Tag Archives: lawyers

The crowd in the cloud

These days, your knowledge is not enough to stand out from the crowd. But before I explain why that’s the case, and what you can do about it, let me quickly explain how this post came to be…

Charlotte, the senior partner in the Family law team spent hours gazing at the clouds trying to guess the weather for the department picnic

One of the benefits of Twitter is connecting with a whole heap of like-minded people, and one of those that I follow most closely is Julian Summerhayes who like me, is a former lawyer who continues to serve the legal profession in a different capacity.

Julian is also a prolific blogger, who posts great content on a daily basis, and (as with my previous mash-up post on law firm sales) I’m delighted to be able to add my thoughts to his recent post “what you know makes all the difference“.

The text in italics is Julian’s.

You know your area of law really, really well – that badge ‘Expert’ suits you nicely. The knowledge, wisdom and expertise that you have gathered would fill a small house (there may even be a best seller lurking somewhere beneath all that baggage).

Your clients, once they find you, are prepared to pay handsomely for your advice, and you have contributed, in your time, to some stellar billing at your firm. You would like to feel that you are one of the best in your field.

But the market doesn’t feel or look right. When you last did a Google search for your area of law, there were, surprisingly, quite a few more lawyers than you anticipated, espousing a degree of knowledge or calling in your specialist area.

Here’s where my take on the problem comes in. Communicating technical quality is pretty tough. In a crowded marketplace, an individual or firm trying to differentiate on quality can have a tough time being heard. For a start, as I’ve written before, the definition of “quality” is not always easy to pin down when we are talking about legal services.  However, putting that issue aside for a second, one of the big problems is that legal services really need to be experienced to be judged, and so simply telling prospective purchasers about quality is often not effective.

If a buyer strippers away all the generic language from the websites and brochures, how can they really assess quality without buying the service? Directories have their place, but having been interviewed by them (both while in private practice and in-house), I don’t think they are sufficiently placed to accurately assess the quality of legal services in any real detail.

What I would be more inclined to rely on, would be a personal recommendation from another in-house lawyer I trusted – perhaps the reason why word of mouth recommendations have long been the gold standard for law firm business development.

The Internet has been both a blessing and curse when it comes to communicating with prospective clients both. It  offers a multitude of ways to communicate cheaply with buyers all over the planet. Messages can be tailored, and a combination of traditional websites, social media and email communication allows the type of dialogue with prospects that even ten years ago would have been unthinkable. On the flip side, if all your competitors are doing the same, it makes standing out from the crowd in the cloud even more difficult.

And to you, what once felt special, now feels like every other area of law – a commodity. Of course, this is no different to the life-cycle of any product. You only have to look at the electronics industry to see a clear correlation. If you are feeling that you area of law is just another run of the mill service then the situation is likely to get a lot worse.

Commoditisation of legal services is another topic I’ve written about before. While working with the legal process outsourcer last year, the extent of this trend was very apparent. While we’ve seen certain areas of law like residential conveyancing move in that direction for years, what’s fascinating is that there are now plenty of  areas of commercial law which are starting to commoditise around the edges – due diligence (corporate work), discovery (litigation) etc.

As legal services become more commoditised, particularly where there is a blend of commodity and bespoke service (for example, consider a piece of commercial litigation where evidence is organised by some cool software from a vendor like Autonomy, the discovery exercise is largely undertaken by an offshore LPO, and the litigation strategy and trial work is run by a top-end commercial law firm), communicating the difference between service providers will become even more challenging.

For the commodity part, the difference may come from speed (faster!), price (cheaper!) or availability (24×7 online access to documents), yet for the bespoke part the competitive advantage may still come from the skill of the individual lawyer (better!). For the commoditised part of the service, there are likely to be hard metrics that can be used to describe the benefits of the service in clear terms, yet for the unique, more complex elements, we return to  the challenge of how to communicate this skill in such a crowded marketplace.

In a moment when more services are driven on line, the client will begin to disassociate the brand solicitor with the delivery of legal services. They will not assume that you know anything more than the legal portal through which they engage. Now is the time to consider how, and in what form, you should leverage those short-cuts and silver bullets that have saved your clients time and money.

