Hasta la vista baby – the termination of the legal profession

13 10 2011

Later this week I’m running a session for a group of leading technology lawyers which will explore the future of the profession.

Withington & Co's new M&A lawyer was a force to be reckoned with

Why I think this will be particularly interesting topic for this group is that I believe technology will be the  single biggest driver of change  for the legal sector in the long term.

Sure, globalisation, outsourcing, commoditisation, changing procurement patterns are all shaping the market now, but technology has the potential to change it to a much greater degree.

Here’s why.

There are a number of technology trends that have already influenced the profession to a greater or lesser degree:

  • The Internet has enhanced communication speed and accessibility which has fundamentally changed client service expectations and the response times in the market
  • The vast amount of electronic information available has made search and retrieval a vastly different affair to that of twenty years ago, when a trip to the law library and a long afternoon was required to get oven an overview of the latest law in an area
  • Collaboration software is allowing the process of working with internal stakeholders and external parties to become more efficient (not least by reducing the number of times documents are passed backwards and forwards)
  • The sharing of information between law firm clients has become far more widespread (intensified by social media) so that emerging client buying patterns such as the rejection of hourly billing become more adopted more quickly
  • Technology supports the standardisation of work – with more and more firms focussing on efficiency and improving process, tools like workflow software can support and enhance changes to the way lawyers work
  • The automation of low complexity work, most visible in the consumer space (think automated wills online), is also beginning to see wider adoption in the B2B space as more complex work gets disaggregated and the low complexity components get packaged up and automated (standard due diligence report anyone?)

However, to my mind, this is really only playing on the edges of what’s possible.

Where I’m really interested is the area of law where lawyers believe they add most value. The high-end, complex work. The work that NEEDS a specialist. A true expert.

Lets go right to the “business end” of the legal value chain.

Think about the legal sector and what it actually does.

Law is made (the government legislates, courts decide a case etc). This law is recorded and at a high level interpreted (often by academics and other commentators). The combination of these two steps provides a shared view of generally what the law is.

By and large, and the moment the value here is really only accessible to legal practitioners – the public  can get access to certain statutes and cases for free online, but the public’s ability to understand what they mean remains limited – although this is beginning to change.

The next step is to turn this information into a broad set of tools (largely documents – agreements, policies and other commercial instruments) and for the lawyer to use these tools and his or her understanding of the law to interpret the high level meaning and apply it to a particular set of facts, and in doing so create some further value for which the client will pay.

S0mewhat simplistic, but in very basic terms, the majority of the value that the market will pay for is in this interpretation and application of the law to increasingly complex situations. There are other factors that drive value such as the scale and risk involved, but generally speaking, more complex work means higher fees.

Looking a bit more closely at what lawyers actually do in this high value phase, in the vast majority of cases it will take  two forms – advising and creating documents. We already know that technology is starting to shape document creation (have a look at Epoq, Rocket Lawyer, legal Zoom and LexisNexis if you don’t believe me), but surely (SURELY) technology couldn’t actually start to creep into advising clients?

Could it?

This is the skill honed over years of hard-earned experience. The ability to steeple fingers, sit back in chair and let the cogs turn. To casually drop a Latin phrase into an argument. Those uniquely human abilities to find meaning and similarities between cases and facts. To both synthesise, analyse and structure highly complex information.

The skill that requires (in the UK) a three year law degree, a year of practical training, a two year stint of on-the job training, before the brightest and best graduates can call themselves qualified and enter the profession fully to “start” their career and their real learning.

Surely not.

Think about this, from a BBC article on the impact of technology in the City:

Trading floors were once the preserve of adrenalin-fuelled dealers aggressively executing the orders of brokers who relied on research, experience and gut instinct to decide where best to invest.

Long ago computers made dealers redundant, yet brokers and their ilk have remained the masters of the investment universe, free to buy and sell wherever they see fit.

But the last bastion of the old order is now under threat.

Investment decisions are no longer being made by financiers, but increasingly by PhD mathematicians and the immensely complex computer programs they devise.”

