A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Karate Kid lesson for law firms

In Articles, Commentary on 12 July 2021 at 11:49 am

There are two broad scenarios for the future of the Australian legal market: Vax On and Vax Off (with apologies to Karate Kid fans).

Vax On describes a scenario of buoyant demand and a growing legal market. Vax Off is the opposite.

Events over the past three weeks have increased the odds of the Vax Off scenario from highly unlikely to a distinct possibility.

The scenarios

Vax On is centred on the idea that Australia will be successful in vaccinating its population relatively quickly and emerge strongly into a post-Covid normal state within six to eight months. Most of the current drivers of legal demand are positive and will continue to be so in a Vax On world.

The Vax-Off scenario is based on slow vaccination rates and conservative health policy settings.

On 2 July 2021, the Morrison Government announced a four-phase plan to return to Covid Normal. If the snail-paced vaccination rates continue as they are, we may only reach Phase 2 in the second quarter of 2022 and Phase 4 in 2023.

Vax Off will mean we stay with closed borders and disruptive lockdowns for quite some time yet. A prolonged period before Phase 4 will have significant implications for the broader economy and law firms.

#1 Brain drain

In the Vax Off scenario, the UK, USA and other legal centres may return to a Covid normal state 12 months ahead of Australia. Many ambitious, talented young Australian lawyers will see major benefits working and living abroad. The pitch is compelling – do great work, earn good money, live without lockdowns, and put your passport to good use.

The current tide of talented ex-pats returning home will shift from a small flow to a major ebb.

This brain drain will hit Australia’s law firms when these resources are needed the most and firms have few viable Plan Bs. A second-order impact might be a significant spike in average salaries and benefits paid to those lawyers that have remained at home. 

#2 A depressed commercial property market

Lockdowns mean full-time work in the office is off the table. Border closures will result in fewer international students, tourists and migrants.

In combination, all these factors point to a significant drop in demand for commercial properties, hotels and high rise residential real estate.

A depressed property market will directly impact real estate lawyers, but it could also affect other related areas like construction, banking, project finance, and funds.

#3 Collapse in travel, tourism and education

Government support packages and insolvency moratoriums since April 2020 have kept most businesses in the travel, tourism and education sectors alive. In a Vax Off world, a vast majority of these businesses are too small to save, and the liquidators will eventually move in.

At one level, that’s good news for law firms’ insolvency practices, but the flow-on impact of significant job losses and the fall of iconic brands will lower consumer confidence and GDP. 

#4 A return of protectionism

Leading economist Saul Eslake recently argued that the long-term economic damage from closed borders might have a similar impact to the trade barriers that lowered Australia’s living standards up until the 1980s.

An extended Vax Off period runs the risk of Australian businesses and law firms becoming less relevant in global markets and losing out on major deals and projects.

#5 Disrupted operations

Almost all of Australia’s Top 30 law firms have some kind of international alliance or connection. Herbert Smith Freehills, for example, is a financially integrated global partnership. Maddocks is a member of ADVOC – a network of independent firms spread across the world.

Most cross-border collaboration is going to be negatively impacted in a Vax Off scenario. There will be no physical meetings and limited joint business development activity. International client and referral relationships that have taken many years to cultivate will weaken.

Scenario planning is often done when there are two or three alternative futures that are possible, uncertain and beyond any party’s direct control. In the case of the Vax On or Vax Off scenarios, our political leaders can have a major influence on which future we have.

Let’s hope they soon find the courage of Karate Kid’s Daniel Laruso and the wisdom of Mr Miyaji.

Hey partner, do you know where you sit on the career curve?

In Articles, Commentary on 28 June 2021 at 7:59 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 June 2021.

In nature, a seed is planted, begins to sprout, matures, becomes an adult, and then eventually regenerates. While not as unequivocal as the laws of nature, the careers of partners in premium law firms generally go through five distinct phases.

  • Phase one: find my feet. Partners typically work hard to validate the business case for their promotion. They spend time working out how things really work, who calls the shots and what it takes to succeed.
  • Phase two: create backbone. Partners cement their anchor clients and referrers. They build the team and technology necessary for efficient service delivery and a compelling client experience.
  • Phase three: make hay. Partners really hit their straps and use their strong personal brands and honed business development skills to win and deliver an increasing flow of profitable work.
  • Phase four: widen contribution. In addition to growing their own practice, these partners collaborate actively across the firm, expanding existing client relationships, cross-servicing and seeding new opportunities. They share their knowledge and contacts widely and help monetise their IP in new algorithms, products and thought leadership. Some also take on practice and firm leadership roles.
  • Phase five: transition to others. Senior partners in this phase commence the development of designated successors. They start to let go of the reins and lend their social capital to others.

Proactive conversations about a partner’s desired career curve – shape, angle, timing and gaps of the phases – can be of significant benefit to the individual and the firm.

The shape of the arc

The duration of each phase varies significantly from person to person. It is not simply an average 30-year partner tenure divided by five equal phases.

Many partners would have a career that follows a classic “S” curve, with ordered progression through the five phases. There may be a few “J” curves or hockey-sticks that reflect a flat or declining phase one followed by continued rapid growth.