Here I think Julian’s post highlights one of the differences between the business and consumer legal markets. In the world of commercial legal services (with which I am most familiar), there are some pretty well established brands which will be recognised and understood by the buying community the world over – Baker & McKenzie and Clifford Chance spring to mind as examples. The consumer market is very different, and much more fragmented. Other than perhaps Eversheds and Irwin Mitchell, I struggle to think of many domestic legal firms that have created a strong brand nationally that helps consumers identify them as a provider of legal services and also communicate the quality of their offering.

Your gut instinct is to keep things locked down: “These are my most prized pearls of [valuable] wisdom” but you are missing a huge trick. In Web 2.0 world, with the plethora of free legal information, you can expect that most clients will be informed to a greater extent than ever before, and what was once locked away amongst a secret cabal, is now out in the open.

As Carl Shapiro wrote in Information Rules (a book that applies economic theory to the information and technology industries – a good read) information (in price terms) tends to free. The combination of technology, globalisation and deregulation is making basic legal information far more widely available than ever before in history. Of course much of the profession’s skill is in how that information is applied and used effectively, but over time much of that knowledge will again become more widely available.

So, as Fat Boy Slim might say, “right here, right now”, what can you do about it?

If you truly want to steal a march on your competitors, and that includes your on-line bedfellows, then you need to consider how you can package your intelligence in such a way that clients feel obliged to stay with you or new clients instruct you. This means going beyond the ubiquitous free download that has become common place, the tired question and answer and understand that information would truly float your clients’ boat. It may be a White Paper, a survey or even some intelligence that repackages a case or two, but you need to consider the idea of giving away for free something that has true value.

My take on this would be to really put yourself in your prospect’s shoes? What is it you can do to help them? Is there a cost effective way you can provide them some benefit and also get them to experience your service? It’s not new, but I’ve certainly seen “free” workshops do this very well – the workshop itself provides some really useful guidance and helps identify and raise awareness of a problem. The remedial work requires support from external lawyers – surely those that ran the workshop are best placed to provide that advice? It’s not a guaranteed sale, but it’s a business model that management consultants have successfully used for years and can be adapted for many different scenarios.

Don’t lose sight of your knowledge and skill – that’s the price of entry to the game these days, but do think hard about how you communicate it in a crowded marketplace, and remember that the best way of communicating it is for the client to experience it for themselves!

The lawyer’s cafe

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to facilitate a group of around 250 lawyers and legal information professionals, in an exercise to discuss, debate and create action in four areas that were key to the future of their FTSE100 business – employees, competitors, customers and products & services.

The senior partners wanted a suitably austere venue for their annual conference

Regular readers (bonus marks for you) may remember that last month, in my post “You are wrong I am right” I mentioned an idea called “The World Cafe”, which is a methodology for facilitating conversations that matter among large groups of people.

It was time to eat my own dogfood (as the saying goes!), it was time to create a monster cafe….

It proved a great opportunity to see if it could help lawyers collaborate and share information – something which *can* sometimes be a challenge!

The World Café was born in 1995 from work by a group called The Intellectual Capital Pioneers. Two of the original members (Brown and Isaacs) went on to document their deep underlying research, the key principles and a host of great case studies in their book, “The World Café: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter”. You can get a flavour and more information from the website (which has some great free resources), but I do recommend the book if you are interested in exploring the idea further.

So what is it?

Well, the World Café is a process that promotes open dialogue, information sharing and accessing the collective intelligence of a group. Sounds lofty and aspirational? Well, maybe so, but the detailed case studies covering huge blue chip organisations, public sector groups and community based examples gave me a lot of faith it could work for the group I was working with, which had recently joined together as a new department (the over-arching goal was to become “One Team”).

I can think of a multitude of similar examples from my practice as a lawyer when this type of dialogue would have helped – moving from a practice area structure to sector-focused teams? Ideal. Want to get a team formed across different geographies? This will help. In-house and want to discuss key areas of risk with a variety of stakeholders? This approach can work. Working in a law firm with too many silos (surely not!)? Why not give it a try?