While there are many differences between this activity and the legal profession, there are also plenty of similarities.

Once you start really looking at what lawyers do, and begin to grasp what technology is already capable of, a real threat to the profession as we know it doesn’t seem so far fetched.

Entity recognition (understanding, finding and cross-referencing individuals and organisations in documents) is already well established, and software like Autonomy (“the leader in meaning based computing”) can do magical things in terms of identifying relationships between “things” and deriving meaning from raw information (think “facts”).

Look at recent developments in ediscovery and contract management software, and have a read of Jason Wilson’s great post on lawyers “I am now an app” for lawyers, and of course, whether you agree with him or not, do revisit Susskind’s work .

For me, rather than the commentary in the area, what makes me really believe big change is coming, is what I hear and see when I talk to some of the leading technology thinkers in this area.

To hear them describe the law by talking about decision trees and statistical probability (based on historic data and future trends), to hear them explaining rules engines, logic and information structures, really makes me pause for thought.

It’s a different language, but with the same objective of solving problems and creating value for clients.

This type of technology promises paradigm shift in speed, accuracy and cost reduction that goes far beyond what an LPO could offer with a human based process.

Of course it’s not that simple. Apart from the very real time, effort and money required to build the technology, aside from the judgment required to apply the law, there is of course a truly human element in providing legal service (that word is a clue). This service wrapper is likely to keep large chunks of the profession safe for a while, and of course as one work type is automated, the opportunity for the profession is to find a new, higher value area of law to explore.

My (human!) instinct is that it will be lawyers who first use these new generation of tools first, to provide faster, better services to their clients, rather than clients using them directly to replace lawyers.

The lawyers may be at traditional law firms (large or smaller niche players) or LPO or other volume providers. Either way the early adopters will become the Terminators, the firms that resist will be Sarah Connor.

Seems far fetched?

My belief is that the fundamental changes now facing the profession are only the beginning of the beginning, and that technology will shape the end game far more than any of us can probably predict.





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?





Super Mario Lawyer – How to gamify a legal career

2 08 2011

There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about “gamification”. Now before you choke on your cornflakes and wonder what anything that has the word “game” in it has to do with a serious business like the law, let me first explain what it is.

This was a part of the partnership assessment centre that Simon wasn't expecting

The best definition I found was in a white paper from a company called Bunchball (which is well worth downloading if you want to find out more), which says:

“At its root, gamification applies the mechanics of gaming to nongame activities to change people’s behavior. When used in a business context, gamification is the process of integrating game dynamics (and game mechanics) into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign in order to drive participation and engagement”.

Cool huh?

Now while the gamification of legal services may be some way off, and undoubtedly there are certainly a load of “distress purchase” type services that it would be inappropriate to build some fun into, I can see the application of the concept working in some areas.

Could it be used to make a huge due diligence exercise more engaging for junior lawyers? What about a firm that works with clients on repetitive, volume instructions?

However, I suspect the serious business of injecting fun into legal work needs a little more thought, so for the blog I’m going to explore how a legal career might look as a video game, and in doing so, introduce some of the key concepts of gamification.

So learning, plus a little fun. Fits with the theme of the post?

So let’s start with some game mechanics. These are the triggers and actions that drive behaviours and contribute to motivation and engagement. Thinking about this in the context of a legal career is pretty important, because let’s be honest, there are plenty of easier ways to earn a living.

Starting out at University, the first game mechanic you’d encounter would be challenge. This is manifested in a number of different ways, from the intellectual horsepower needed (I remember thinking I’d never “get” trusts and equity!) to the maturity needed to start planning your career early, challenge is a dynamic which is likely to continue throughout a career in the profession, and in my view one of the reasons that being a lawyer can be such an enduring vocation.

Even before you get to university, you’ll have met another game dynamic which may also continue long into your working life – the concept of a leaderboard. Does law attract competitive people, or is it simply that you need to be able to survive (thrive?) in a competitive environment to succeed in the profession? The nature v nurture debate isn’t for this blog, but aim for a career in law and soon you’ll be stack ranked by A-level grades, outside interests and other achievements. The leaderboard continues through law school as the competition for training contracts and then jobs continues, at which point the challenge ramps up as you realise you need a whole new set of skills and competencies.

