

Maybe that’s what law firms need.

So, I started thinking, which elves could help law firms in 2011…….

1. The Sales Elf.

“Sales!” I hear you cry. Heresy! Burn him! But wait a second. Law firm business development has developed tremendously in the last decade and sales training by organisations like the PACE partnership and Huthwaite Fleming is now accepted as delivering solid business benefits. Yet I still see many business opportunities lost because a law firm doesn’t have the right sales capacity or capability. Business development directors in law firms are often in strategic or marketing-focussed roles and if they do have selling skills are rarely given the chance to use them.

Is employing a dedicated sales force going too far? Some may argue that culturally it’s a bridge too far and that professional services can’t be sold in that way? I’m not convinced. I think if you get the right fit between sales person and firm, that focus on generating new business and the skills that go with it, could really turbo charge a law firm’s performance.

2. The Analyst Elf

Outside of the very largest law firms, there is often a lack of internal business analysis capability.  There’s no shortage of raw information, with many firms taking an “arms race” approach to subscribing to market and business research services, yet often the same firms struggle to make best use of this information, with no dedicated resource to synthesise and analyse it.

For the firms looking to position themselves as experts in a particular sector, how helpful would it be to have some proprietary analysis of what was happening in that sector, and to use that to generate some real though leadership, rather than simply offering comment on a recent news item?

The skillsets needed are widely available – investment banks use them, management consultants use them, large accountancy practices use them and corporates certainly use them, yet in comparably size law firms, they are a rare species indeed.

3. The Process Elf

Talking to some legal sector recruitment specialists, this is a hot area. With downward pressure on price and the increasing rejection of the hourly rate billing model, law firms are looking for ways to maintain or improve service quality while at the same time reducing cost. Looks and smells like a Lean Six Sigma type project to me.

Process mapping and re-engineering are perhaps the most obvious quick wins, but actually having a dedicated resource to think about operational efficiency and help drive the personal and organisational change that is needed to deliver the results is essential and I don’t believe it will be achieved by someone doing the job in their “spare time”.

4. The Pricing Elf

On a recent tender exercise for a NYSE listed outsourcer the request for proposal document made it clear that the company did not wish to buy legal services on an hourly rate basis, and asked law firms for alternative pricing models for four different work types. The diversity of responses across the ten law firms was significant. Some were well advanced in their thinking, giving a variety of models, an explanation of the type of work and volumes that would make them work, and detailing how scope changes were managed. Others were being dragged kicking and screaming from their hourly-rate comfort zone, with vague promises to think about fixed price projects and retainers, provided certain caveats were discussed and agreed.

In a world where the market is requiring different pricing models, and given the very (very) direct link between price and profit, doesn’t it make sense to address this seriously? Is setting up a pricing committee made up entirely of lawyers really the answer?

5. Other elves

The need to go and do my Christmas shopping precludes a longer discussion, but some other elves to think about – the change management elf, the project management elf, the product development  elf and the innovation elf.

This is likely to be the last post before Christmas, so if you are celebrating, have a great time and I hope you’re back here again, fully refreshed, for the New Year post, which may well tackle the classic New Year topic of (s)elf improvement!





The beautiful ones (law firm responses to tenders)

13 12 2010

Aware that often the third part of a trilogy can be a disappointment (think Return of the Jedi….) I want to finish my musings on how law firms respond to tenders on a high. In the previous two posts (here and here) I’ve looked at some of the mistakes I’ve seen when evaluating law firm responses to RFPs (requests for proposals), now it’s time to celebrate some of the goodness!

Inspiration for the tender design was taken seriously at Scratchit & Co

When I think back to those responses that have really impressed evaluation panels (and not just me), I think the key word is “relevance”. The more effort the law firm puts into the document or presentation, in terms of tailoring it for the prospect’s specific needs, the stronger the submission.

The challenge for me is to give examples without giving away any trade secrets. So here goes.

One project that I put out to tender five years ago spanned around 15 European countries. The firm who won the project submitted a tremendous document that had a huge amount of material that really created value for our organisation. It had points for us to think about both for the project as a whole and for each country in the project scope.

This did two things. Firstly it showed that the law firm had experience of the areas of law we needed help with, in these particular countries. Secondly it give us a “heads up” of things we should be aware of, even if we didn’t select the law firm in question.

The other thing that the winning law firm did on that pitch, was make sure that all examples of experience were relevant (even down to tailoring CVs). The amount of responses I’ve seen where standard blocks of text and vanilla CVs have been appended on the back is huge, so when a firm goes to the trouble of really thinking about what the prospect organisation wants, it stands out a mile.

I’ve seen a similar approach taken at presentation stage. At a pitch I ran for financial services legal support, the winning firm gave a virtuoso presentation. The lead partner had asked some great questions early in the process, and had clearly spent significant time thinking about the issues we would face, and how best to deal with them. Rather that the presentation being a verbal version of the paper RFP response (which often happens, with firms taking the opportunity to spend an hour using extensive powerpoint to tell the prospect how good they are) the partner and his team took the evaluation panel through a mini-workshop, illustrating  points with war stories and other relevant examples.

We came out of the presentation with a much better understanding of the project, a good rapport with the law firm, and a clear action plan if we chose to work with that firm (we did).

Another area where firms can distinguish themselves is in the presentation of the document. I’ve seen a wide variety of creative approaches, from mocking-up a trade publication, through using corporate colours and imagery, to just some really nice, clear presentation (I respectfully refer people once again to Impact by Jon Moon and Presentation Zen Design by Gary Reynolds). Of course presentation is superficial, but it does make a difference, particularly if it makes the content easy to digest. It’s also another area where law firms can demonstrate they have thought about the particular client, rather than just plugged the information into the tender-team sausage factory.

