What’s your career ROI (return on investment)?

9 03 2011

A couple of interesting articles on the Careerist recently about law schools and their responsibility to law students. In particular there is a debate about the responsibility schools have to accept students (and their fees) when, in the current climate, job prospects can be slim.

Paying back the law school fees was never easy

Here in the UK, there is another dynamic that has come into play. With the advent of a serious hike in tuition fees, particularly at the top-end universities (that will undoubtedly attract a high percentage of aspiring lawyers), I think it is time to take another look at the cost of entering the profession, and see whether the end justifies the outlay.

The corporate world has shown me the value of pulling together a business case for any serious capital expenditure – the sums might not turn out to be 100% accurate, but the discipline of going through the process forces you to ask some sensible questions and can stop you wasting serious money.

But aside from my current struggles with the Spousal Budget Approval Committee (required in my house for gadget purchases), this rigour rarely makes an appearance in home life.

But should it?

While fees this side of the Atlantic remain below those in the U.S. a three year law degree will soon cost just shy of £30,000, with a year at law school costing £10,000, plus living costs, gives an overall investment of well North of £50,000.

In my book, that’s certainly the sort of money I’d want to stop and think about before spending.

In assessing the value of the education, there are many more factors than simply the straight forward ROI (return on investment), but the basic maths can’t be ignored. If you assume that you are going to come out and join a solid City firm, then chances are you’re on a salary of around £35,000, shifting to say £55,000 when you qualify two years later.

The traditional City law firm career sees salary then increasing every year (subject of course to the economy) with bonuses and perks thrown in, suggesting that it may take a while, but the debt for the not-insubstantial investment will be paid off in relatively short order (subject to any extravagant lifestyle choices!) and the investment then moves into the black and produces serious returns in the long term, especially if partnership in a profitable firm is achieved.

There is of course a “but”. These projections of profitability and a solid, predictable career path, a very much based on some assumptions about the legal market place. Assumptions which have been challenged over the last few years. Profitability at many firms has tanked and the annual salary rise was predicated not just on nice fat profit margins, but on a rise in the price of the lawyer based on higher levels of PQE (post-qualification experience). But if the hourly rate model is dying, and firms can no longer simply hike up fees because a lawyer has another year of experience (and arguably, it’s time served, rather than actual meaningful experience), then where does the annual rise come from? More chargeable hours anyone? In the efficiency-focussed law firm of the future, that might not be an option either.

Speaking of chargeable hours, the lifestyle is also something to factor into your decision. Lawyers in the firms that pay serious money work hard. Really hard. If you’re driven, motivated and enjoy the job, that might not be a problem. But while when my generation (qualified late 1990s) expected to clock serious hours in pursuit of partnership, conversations I’ve had with many partners these days suggest the current generation of trainees and newly qualified lawyers have very different expectations of work/life balance, which can lead to some firing the ejector seat early.

If that’s the case, then the return on investment is not looking quite so straightforward.

For time immemorial there has also been the question of what happens to those who don’t make it. Every year there are plenty who make the financial commitment, and either don’t make it through, or do get the qualifications and can’t find a training contract. Clearly this is particularly relevant in the current environment. If things take a while to pick up, and the graduates haven’t managed to build other experience and contacts in the meantime, then there is a real risk they’ll be passed over for fresher blood when the economy picks up again. Another situation when the initial investment is not looking so sound.

On the positive side, there are other ways of making a return which don’t involve the long game of partnership. As a lawyer, you’ll build up some great transferable skills. Because the profession can be quite insular, it can often be difficult for lawyers to identify these, but trust me, they are there and they are valued in many different arenas (one of the books I found most useful in assessing my skills when looking to career change 10 years after I qualified was “what colour is your parachute“). That said, it’s through the practice of law you will build these skills, rather than the academic training, so I don’t think it’s a question of a law degree opening a huge variety of doors, but in the medium term, other options become available.

Finally, the profession is changing. Big time. This will have implications for all of us in the profession, both the grey hair and the young blood. Given these changes, it also adds another angle to consider when assessing the law as a career. Some may see it as risky, others may see a wealth of opportunity. Much like any other investment, your tolerance for risk will play a part in your decisions, and is just one more component to factor in.