Being a gamer myself (first game console was an Atari with Space Invaders, Pacman and Asteroids!), the concept of “levelling up” is one that’s familiar to me and I absolutely get how addictive that dynamic can be. The concept of levels translates pretty well to what has to date, been a fairly linear career path followed by lawyers.

–          Get law degree (level up!)

–          Pass law school (level up)

–          Qualify as solicitor (level up)

–          Promoted to associate (level up)

–          Make junior partner (level up!)

–          Make equity (level up!)

Now I do think that as the profession changes at a structural level, this will change, but I think the concept of levelling up in some form or other will remain very applicable to the legal profession.

An interesting set of questions to ask, is then: what level do you want to get to? Why? What will it cost you? What are the benefits?

Shifting focus then to the game dynamics, the elements that drive motivation and reward, the application of these to a legal career is arguably even stronger.

Top of the list are reward and status. Two words often associated with the profession by non-lawyers, but also two words that many lawyers openly acknowledge as key drivers for them and dynamics that do keep them focussed on progress and continuing to work serious hours as they strive for partnership.

Aligned to that drive, and the fascination with the state of the profession’s leaderboard (just read the legal trade press to see how fascinated we all are with how firms are doing, how much other lawyers earn etc) is the competition dynamic.

I’ve written plenty about the competitive nature of the law firm market, and how that competitive intensity is growing as a result of the political, economic and forces now shaping the future. However within the firm is another hugely competitive environment, with players seeking to level up and accumulate points, often at the expense of their peers.

Much of this behaviour, which can often negate many of the benefits of collaboration which are critical to optimising a knowledge based organisation, are driven by the fact that there are limited opportunities to level up to equity partner.

Finally, there are some other game dynamics that also play a part in the lives of many legal professionals – achievement, self-expression and altruism, but these challenge many stereotypes that surround the legal profession, so I’ll leave those for another post.





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.





So you’re an equity partner – big deal!

22 06 2011

Last week I was given a business card by a lawyer I was talking to. On the card, underneath their name, was written “Equity Partner” in a fairly bold, not-to-be-missed font.

Tony showed the proof of his "Legal Jedi Master" card to the managing partner more in hope than expectation

It struck me, that were I ever to hit those heights in a law firm (I bailed out of private practice before putting those magic words in my email signature) I’d probably be pretty pleased with myself. And rightly so. It’s a position many people strive for and certainly for those in the upper tiers of the legal world, can be very lucrative and rewarding.

The title marks you out as an owner of the business and as a result conveys a certain status within the firm which undoubtedly provides very practical assistance in getting things done quickly through the firm’s support infrastructure.

But, the question that troubled me was the message that the title communicates to someone outside the firm.
I posed the question on Twitter, and got some fascinating comments back.

adds pomposity and confuses clients

I think it’s wrong. Many clients don’t know what it means, in the real world.”

It’s a badge of seniority but non-lawyer clients might not know what it means. Also = unlikely to do much of your actual work.”

” It would make me think, “Ah, so you’re the reason for my large bill”

The theme that stood out strongly for me was the internally-focused nature of the title.

Of course for fellow lawyers in private practice, and for in-house lawyers, the title and connotations will be understood. However, aside from the fact that there a huge number of purchasers and influencers who may not know what it really means, I wonder if there is an opportunity lost in not using a job title that is more aligned with the lawyer’s actual role.

There are a number of ways that could be approached. For a start, as I’ve discussed before, a market strategy that is structured around a client’s vertical industry sector is quite common. Would reference to specialism in a vertical sector as well as a practice area (or even instead of…) make sense? What about an alternative based on a description of the relationship with the client, so for example separating out relationship managers (I know the “s” word is maybe a step too far), technical specialists, project leads etc. For large scale project work this delineation of responsibility could also add credibility to the project management ethos espoused by many of the top firms.