Its principles are deceptively simple – the group (and the idea has been used for groups of over 1,000 people!) comes together in a very informal setting, around cafe style tables that seat four or five. The book explains why tables of this size are optimal for creating an environment where all can both listen and contribute, and from experience I can confirm it worked really well. As I moved from cafe to cafe (we had four separate rooms to accommodate the large numbers), I was amazed by the buzz and general level of conversation in each room.

Each table has an individual host and is posed an open (and hopefully thought provoking) question on a topic that matters for the group. An example of one of the questions we posed (in the “employees” discussion) was: “What can we do to make this the best place you’ve ever worked”.

As well as a good supply of hot drinks and goodies to eat, the tables have paper table cloths and pens, with participants encouraged to capture their ideas visibly by drawing and writing. This might seem superficial, but putting ideas down on paper definitely helps thoughts develop, and the drawing is designed to help encourage creativity.

When I was planning the event, I talked to a number of people I knew who had hosted or attended these events. Interestingly a delegate at a workshop I was running in December for a large City firm mentioned that he had attended a World Cafe event at Hewlett Packard, and six years later he could still remember what was drawn and written on the table cloth. What a tremendously powerful testament.

After 20 minutes of discussion, the cafe host signals it’s time for a change, and all the participants at a table except one (the table host)  get up, split up from their current table mates, and move to another table to discuss a slightly different, but related question. The table host (who hasn’t moved) explains to the new table guests where the discussion has got to, and the conversation then continues with a new set of people, who add their own insights and of course drawings to the tablecloth.

What happens (and idea the whole point of the process), is that different people bring their own ideas and these ideas develop and cross-fertilise across tables. Individuals also get to meet and share ideas with many different colleagues, which in itself made a big contribution to the overall group aim of being “One Team”.

As part of the process our group did three 20 minute rounds of conversation, with approximately 15 minutes of introduction with the whole group in plenary, and then a 15 minute wrap-up (also as a large group), giving a total even time of just over 90 minutes.

To make sure to atmosphere was informal (an important principle of the World Café), the company creative team did a fantastic job bringing to life the four themed cafés. With artwork on the walls, real cafe tablecloths underneath the paper, and aroma machines pumping out realistic smells, the ambience was topped off by the cafe hosts who fully immersed themselves in their roles with appropriate dress, accents and in one case, a (temporary) tattoo!

In the plenary wrap-up session, people shared their experience and in addition to photographing the tablecloths, the insights and action points captured at the event, generated an incredible 250+ ideas that can be used to bring real improvements to the business, and the cafe organisers are already working on breaking these down into workstreams and getting these projects started.

In my experience, lawyers are usually pretty good at talking, but the informal, small groups really seemed to encourage the listening part of the conversation. The feedback from cafe hosts, table hosts and guests was incredibly positive, and I wouldn’t hesitate to run another event.

Given the change going on in the profession right now, I suspect there are many law firms looking to have conversations that matter with their teams, and this is a great mechanism to do it. The cafe theme and concept might sound a bit unorthodox, but with proper preparation (the logistics behind the simplicity do take time!) it can create magic.

Meaningful New Year’s resolutions

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.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (RFP Responses)

Having just completed another RFP (request for proposal) process for legal services for a BPO company, and closed out the subsequent feedback process, it seems an appropriate time to consider the many type of responses I’ve seen when running these exercises.

Trevor from procurement was not impressed by Goldman & Partners' RFP response

Firstly a word about my approach. I’ve run RFPs covering legal support for outsourcing, commercial, employment, financial services, property and one-off projects in my time. My approach is generally to try and make the process as painless as possible both for my internal clients and for the law firms.

Let’s be honest, if the law firm is sweating over a 50 page response, and the potential client has six of these to read, evaluate and discuss, how many of the client senior management team will REALLY read and digest all that material? You may have your own view, but for those who think that execs have the time and inclination to plough through this stuff in a meaningful way, I’d respectfully suggest you read Davenport’s book “The Attention Economy“!