So, it’s relevant, it adds value and it looks great?

Go forth and win!





The insidious side of hourly rate billing

15 11 2010

Much has been written about the demise of hourly rate billing by some excellent writers, and rightly so, much of the focus is on why hourly rate billing doesn’t work for clients. Encourages inefficiency, doesn’t relate to value delivered or market rate for work, makes bill auditing onerous etc etc.

These criticisms are absolutely valid and it is undoubtedly clients who are driving the nails into the coffin of the hourly rate.

Time's up for chargeable time

But I want to look at hourly rate from another angle, and investigate some of the problems it causes within law firms.

Starting with the most obvious, chargeable hours targets for lawyers. Still the numero uno metric for measuring law firm performance, and still causing associates heartache in so many ways.

The number (be it 1,400 p/a 1,800 p/a or if you’re at a US firm maybe 2,400 p/a) it’s still the main criteria that lawyers are judged in the performance management cycle. Many law firms talk a good game about recognising non-chargeable work and rewarding high performance outside of pure client work, but speaking to associates at some of these firms, this type of recognition only occurs once the chargeable hours box has been ticked.

  • Want to have your business development truly recognised? Just make sure you hit your chargeable target.
  • Want to spend some time studying an emerging area of law? Fine, as long as you hit your target.
  • Like to spend some more time with clients, learning about their business? No problem, as long as it’s chargeable.
  • Up for partnership? Better knock your hours target out of the park this year.
  • Want to devote some time on pro-bono or other CSR initiatives? That’s great, do it at the end of the day when the timesheet is full.

There are so many activities that create value in law firms, yet so few of them get real recognition in comparison to chargeable hours targets.

Note also that many of these activities above represent an investment in the future health of the firm (you may remember David Maister talked about the tension between short term firm hygiene and longer term health) as opposed to the short term focus on current revenue.

One of the consequences of this is that lawyers fit in all the additional work over and above what are sometimes very onerous chargeable hours targets, leading to the inevitable work/life issues which are a hot topic over at the Careerist right now (http://thecareerist.typepad.com/).

And yet more frustratingly still, chargeable hours as a key metric has so many flaws

  • Do chargeable hours reflect the quality of work produced or client satisfaction? Nope
  • Do chargeable hours demonstrate profitable work or good financial management? Afraid not.
  • Do chargeable hours promote effective delegation and encourage senior lawyers to mentor train junior lawyers? Absolutely. Sorry, only joking.

I’m not necessarily suggesting the total abandonment of time recoirding. Indeed Peter Drucker, one of my favourite authors, talks about the importance of understanding where you spend your time in his brilliant book “The effective executive” which is one of the reasons I spent over three months as an inhouse lawyer recording my time. Also, capturing time utilised on client projects is important for calculating cost and determining profitability, and can also highlight development needs (if for example one lawyer takes 30% longer on a task than his or her peers).

But for as long as hourly rate billing and chargeable hours as the key metric continue staggering round like a zombie that just won’t die, I’ll continue wielding my personal chainsaw to send them to the grave!





Inside out lawyers?

29 08 2010

An inside out lawyer would be messy, no question. I’m not sure exactly what lawyers are made of, but I bet the middle is pretty gooey, and you certainly wouldn’t want that stuff on your carpet. But law firms are different, in fact I think they are usually inside out…..

Angie's attempt to turn herself outside in to help with product development ended in disaster

Over the past few years I’ve spoken with a number of people in the profession  about product development, and have met varying responses, ranging from “we sell services, not products, and legal services don’t change so we don’t need any development”, to “how do we do that?” and finally “it’s a great product with a strong value proposition, you should meet the product manager”. Ok, so I exaggerated the last one, but not by much.

I’ve written about the need for innovation in law firms a number of times, but here my message is different.  One of the challenges law firms have in the way they approach the market, is they think “inside out” i.e. what capabilities do we have that we can sell (never mind if anyone wants to buy them or not).  I’ve often wondered about the reason for this, and when I was hammering through the reading for my MBA dissertation on law firm strategy, I came across some suggestions that this may be because lawyers have traditionally prided themselves on the quality of their work, viewing this as the critical success factor in the profession as well as a source of intellectual pride, and as result were disproportionately internally focussed.

However, it wasn’t until I read Tuned in (by Craig Stull, Phil Myers and David Meerman Scott) that I realised this phenomenon was just as common (or at least nearly as common!) in plenty of other businesses.  The book (which is a good read) explains that good product development starts with “outside in” thinking, which in legal terms means with the client. This makes absolute sense to me; if you are developing a product, it’s surely best to develop one that meets a market need.

Let me give you an example; I can remember being in-house just before the credit crunch really took effect. Many large companies were looking at restructuring and were going to need employment law advice. The in-house lawyers knew they could pick up the phone and get the advice they needed from their regular employment law advisors (no doubt at a competitive hourly rate), but how many times did the phone ring with a law firm pro-actively offering a nicely packaged restructuring service?

I’m talking about a service that gave me the advice I wanted, nicely presented, with a clear defined price. A service that the person calling could concisely and effectively explain the benefits and crucially, how it was different from other advice I might get on the subject.

Needless to say the phone didn’t ring much. Or indeed at all.

Now I don’t pretend this is easy: it’s not. You have to be close to clients and understand their industry to spot the market need. You have to be prepared to fail: it maybe you have a great product, but don’t get to market quickly enough. Maybe you get the product right but the price wrong. But to quote a cognitive hypnotherapist I met last week “there is no failure, only feedback”.

The ever changing nature of the law can be a blessing in that new market needs arise frequently. Why not turn yourself from inside out to outside in, and see if you can spot one?