Another driver that could force to revisit job titles is the changing career structures that have been emerging over the past five years or so. Many firms now have a senior designation for those lawyers who want to stay with the firm long term, but do not want the additional commitments (time, financial or management) that go with partnership. As the next generation of lawyers move through the ranks with their different cultural approach to work, life and career, will the old hierarchical, largely tenure-based titles still prove effective?

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for fresh thinking in this area (at least here in the UK) comes from the influx of new competitors into the market when the winds of deregulation blow through the profession over the coming months. Much has been written about the potential impact on law firms serving consumers, but make no mistake change is afoot in the world of commercial law too.

Aside from further consolidation, which I believe will be driven globally as well as in response to our own market conditions, the emergence of the LPO model and flexible resourcing models such as those from Axiom or BLP‘s lawyers on demand, will challenge incumbent firms to revisit their business models. This will invariably have implications for resources and career paths, and presents the perfect opportunity to revisit job titles.

While it may seem trivial, job titles do usually matter both to the holder, and in some contexts, to clients and prospects. A new entry to the law firm market will have the chance to think about this afresh, not restricted by history or tradition.
My sense is that these organisations will not default to titles like “Assistant”, “Associate” or “Equity Partner” and in using something a bit bolder and more relevant, will be able to send a signal to the market, both to potential clients and potential employees!





Presentation Shock and Awe

6 04 2011

Ever sat through a truly awesome presentation? Seen one on TED?

 

Hardkins & Partners were determined to show the client all 114 of their slides in the allotted 45 min presentation slot

What about during a law firm pitch?

 

As a reader of this blog, you’ve probably had some experience of pitches. Been on the receiving end? Starred in one? Orchestrated one? Been shoved in one at the last minute as a “subject matter expert” or simply to make up the numbers?

In today’s post I’ll share an interesting technique that might liven up your pitch experience, but first let me tell you why I think it might be useful.

In my experience both as a buyer of legal services and during my time consulting with law firms, I saw a surprising variety of approaches to pitches to win work. Some presentation formats were prescribed by the potential purchaser, but more often than not the law firm were often left to their own devices. The results (in my experience) ranged from expectation-bustingly good to a straight up car crash.

The good firms had really thought things through, probably got some insight from people at (or at least who know) the prospect, and maybe had used a pitch consultant.

Those that hadn’t turned up, usually mob handed to cover ever possible question the client may ask (ostensibly to “show commitment”) and armed with a battalion of powerpoint slides to pummel the prospect into submission.

Here’s a slide showing where all our offices are in the world.

Here’s a slide with some client logos.

Here’s a slide with some directory quotes (which I’ll read out loud to you).

You get the impression.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of overly complex (particularly text heavy) powerpoint slides.

Who is?

Yet why (oh why!) do a large number of sophisticated, multi-million pound law firms still use them as the back bone of a pitch?

But wait.

Not all powerpoint is bad.

Far from it.

Powerpoint can be beautiful.

My bible in this area is Beyond Bullets by Cliff Atkinson, but Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen design (both by Reynolds) are also inspirational and can fundamentally change the way you use the tool to communicate.

But today I want to talk about an approach called Pecha Kucha. This is a presentation methodology that emerged from the Japanese design industry in 2003. The format is breathtakingly simple. Twenty slides (I Like to select powerful visuals for my slides, and I don’t think this approach requires anything different), each with a time limit of twenty seconds before it auto advances.

20×20.

Six minutes and fourty seconds.

Beautiful.

It forces the speaker to be concise, ideally entertaining, and to know his or her material. Critically, it encourages flawless delivery, which must be the aim for an important pitch, right?

Always keen to “eat my own dog food” I tried this earlier this week, with a small audience of around 25 people comprising lawyers (from in-house and private practice backgrounds), sales professionals, editors, conference organisers, training specialists and marketeers.

Here’s how I did it.