So, starting with the bit lawyers usually enjoy to hear about (when it’s not their firm) – the ugly;  the horror stories; the car crashes.

Names and other identifying details have of course been omitted to protect the guilty.

Perhaps my favourite was the international law firm, that tendering for a large scale, one-off project, set out in some detail how the project management function would be performed by a well qualified, senior associate. No problem with this so far. Methodology seemed sound, experience of the individual looked relevant and the cost of this person was transparent.

So where’s the beef?

Well, the fees section included a £75,000 project management fee. When I phoned up to enquire what this was for (when the cost of the associate performing the project management role was already baked in to the fees) I was met with an uncomfortable silence then a promise to “get back to you”. The resulting explanation was no less unimpressive.

Fail.

Another project management blunder was the law firm that on a project with the potential for high-six-figure legal fees put forward as a project manager a junior lawyer who despite being both (a) a very competent lawyer; and (b) a genuinely nice guy, was utterly unqualified for large scale project management.

This was evidenced at firm interview stage, when he described the firm’s project management methodology as “Lists. Lots of lists”. Sorry……

Inflexibility around fees is another bugbear. One project saw the company I was working with give sufficient information to price the work with a variety of fee structures, and specifically stated that hourly rate charging would not be considered. Five of the six firms bidding managed to put together compelling charging models, the other explained “We charge the following hourly rates”.

Not to us you won’t be!

Another project, which went out to tender late one summer, explained that for budget reasons it would be helpful for the company to delay payment until the next calendar year. The company explicitly acknowledged that it understood that this may incur an additional fee to cover the cost of the capital, and simply asked firms to make that fee transparent if there would be a charge.

All but one firms came back with an appropriate solution (some of which were quite creative). One came back, helpfully explaining “we bill monthly in arrears”. Thanks.

Ironically, the budget picture internally changed, and a large part of the fee was paid early in the project, providing the successful firm with an unexpected cash flow boost.

Finally, it’s a thin line between an ugly RFP response and simply a bad one (which I’ll look at next week), but this is a tale of a firm walking down that tightrope.

A recent tender that spanned multiple work types asked responding firms for each work type to set out their competitive advantage. One firm responding was an incumbent, and their assessment of their competitive advantage (for each work type) was simply “we work with you, we know your business”.

Now while that is undoubtedly true, I suspect that’s an implicit barrier to entry that all existing advisors enjoy, and to be honest it’s not an insurmountable barrier. To me, the fact that the work is going out to tender suggests that the prospect is considering a number of possible solutions to their need and complacency is not a good idea. If the incumbent firm were bidding for work with a new client, presumably they believe they have some competitive advantage? Assuming that’s the case, I would have thought it best to mention this to build a compelling picture of why they should be selected, rather than rely on the fact that inertia might make keeping the status quo easier than changing.

Let me finish on a less depressing note by saying I’ve seen some stunning responses to RFPs in my time, and while the good and bad are often fairly evenly matched, the ugly ones are relatively few and far between.

But… if you’ve got a response to an RFP going out this week, just have a final look through…..

The Profession’s Top Model?

There have been a couple of interesting news items over the last few days that have got me thinking about business models in the legal profession. First, an article in the Law Society Gazette about client experience with the network of solicitors called “Quality Solicitors”, an attempt by a range of smaller law firms to pre-empt new market entrants when the market more fully deregulates in the UK next year.

The business model pondered the firm's business model

The article is here and the comments are perhaps more intriguing than the article itself.

The second development of note was the acquisition of Pangea3 by Thomson Reuters, of which there is an interesting discussion here:

To my mind, the second represents a far more fundamental challenge to the classic legal business model than the first, but I think the really interesting point is that it shows how no part of the profession is immune from the winds of change that are now blowing harder and harder through the market place.

For smaller firms in the High Street, there is no shortage of debate around whether “Tesco Law” will see the corporate behemoths enter the market for personal legal services, and clean up with a combination of powerful, trusted brands, efficient process, scale and automation.