So, no answers, but hopefully some things to think about for both aspiring lawyers and any current or former lawyers feeling reflective. If you’ve just started on the path, I wish you all the best!





The Specialist Generalist

7 02 2011

Participating in a panel event for in-house lawyers last week, I was struck by the versatility of the corporate counsel that were taking part.

 

Keen to demonstrate the depth of her specialism, Lisa the construction partner parked her new car carefully at the front of the firm car park

 

In-house lawyers are so much more accessible to their clients than lawyers in law firms, and this, coupled with the incredible range of business (and personal!) questions that can come across their desk in a day’s work, really does highlight the ability to answer a broad range of questions.  While larger in-house legal teams of course have specialists (employment law, M&A etc.) I suspect that even these lawyers  get called on to advise outside their niche more often than their private practice counterparts.

So the question that sprung to mind, was if many corporate counsel need generalist skills, what does this mean for their relationships with their advisors, particularly given most large law firms start lawyer specialisation so early in their careers?

Building on my observation that the variety and accessibility of in-house positions, and taking into account that many in-house lawyers have built up a degree of experience before they move into an organisation, it’s likely that generalist skills can be found in abundance in the legal team. Is it therefore the case that when corporate counsel instruct external lawyers, they are doing so because they need specialist advice? Given the pace of change and breadth of the law these days, particularly if the business is operating internationally, at first glance this would seem sensible, because no lawyer (however good) could hope to keep up-to-date across the board.

My instinct however is that there are no hard and fast rules here, as the client’s needs will  vary on the situation. Some clients will need specialist advice because they don’t have the skills in-house (or perhaps they do, but they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the particular matter). Others may want a generalist “replica” of an in-house lawyer who can simply add capacity to the in-house team and interface directly with the business people. Some may just pick up the phone and “phone a friend”, and care less about who actually does the resulting work.

The choice of external counsel is however heightened on high-stakes matters. Does the client choose a top-drawer “name” specialist, ranked in directories from here to Timbuktu, or do they go for a more seasoned “trusted advisor” type who may require specialist support from elsewhere around the firm, but can provide much wider support around things like  stakeholder management and communication?

Personally, I believe both types of lawyer can add tremendous value and have their place. I do wonder though, to what extent the “trusted advisor” role will change as the next generation of senior lawyers are those who have spent their entire careers advising on fairly narrow areas of law.

One final observation I have is that there are relatively few true industry specialists. In reality, a specialist technology sector lawyer is really a specialist IT lawyer; a specialist entertainment lawyer maybe a licensing expert. Perhaps this is the way that the “trusted advisor” role could develop. Lawyers who have deep industry experience, acting for many different clients (perhaps at different stages of an industry value chain) in the sector, with this knowledge meaning that they advise on many different areas of law in addition to their core specialism.

So, why not take a look at who else your clients instruct? Are you the only firm or team in the game, or is there a panel (formal or informal)? Who, if anyone, gets the generalist work? Is specialisation getting you the instructions and clients you want? Can you do a gap analysis to show the skills & experience that you have compared to the profile you would like to develop?

And finally, what would you do if you were in-house and the C.E.O. walked into your office needing immediate advice on how he could save his dog, Beefcake, from the legal consequences of taking a bite out of the postman…..





Top 5 sales FAILS (for lawyers)

9 01 2011

In a fit of New Year’s good intentions (see last week’s post on resolutions) I’ve been scouring the Internet to find out how to be a better blogger. All for your benefit my friendly reader…

Anyway, one of the suggestions I found (which I liked), was “write a list post”. I wondered what an earth a list post was, and found out that it was a post, that is based around (can you guess yet?) a list! Brilliant! So topped off with a sexy title (well I liked it), here goes…..

Although Sarah's sales figures weren't great, at least she was in the ballpark

5. No homework.

When I was in-house, I often used to start conversations with lawyers who were selling to me, with “what do you know about the company?”. This was not to be difficult (if I was being difficult, I would have asked “so, what do you think of our share price this week?”) but so I could provide some helpful context for the meeting.

The number of lawyers from well-regarded firms that crashed and burnt at this stage of the meeting was phenomenal. The smell of failure often used to be tangible, as I was faced with “I’ve, er, looked at your website” or “I think I have a high level view”……

To be honest, I didn’t expect anyone to know chapter and verse on the company (although those that were well briefed made a very good impression), but often those who had been on the website didn’t seem like they had got much further than the homepage. At that level it’s hard to see how they had started to think about our needs at all, let alone identify the current issues we were facing.