I started by identifying the key messages I wanted to deliver, and then ordering them among the 20 slides so I told a coherent story. I then pulled out three key points for each message and bullet pointed them. At this point I searched for images to bring them for life, and once complete I had the basics of my structure. I then did an approximate run through (without the auto-timing on), and then used the flow to write the text for each slide. Five lines of text seemed about right.

Next I set the auto-timing part (much harder than it should be on Powerpoint 2007, thank you very much Microsoft!) and did a timed run through to tailor the text.

Finalise text, repeat. Practice.

It took me around 3 run throughs to learn the material (given the work I’d already put in to building it, which undoubtedly primed my memory). The delivery was fine (but not, by my standards perfect – always good to learn what I can do better), and most importantly the feedback universally positive.

Now it’s definitely not going to be appropriate for all situations, audiences or presenters, but why not add it to your armoury?

How about using it as a tool to see if you can summarise what your law firm is all about in 20×20? What if you got several different successful salespeople to do it and see how similar (or different) the messages were?

If you used it in a pitch situation, how could you use the time you’ve saved to create more value from the meeting for the prospective client? (Suggestion: ask more questions, create a real dialogue).

Could you get five different lawyers to sum up the recent activity in their practice areas in 6min 40 and present to each other as a form of “show and tell”. Great way to update teams without sending them to sleep!

It’s a deceptively simple technique, but one that to my mind has a great number of powerful applications.

Why not give it a go?

I’d love to hear how you get on.

 





Dude, your collateral sucks!

13 03 2011

Off the back of attending a seminar for corporate counsel and risk professionals on the Bribery Act, and having previously worked with a law firm developing some anti-bribery products for their clients, I decided to see how law firms were marketing their services in this area.

Terry managed to get to the second paragraph of Hernshaw & Co's primer on the Bribery Act

My methodology was scientific and rigorous.

(not really)

A quick Google for .pdf files immediately pulled up a host of “briefing notes” (compelling title huh?), and I picked around 12 from top 50 UK law firms to read.

I can sum up the experience in a sentence.

They were ALL THE SAME!

Not just the content, but the structure, the style of writing and the design. So, so similar. In fact, you could have swapped the firm logos around and struggled to tell whose was whose.

The gist was essentially: “Corruption. New law. Bribery Act. Coming into force. Very serious. New offences. Directors, imprisoned. Very serious. Corporate hospitality. Unlimited fines. Very serious. Facilitation payments. Overseas. Public officials. Different cultures. Be careful. Very serious. New guidance. Contact us.

In essence, it was all very factual, and clearly provided some benefit if you wanted a brief overview of the Act. Most of them provided some very high level suggestions of what to do to prepare, and included a dusting of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), to encourage the reader to pick up the phone.

But where was the engagement and creativity? Surely bribery is the great subject matter for telling some stories? Is there any relevant experience that they could have shared (obviously with client confidentiality and professional obligations respected)? How could they have brought some colour or added some value to the subject?

Something they could have done with the style or design to be a bit different? Maybe thinking a bit creatively about the content or structure?

How could they have made it engaging?

How could you make it something you’d like to read?

Something the reader would remember? Enjoy even?

An honorable mention goes to Addleshaw Goddard, who authored the only note I looked at that was slightly different. Titled “strawberries, cream and porridge” it looked specifically at the implications of the Act for corporate hospitality, and did stand out as a bit more useful than the vanilla briefings I found elsewhere.

One of the best examples of firms doing this type of thing differently, and doing it well, is Lewis Silkin’s employment team, who put out a great newsletter called (from memory) “Newsnotes”, which was one of the few regular newsletters I used to receive inhouse that I’d always take the time to read.

“Why?” I hear you ask. Primarily because it was genuinely funny, and in having a good chuckle, I’d always learn something.

So, apologies to those who spent the time writing the briefings (I don’t mean to offend, and because I didn’t name and shame, maybe I didn’t read yours!) and also to those who did do something a bit different but whose briefing I didn’t find.

It’s a crowded marketplace. Every now and then a change (new piece of law for example!) means clients and prospects will look to our profession for guidance. By all means educate, but also don’t miss the opportunity to engage and stand out!