Similarly, looking at the higher end, while the market for LPO services remains a relatively tiny proportion of the overall market for legal spend, few would doubt that there is a category of commercial legal work that can and will be commoditised, and that a significant chunk of this is likely to go to the LPOs.

So how to respond?

Well, there are of course many ways to approach this question, and the most appropriate will depend on a number of factors such as a firm’s size, service offerings, current market position, capitalisation and cash flow and the aims and aspirations of the partners and staff.

However, what I want to do today is get people thinking about their underlying business model. Many of the new market entrants will have a blank sheet of paper, and can design an organisation free of the history, politics, structure and financial constraints that burden many law firms.

While not disregarding those challenges, thinking afresh about a firm’s business model can open up new possibilities and avenues for competing effectively in the future.

A great, great read on this subject is a book called “Business Model Generation” by Osterwalder and Pigneur. The book gives readers a visual template for assessing and re-engineering business models.

A good place to start is key suppliers and partners. What are the key inputs into the business? These could be anything from recruitment agents who help identify and supply talent, to IT suppliers. Are these suppliers sufficient? How could the relationships be strengthened? If you were building a firm from scratch, would these be the suppliers you would select?

Next are key resources and activities. Resources covers physical,  human, financial and intellectual. How does the firm stack up in these areas? Are the premises fit for purpose? Do changing working patterns change the need for space? Do you have the right people in terms of quality and numbers? If not, what can you do about it? Do you have enough working capital? Is the business financed in the most efficient way?

Looking at activities, knowledge management remains a key question for law firms, and one that I’m not sure many firms have really cracked. What about training and supervision? Quality control? How is service delivery managed? Client care? Compliance? There are so many day to day activities that just continue ad infinitum, simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. The turbulent environment facing law firms can provide the perfect opportunity to revisit them.

Looking then at the outward facing parts of the business model, what are the key client segments and what is the value proposition that the firm offers to them? Do you know which are the most profitable clients? Are target clients clearly identified? Can all lawyers articulate their team’s value proposition to those clients and prospects? is the source of competitive advantage clear?

What about channels to market? Do you have any? Strategic partnerships with businesses selling complimentary services? What is the future of these in the world of Alternative Business Structures? Referral relationships? Are these working? Who are the partners you would select if you were starting afresh?

There are so many questions and also so many opportunities to do things differently and better.

Much of the debate in the UK at the moment centres around whether the deregulation offers a threat or an opportunity to the profession.  Ultimately I believe that question is academic – the market “is what it is” – it is for firms to choose how they respond, and the strategic challenge is to use the market changes to your advantage.

When good people leave

Talking to a legal recruitment consultant recently (and no, before you ask I’m not looking to return to lawyering!) he mentioned that while there are undoubtedly a high number of candidates on the market at the moment, they are not always what the recruiting firms are looking for. The sharper firms have opted to retain their top talent and protect their investment in the best people.

The staff door out of Briggins & Partners was less inviting than the client entrance lobby

This got me thinking about why people do choose to leave firms, and why when they do, so many law firms manage departures very badly (particularly when they have a large chunk of the office is occupied by specialist employment lawyers!).

One of the really interesting projects I did as part of my MBA was to look at attrition in a specific part of a multi-national business. The senior management team had identified attrition as a problem and wanted to understand it and fix it. I started with a mixture of primary research (talking to staff, line managers, senior managers, the HR team etc) and secondary research (reading exit interview forms, looking at internal data and industry stats and then ploughing through published literature on the subject).

There were two things that I really took away from the project. The first was that despite management perception, while staff attrition had definitely increased within the part of the company I was examining, it wasn’t particularly high when compared to the industry at large. Given the internal focus on many firms, this highlights the benefit of challenging internal perceptions, particularly on sensitive issues when partners may want to keep a discussion within a closed group.

By comparison I also found some parts of the business where attrition was so low, that itself was a problem. Typified by a number of long term employees (“lifers”), this team lacked new blood and the ideas and enthusiasm that new joiners can bring. Characterised by a resistance to change and the management challenges that come with that attitude, while it wasn’t the subject of my investigation, it was clear that this was actually a larger problem for the organisation than managing attrition in the other part of the business.