There are partners who have a career arc that looks like a series of angled “Ws”, going from boom to bust to boom, reflecting an innate ability to reinvent themselves.

In more recent times, there are career arcs that have missing chunks as people take extended time out for other commitments.

The early days

In the past, it was common for phase one and two partners to be left alone to sink or swim. It was assumed that, on promotion, the individual became all-knowing and capable.

But many progressive firms now offer tailored training and coaching support to build resilience and keep them on a positive trajectory. Most firms also recognise that these early days often coincide with major changes in partners’ personal lives, like starting a family and taking on more debt. Work-life integration at these early stages is beset with competing demands.

A missed opportunity

A firm filled with phase three “haymakers” sounds wonderful, but recent Harvard research indicates that there is much more to gain if they instead develop a strong collaborative culture with a healthy cohort of phase four partners. These benefits include more valuable client work at higher margins and greater staff engagement.

But going from phase three to four is easier said than done, especially for those individuals who are hard-wired to work autonomously.

Each firm should clarify what the “widen contribution” phase looks and feels like to them and whether there are any practice-area variances. Alignment of measurement and reward to create more phase fours is a good next step, with measurement used to improve not just prove.

Leaving well

Phase five is quite often dealt with too late or superficially. This may be due to a reluctance of a senior partner to let go, the inability of the next generation to step up, the risk of client defections and/or the financial circumstances of the individuals involved.

Like at all other phases, every partner should be asked, and should ask themselves where are they on the career arc, what to prioritise to succeed in the current phase, where next and how?

Law firm leaders fail on fun, fame and fortune

In Articles, Commentary on 17 May 2021 at 2:54 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 14 May 2021.

There is a significant leadership deficit in most Australian legal organisations – and your firm is unlikely to be an exception.

The evidence for this claim is strong – mental health problems at three times the levels of the general population; 20 per cent-plus turnover among junior lawyers; slow progress on diversity and inclusion at partner level; and a general predilection to resist, rather than embrace, change.

Less measurable, but probably even more important, is the opportunity cost. Legal firms and teams with effective leaders tend to outperform their peers on the indicators that keep people happy – that is, fun, fame and fortune.

What’s more, they seem to be able to sustain their success regardless of bumps in the road such as a global pandemic, major advances in technology and intense challenges from competitors.

One of the key reasons for the leadership deficit is the emphasis on creating outstanding technical legal advisers, but not great legal leaders.

There is no leadership component in the undergraduate law or juris doctor (JD) curriculum and many continuing legal education (CLE) programs for the first 10 years post-qualification focus on improving legal know-how and functional tasks such as delegation, presentation skills, networking and using social media.

Decisions on who gets promoted and who doesn’t are heavily weighted towards legal competency. Leadership potential may enter the frame, but it’s usually third or fourth on the list of criteria.

Hurry to Harvard

For the past three decades, many law firms sent their senior partners in management roles to the United States to attend Harvard Business School’s Leading Professional Services Firm program.

More recently, some firms have engaged leading business schools and other providers to develop tailored in-house executive educations programs for their partners and business service leaders.

Many firms now offer the assistance of executive coaches to help their senior practitioners in running and building their practice.

While many of these programs and initiatives are worthwhile, it appears the focus is on lawyers on the cusp of partnership, or older. In contrast, leading corporation and government agencies start to identify and develop their future leadership talent among those in the mid-20s – often a full decade earlier.

Brighter futures

Ironically, many of the high-potential or “rising star” programs in corporates are heavily populated with super-smart graduate lawyers who have switched to careers in commerce or policy.

Perhaps this is one reason ambitious young lawyers see brighter futures elsewhere?

In response to the leadership deficit and the other issues noted above, many of the state-based law societies have recently revamped their legal practice management courses (PMCs) to include contemporary leadership topics.

Completion of a PMC program is often a prerequisite for any solicitor seeking to practice as a “principal” or “partner” of a private law practice.

The College of Law launched its Master of Legal Business program in 2018, aimed at enhancing the skills of those in, or aspiring to, leadership and management roles within legal organisations. The course is delivered 100 per cent online with virtual workshops and self-paced course work.

New program

The University of Melbourne Law School (MLS) is about to enter this growing category and will be launching a new Specialist Certificate in Legal Leadership program in mid-May. The subjects will be taught by Anthony Kearns, practice leader consulting at Lander & Rogers, and myself.

The MLS program is aimed at practising mid-career lawyers in law firms, in-house and government, rather than those in current management or leadership roles.

The course will be delivered with a hybrid approach with local students in the classroom (COVID-19 permitting) and those from abroad joining them virtually.

The legal world is crying out for real innovation in the learning and development arena.

We need the right balance between technical legal, leadership and digital skill development. We need concurrent, not consecutive, learning of requisite skills. We need new learning methods that don’t just rely on chalk and talk. We need programs with a manageable cost, both direct and opportunity cost.

It’s time to disrupt the current model. If we don’t, we will be here in 20 years’ time stressing over high turnover, mental health, diversity and productivity issues.

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