2. A barely smouldering platform

It’s often said that one of the big problems law firms face when they sell services, is that they are often a distress purchase (litigation etc) and if the client doesn’t have an immediate need, they won’t buy. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that (although I think litigators can provide a wide variety of preventative services), even for non-contentious services, the client will invariably have to have a clear need before buying.

To highlight this need, sales professionals often talk about “the burning platform”, which to my mind suggests a dialogue when a need is uncovered and the consequences explored, to the point when the prospective client realises they need to act quickly. Talking to a number of corporate counsel, a fairly common experience is that a conversation with external lawyers who are selling identifies an issue that it seems like it needs addressing, but there’s no real need to do it right now, and it goes on the “must do later” list that all in-housers have. The platform is gently smouldering, but certainly not burning.

Hardcore sales professionals may shake their head and lament of that legendary ability to “close”, but to me I think it’s often both a failure to explore the issues fully, and also perhaps a lack of familiarity of the sales process as whole, rather than a particular skills gap.

3. Capability mismatch

Often a prospect or client will articulate a need, but for a variety of reasons, the law firm is unable to meet that need. It maybe capacity, it may be capability, but it becomes clear that the lawyers selling are not the right team for the job. I’ve seen it in a number of scenarios – a solid UK firm but didn’t have the European experience for a particular project; a great sole practitioner but without the resources to tackle a larger transaction; a small office from a global firm without the local capacity to manage a set of instructions in a timely fashion.

Personally, my own preference in these situations is for the firm to identify the challenge and hold their hands up. This allows us then to work around and find a solution (e.g. the firm could work with other advisors or maybe not get the work at all, but generate a stack of goodwill by finding an alternative). Surely this must be better than over-promising and under-delivering?

2. Disregarding the relationship status

This is another personal perspective, and of course many in-house counsel (often for sound reasons) take a much more transactional approach to instructing law firms, but for me sales conversations were usually part of a much wider relationship. If indeed that is the case (and the good firms were very savvy at using client review meetings to explore my current challenges), then the overall temperature of the relationship should be considered when working out whether a sales conversation is appropriate.

I always took a realistic approach to legal work, and never expected my external counsel to churn out flawless work time after time. No matter how good your standards and quality control, the practice of law involves human judgment, often significant pressure, and input from a variety of sources. What was important is how any issues were resolved – ideally, in a pragmatic, non-judgmental way that identifies the causes, deals with the consequences and puts in place a remedial plan to stop recurrence.

While that may sound idealistic, and to some perhaps a touch understanding (think tough on the problem, not the people), I did  however take a pretty dim view of being sold to in the aftermath of a real problem. I remember one particular challenge, where members of my business had repeatedly ignored the company’s outside counsel policy, and the firm involved had ignored the legal team’s request to notify us whenever they were contacted by our internal clients. I had asked for a face to face meeting with our account partner, which given the previous discussions on the subject, meant this really was the last chance saloon. To say I was surprised when he turned up with two colleagues, to tell me about the services their departments offered, was something of an understatement.

Sadly, that wasn’t the only time it happened, but each time it did I was surprised that the firms involved weren’t able to take the temperature of the relationship before making the call.

1. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk….

Those that read this blog regularly know that I’m a big fan of the S.P.I.N. sales methodology. This is all about asking questions to uncover needs. I was always open to being sold to in this way (even though I was aware this sales method was being used) because to my mind if a genuine need was uncovered, and a law firm could help me with the need, then why wouldn’t I be interested?

The polar opposite of this is when a law firm tries to sell by talking. And boy do so firms talk……

This is how many offices we have (fascinating). This is how many partners in our Geneva office (great). This is what the directories said about us last year (really?). This is a really big we’ve recently done (which is not relevant here).

You get the picture.

I’m perhaps being overly harsh. There are of course times when it’s useful to find out some details about the law firm, but please (1) remember the client can ask if he/she wants to know more; (2) I can read, and may well have done some research on your firm – perhaps that’s the reason you are having the meeting? (3) many in-house lawyers will have been in private practice for a long time, and will know many of the firms well.