How many law firms or in-house legal teams might this be true of? For example, while it might be the high turnover corporate team that get the attention of management, and the support of the HR teams, could it be “steady Eddie” in the property team, with his or her long term band of supporters, who resists change and frustrates management initiatives, who actually is more problematic.

The second interesting conclusion I drew from the project was that the root of the attrition in this case actually lay in the company’s recruitment practices. The company was typically recruiting at short notice to meet pressing, short-term capacity problems. As a result, it was short-cutting the standard competency-based recruitment processes and getting candidates that were not well matched for the company’s long-term needs. It seemed counter-intuitive to me for recruitment to be causing attrition problems, but the evidence was pretty conclusive.

Now in my experience law firms but quite a bit of time and effort into recruitment, but this is often focussed on getting the right fit for the current need. I wonder how many associates subsequently move on because it becomes apparent that their medium term prospects are compromised for some reason (team structure or partnership prospects for example) that could have been foreseen and addressed at the point of recruitment. Creating different career paths within law firms is a subject that has got considerable attention within the last five years or so, but firstly I’m not sure how transparent these schemes really are to existing assistants, let alone to potential recruits.

I don’t have any magic solutions in this area, but  wanted to stimulate thinking about the link between people joining and leaving.

Finally, before I depart, a quick word on law firm departures. One of the things that struck me about the different between life inhouse and life in a law firm is how many more acrimonious departures there seem to be in law firms. Perhaps some of it is tied up with the consensual and to some degree more personal nature of partnerships as a business structure. Maybe some of it is that lawyers in practice invariably move to a competitor. Possibly some of it could be put down to the competitive (combative?) nature of many lawyers.

But really, is it in anyone’s interest to part on bad terms? Both parties have a reputation in the marketplace and will likely cross paths again in the future. Time and time again organisations like the big four accountancy practices and the top tier management consultancies show the value in their alumni network. Would this be possible if a huge percentage of leavers left under a cloud?

While corporate departures may not be a bed of roses, I’ve certainly seen much less animosity, and also much better communication (both internally and externally) than with some law firms. I remember one conversation when I was in-house counsel, when a partner I’d never met before called to tell me that one of the key lawyers I instructed had left the firm, and that he had covenants in his contract that meant he would not be able to act for me for the next six months, but of course that the current firm would be happy to help me out if I needed assistance. Needless to say I didn’t use them again…..

So if good people are leaving, my suggestions are firstly to take the time to find out why they are going (by which I mean have a REAl conversation with them, don’t just read the notes of their exit interview) and try and manage their departure sensibly. On the other hand if nobody is leaving, perhaps you should ask yourself if this is causing any hidden problems.

Strategy without creativity?

Walking towards Holborn yesterday I looked up at a building to see the statement “strategy is nothing without creativity” plastered across the window. My instinct was to file it away in the “I agree” compartment of my head, and, as the song says, “walk on by”. The more I thought about it however, the less easy I found it to compartmentalise my response in that way.

The energy team's market strategy was lacking detail

Perhaps betraying my origins as a lawyer, I thought the best place to start the discussion was by getting clear on what I’m talking about when discussing strategy. A key distinction is between “corporate strategy” and “market strategy”.

By corporate strategy I think about the high level decisions of what markets a business will compete in, and possibly (depending on factors such as how disparate those markets are), a broad set of principles on how the business will compete.

By market strategy I mean how the business will compete in its chosen markets.

It is in this arena I want to examine the role of creativity,  however in my experience, there are more fundamental questions that many law firms need to ask themselves about their market strategies before creativity comes in to play.

The first is whether market strategy actually exists. Often firm strategy (essentially the corporate strategy mentioned above)  is set by the management and then “rolled out” to the partnership, practice areas, industry sectors etc. At the market level, often the business planning that happens is purely financial in nature; usually as part of the budgeting process. Targets are set, and teams then work out how they are going to deliver those numbers. This then leads into a very tactical discussion; perhaps looking at how to grow major accounts or penetrate particular prospects.

