How hard is your work, really?

1 04 2010

Outside the profession, despite the bad press that lawyers get, the majority of people still think of the practice of law as an intellectually challenging job. Fundamentally, I think they are right. It takes time to learn the black letter law that underpins the work, and more time still to understand how to apply it to the wide variety of circumstances that a lawyer will come across in day to day practice. To then present that advice in a format appropriate to the client, to use creativity to solve problems, and to build the relationships and trust necessary to build a long career is tough.

A brain surgeon: is he smarter than you?

But (you were expecting a “but”, right?), within this work profile there is of course a spectrum of complexity. Traditionally, as lawyers became more experienced, they took on more complex work and more junior lawyers stepped onto the first rung of the ladder to begin their career learning to do the less complex work. But somewhere in the middle, things get a little hazy. In the old favourite “Managing the Professional Service Firm”, Maister talked about the classic challenge of under-delegation, and my suggestion for today is to revisit this in your working lives.

When times get tough, as they have certainly been recently, the classic law firm model of having chargeable hours as the main metric for judging performance encourages lawyers to hoard work to keep their figures healthy. Whether that work is done at the right level (or indeed even profitable) is often a question that is not asked.  As firms are restructured to realign the cost base with the reduced revenues that come with a recession, mid and lower level resource is stripped out. This recession was arguably different from the previous two in that more partners found themselves on the move, but irrespective of this, my point is that as the work volume starts to increase, many firms will find they don’t have the right profile of  resources to do the work efficiently.

Have a look at how you are spending your day. Not in a “timesheet-track-every-six-minutes” kind of way, but in a more substantive “where am I spending my time, and who else could do this work” kind of way. Could work be passed down to junior colleagues? Could it be a valuable training exercise? What about automation or outsourcing? If your time was freed-up, how else could you create value for the firm or legal department?

Enjoy your day today, and particularly appreciate the difficult parts that challenge and stretch you!

That’s a really, er, interesting idea……

16 03 2010

Product development remains a concept that’s alien to many law firms. Firstly, the idea of highly tailored legal services being associated with something as, well, crude, as a “product” is just plain wrong. Secondly, the firms just deliver what the clients want, so that’s really a type of product development, right? Unfortunately there’s a world of difference between this approach, and actually spotting a market need, creating a service to meet that need, testing it, pricing it, crafting and communicating a value proposition, and then (horror of horrors) actually proactively selling it.

I thought the lightbulb was supposed to go on when we have a good idea?

Don’t get me wrong, some firms are very good at this, but they are still in the minority. When the credit crunch rolled round, most of my in-house peers knew that a restructuring was on the cards (and once the depth of the recession became clear, it was often a fairly severe one that was required). This often involved external counsel for specialist advice, and particularly support for the HR teams. Why, I wondered to myself, hasn’t a firm packaged up a nice, client friendly offer to help with this? Something a little different from hourly rate employment advice; maybe a slicker process, maybe different presentation, maybe a faster resolution, maybe priced more attractively; ideally all with proof points of the value that was captured, nicely wrapped up, and differentiated from the competition. But nobody did.

The next challenges for law firms that do “get” product development, is to keep the process client focussed. It’s all too tempting to base the service ideas on what the lawyers think the clients need, rather than what they actually need. Most clients love to talk about their business, and using those lawyerly skill investigating business problems rather than legal ones (when the clock is ticking) is, in my experience, always time well spent. A great read on this subject is Tuned-in by Stull Myers and Scott, and explains why it’s easy not to keep the client at the forefront of the product development process (and how to remedy that).

Finally, the last little nugget to chew over (watch your teeth), is the fact that good product development requires innovation, and I believe personally that the flip side of this is that it will involve failure, something lawyers generally don’t like to talk about. I don’t necessarily advocate the “fail big, fail often” approach of some innovation gurus, but I do think it’s important not to be scared to experiment, and to learn the lessons when failure does raise its poorly groomed head.