That said, one meeting sticks in my mind as the biggest sales fail of my in-house career. City firm had a meeting with me at their request. Talked constantly for about 45 minutes about their firm and how wonderful they were (I was feeling charitable, and let them use the allotted hour as they wished). At this point I asked what they knew about my company. “Very little” was the unspoken answer. I spent ten minutes outlining the company, what it did, how the legal team was structured, when we used outside counsel and what type of firms we tended to use for particular types of work, and why we valued long-term relationships with our advisors. The meeting concluded with the lead partner cheerfully saying “so, I suppose you’ll just look for a piece of work to give us a try, and then we’ll take it from there?”.

FAIL.





Meaningful New Year’s resolutions

3 01 2011

I know it’s a cliché, but it’s that time of year when all the talk is of resolutions. So take a break from diets, exercise and learning to play the ukulele/starting a salsa class/swimming the channel, and take the next ten minutes to think about some simple  steps you can take over the next 12 months to transform your practice.

The Head of Litigation's resolution to run the 20 miles to work everyday caused concern among the management team

Before I offer some suggestions (you knew that was coming didn’t you!), let me caveat them by saying that while none of the suggestions are rocket science, implementing them regularly will require behaviour change (if of course you are not doing them already), and behaviour change is hard. There is, however, a growing body of research-backed literature on how to establish new behaviour patterns, so help is at hand if you want it.

When I jotted this list of suggestions down, I tried to get a list that built on the piece I wrote at the end of 2010 on value disciplines (which is here) and in the spirit of that piece I hope you find something of value to try, adapt or play with…..

(Really) love your clients

Identify your five best clients. Best might mean different things to different lawyers – maybe they are the organisations you want to work with most (either external clients or departments/subsidiaries if you are inhouse counsel), maybe they are the organisations that provide you with the most revenue and/or profit, perhaps they are the clients which stretch and grow you most. Whatever the reason, make the resolution to really get to know them and their business over the next 12 months. Become intimately acquainted with their challenges. Read around their industries. Understand their job.  Know what their competitors are doing. Anticipate their legal needs before they do. Tailor your service for them. Get to know them as human beings. Make sure that every week, you are doing something like this to deepen and strengthen the relationship. Score the relationship every quarter (if appropriate, ask the client to score it). Ask for nothing extra from the client yet see the benefits unfold with the months of the year.

Investigate how you work

Take a piece of work that you or your team do regularly. It can be a piece of client work (whether in a law firm or in a law department) or a process that supports the work  (administrative, knowledge management, business development). Next put a couple of hours aside, and lock the main participants in a room with a flip chart, some big markers and a stack of post-it notes. First list the key clients for the process (this can be inside or outside the organisation) and then work out what are the key objectives of the process – what is it designed to achieve and what are the best metrics for success. Next draw the process on a large bit of paper. This doesn’t have to be complex – put each step on a separate post-it note, arrange the steps in order (showing decision points and variations if required) and then use the pen to link them up. It might be that this step in itself takes some time, particularly if several people perform the task in different ways. However, don’t spend more than an hour on this step.

Once you have a visual view of the process, think about how you can improve it. Think back to the people you identified as clients of the service – what does “better” feel  like for them? Is it faster? cheaper? in a different place? with fewer errors? in a different format? including different information? Once you have established what better means, work how how the task could be done differently to achieve it. A useful question is “if we were a new organisation looking to do this job optimally for the first time, how would we do it?”.

When you have some ideas for improvements, identify the top three (tip – to rank them think about the impact the change would have versus the ease of implementing it) and then set yourself a timetable for implementation. Aim for one of these two hour workshops a quarter – you could either choose a new task each time, or stick with the same task but look to continuously improve it.

Take a product to market

Now while at first sight this might seem irrelevant for corporate law departments, while the terminology might not seem as appropriate as for a law firm with an external market, the process itself can devliver real value to corporate counsel and their clients. As for law firms – well, some firms are already well practised in product development, while others are dabbling their toes, but if you haven’t thought about it, perhaps this is the resolution for you….