The market strategy layer is, not always, but often, completely missed. And as a result, firms often struggle to articulate their positioning in the market (one of the key outputs of market strategy) and when asked about their strategy for a particular market often end up talking about their experience or resources, which may well be relevant, but means the lawyers often lack the clarity of a well defined strategy that they can articulate.

Another benefit of having a market strategy, is a deeper understanding of what the competition are doing. When the day-to-day pace of life is so fast, it’s easy to get by with a cursory understanding of what other firms are doing in the market, relying on what’s in the legal press, and what you hear from clients and contacts. However, the benefits of actually analysing competitors, working out how they are different from you and your practice, what they do well, are significant and can shape the way you think about your own practice (and crucially how you present it to clients and prospects).

So, in a roundabout way, this brings me onto creativity. There’s no doubt in my mind, that at the market strategy level creativity can bring tremendous benefits, and create the sort of breakthrough strategies that could help a firm really win in the marketplace. However, if many firms don’t really have a market strategy, then I think there are opportunities for those firms who do have one to reap significant benefits simply from implementing their strategy well and communicating it clearly (both within the firm and to the market place).

Implementing and communicating strategy are both huge topics worthy of their own posts, so I’ll leave those for another day. However, the point I’ll finish on is just to mention that creating a winning market strategy doesn’t have to be a laborious, bureaucratic process – in Strategy SafariMintzberg lists a whole host of ways in which strategy can be formed (from emergent and entrepreneurial strategy through to more formal planning and design processes).

My bet is that if market strategy is something your team has done before, a small time investment would pay big rewards.

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Law firms and the death ground?

No, not a commentary on carnage wreaked by the credit crunch, but another return to the world of warfare for some thoughts on law firm change.

 

The senior partner took staff discipline very seriously

 

In my last post I mentioned Robert Greene’s excellent book “The 33 Strategies of War”, and was particularly interested in the section on creating a sense of urgency; a phrase which rears its head in many aspects of business life.

In sales and product development, a frequently asked question is “what’s the client’s burning platform?”, meaning why does the client need to solve this problem NOW? In many cases, as I’ve written previously (http://tinyurl.com/2uq8oh6)  the lawyer is in the enviable position of solving an urgent and unavoidable problem – defending big ticket litigation for example. In other cases the client’s need is less pressing (for example the need for a data protection audit) and presents law firms with a sales challenge.

Another area the urgency question arises, and this is where I want to pause for a second, is in creating change. The majority of models I have seen for creating change in an organisation start with the need to create a shared sense of urgency (see the work of Kotter for example; in fact “a sense of urgency” is the title of one of his more recent books).

What interests me, is Greene’s assertion that “the world is ruled by necessity: people change their behaviour only if they have to”. He quotes from Sun-tzu in the Art of War, explaining that the famous Chinese strategist advocated creating a “death ground”: a place where the army was penned in and forced to fight as there is no escape route. Faced with death being “viscerally present” (great phrase!) the army would fight with double or triple the spirit and as a result be many times more effective.

The challenge is of course that in all but the harshest City firms (*joke*), death is fairly unlikely for the average Western lawyer, yet in all seriousness there will undoubtedly be some firms and some careers that will end over the coming months as the profession evolves in rapid and dramatic ways.

Readers of this blog are no strangers to my view of the forces changing the market place: globalisation, deregulation, commoditisation and increasing automation, more sophisticated buying behaviours, changing employee priorities and expectations…. the list goes on. These drivers will see firms out of business, industry consolidation, career doors close (and others open of course), yet many, many firms remain slow to change despite the fact that a large proportion of partners both see how different the business landscape is now, even when compared to five years ago.

While I’ve examined some of the barriers to law firm change before, Greene suggests a number of practical strategies to help leaders operate from the “psychological death ground”. I’ve pulled out the main ones below, along with some thoughts on their application to  the profession:

Stake everything on a single throw: given a low tolerance for risk, how many law firms make the bold strategic move? Don’t get me wrong, some do and succeed, some do and fail, but many, many more don’t put their eggs in four or five baskets, let alone a single one!

Enter new waters: with a whole host of new competitors about to enter the legal market place (certainly in the UK as early as next year), how many law firms are themselves thinking of entering new markets? Clearly expansion can be difficult in tough economic times, but entering new waters doesn’t have to mean serious capital expense (like opening an office in another geography) – web based services, strategic partnerships, innovative use of technology can all take a firm to new places without blowing the budget.

Make it “you against the world”: read last week’s post about knowing your enemies. How would your team behave if a key client told you that at the end of the year it would only instruct one law firm (out of you and your closest rival)? How would that shape your behaviour now?

Keep yourself restless and unsatisfied: perhaps with margins falling and cash flows looking more challenging, after a period of unprecedented growth, this might be enough to prompt action now. If not, ask yourself what you would do if partner drawings were scheduled to be halved this financial year (in the current environment, they may well be)? How could you and the team or firm survive? What could you do to fight back?

At the end of the day, I think the disconnect between Greene’s theory and reality is the difficulty translating thought into action. If these scenarios were reality, then people and organisations would act and would act quickly. The challenge for the profession, is where death is not yet quite so visceral, can we change quickly enough?

White space?

I’m always looking to improve my blog, and one of the areas I look for inspiration and guidance is on other blogs, particular those with a big audience. One of the most popular is called “Zen Habits“, a blog about using zen principles to simplify life and slow down which has been going since 2007. Since the author has six children, I figure he must know a thing or two about running a busy, complex life!

The partners at Whitmore Grubbins took the art in their meeting rooms very seriously

The article that grabbed me this time, was called “Life’s missing white space” (link at end of the post), which explained the concept of white space in the design world, and then went on to look at how the principle can be applied to life, to increase clarity, balance, priority and peace.  Now with the possible exception of peace (although I’ve met my fair share of conflict-seeking lawyers over the years!), I think those outcomes could certainly benefit many of us in the legal profession.

In basic terms, the idea is that in the design world, the white space surrounding the design, can form part of the viewer’s experience. Think of the Mona Lisa: looking at this in a spacious room, with nothing either side of the picture would give a very different experience from seeing it in a small gallery with other pieces of art 30cm each side of it and above and below it. The white space has an important relationship with the content.

Where I think the concept has application for lawyers is that building white space into a day allows quality thinking time and reflection. The need for this can manifest in many different ways: the “doh” moment on a deal or case when a lawyer realises that something obvious has been overlooked; the realisation in the middle of an internal discussion that all the parties have been down this road before and are just rehashing the same behaviours again and again; the snatched and heated conversation with a difficult client or colleague that could have gone much better with just a little thought beforehand.

A little white space, a little pause, would offer the opportunity to just go back to basics. What are the objectives for a particular piece of work? What is it that the client really wants?  What are the risks here? What will the other party be thinking?

Often it is this thinking time that is the first casualty of the drive to get more done. Particularly in law firms living with the tyranny of the chargeable hour. The challenge is that this white space and the thinking that could occur within it, could result in a higher quality output for the client.

The other area where I believe that white space can help us, is its ability to allow reflection and learning. This can help us grow both as individuals and organisations (I’ll leave discussion of Senge’s classic book “the 5th discipline” for another day). I’ve written previously about some of the challenges facing lawyers who wish to examine their work and learn from it, but adding some white space offers a great opportunity to grow.

Asking at the end of the day “what went well today” and “what could I have done better?”, is time well spent in my book, even if it is (literally) just five minutes.  One similar technique I picked up from a book called “Mindchi” was a two minute review at the end of each day, where you replay the day’s events from start to finish as a movie on fast forward in your mind’s eye. The first time you identify areas for improvement, the second time successes and things that went well. I found learning in both “films” (although I much preferred watching the second!

The paradox with creating white space, is that it is both simple and difficult to create. Simple is that it’s just a question of doing less and creating some time (ideally by removing some of the unimportant, unproductive things we all do each day). Difficult in that we are often not truly the master of our own schedules, and even when we are, old habits are hard to break.

Just for the record, the five minutes you spend each week reading The Intelligent Challenge should stay in your schedule!

Inside out lawyers?

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?