Firstly, start with a particular group of clients you think you can help. Work out what are the characteristics that define this market (is it an internal department, a particular group of colleagues, a set of organisations in a particular vertical, a group of clients or prospects in a particular geographic area etc etc). Then focus on their needs – this is absolutely critical. To be successful I absolutely subscribe to the theory of “outside-in” thinking in the book “Tuned-in”, which stresses the need for a new product to meet a defined market need.

Once you have a target audience for your product (and don’t get stressed out about the word “product”, a service is just fine) and have worked out a need, then work out how you can meet that need and help the clients (be they internal or external). Identifying what is different about your solution from what is already available is a useful step to begin to formulate your value proposition (see previous posts for discussions on this, or even better have a look at Jill Konrath‘s book “selling to big companies”).

The next step is to work out how to build and deliver the service, and validate the financial model behind it. If this sounds intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. At i’s most simplistic, work out the cost (which for lawyers is likely to be largely based around the cost of people’s time, both in developing and then delivering the product) and then work out the revenue (for an inhouse service the benefits may be expressed other than in revenue terms). This is no more complex than the price (see Mark Burton’s great book Pricing with Confidence for help here) multiplied by the amount you think you can sell.

If the business case stacks up, then get it built and out there. If this is the first product you’ve ever developed, my suggestion is to start with a low cost, low visibility offering to allow yourself to learn as you go through the process. There is certainly something to be said for getting to market quickly and then revising a product, rather than getting it perfect and missing the moment (of course the validity of this rule depends on the circumstances).

So what has this done for you? Well, if you’d not taken a product to market before, hopefully you’ve learnt something and will be inspired to learn more and do it again. For newbies or old hands, hopefully in engaging with your target market you have learnt something more about their needs and had dialogue that has created value for all involved. And finally, if you’ve done a good job with your product development, then hopefully the revenue (or other value) from the product is rolling in!

Happy New Year

There are of course lots of other resolutions we could make as members of the legal profession – I’m very interested in others you want to share. Suggestions for this blog are always welcome too, and to sign off this week, let me wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2011.





You do what?

14 09 2010

Reading another interesting discussion on the Interweb last week, which was urging lawyers to ask their clients the simple question “so what do you do?”. The basis of the article was that this would give a client or a prospect the opportunity to talk about their business, and thus provide a deeper level of insight that would allow the lawyer to provide a better service.

"tell me what you do?" asked the driver innocently. A question he would soon regret....

It was a good starting point and could lead into an examination of question-based sales techniques such as “S.P.I.N. Selling” by Neil Rackham (still one of my favourite sales books). However, I took the opportunity to flip the question, and asked how many lawyers could give a concise and compelling answer to the same question.

So, what do YOU do?

A refreshingly simple question, but a difficult one to answer well IMHO. Not least because in our society, your occupation is an important part of your identity. For me, after 10 years as a lawyer, answering that question suddenly became much more challenging. However, even when I was practising law, beyond the simple, one-word answer (be it lawyer, attorney, solicitor, barrister etc), the question is really what DO you do? How are you different from all the other lawyers? How do you help your clients, whether you are inhouse or in private practice.

I’ve tried to answer this question at various times in my career, and it’s not easy. At the heart of the problem is the need to differentiate yourself, either at an individual level, at a practice level, or at an organisation level. Do you feel more comfortable talking about yourself and your skills (creatively solving problems, aggressively defending my clients), your practice and work type (I draft contracts for….) or your firm (I work for a company that…..)?

Whatever the level you answer the question, once you have the descriptive answer, you can then challenge yourself to ask how many other people could have given the same answer. If the answer is “a lot”, then ask yourself what it is that you do that’s different.

It’s not an easy task; before you know it, you’ve run into your second paragraph, and the person you are talking too has glazed eyes and is desperately wishing they hadn’t asked the question.

Ultimately, I think to answer it well, you need an understanding of your personal value proposition: how do you create quantifiable value for your clients? What results do you create? An exploration of value propositions (a great subject for lawyers) is probably best saved for another time, but thinking about how you create value can give you another angle on how to answer the question about what you do.

Finally, if you think you’ve answered the question “so what do you do?”, it’s time for the ultimate test. Grab a taxi to somewhere more than 15 minutes away, chat to the driver and wait for the inevitable question. If you can answer it before the driver loses interest, starts a rant about how much he hates lawyers or talks in detail about their recent divorce/house move/tax investigation, you’ve done well!