A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Where was Minters’ chairman during the Kimmitt crisis?

In Articles, Commentary on 26 March 2021 at 7:28 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 26 March 2021

“The Minter’s chairman went missing in action. One of the most important jobs of a chair is to resolve major disputes within the partnership without it spilling out to the rest of the firm, and even worse, into client land.”

This quote reflects a sentiment expressed by many law firm leaders I spoke to about the recent saga at MinterEllison.

While I’m not privy to the internal machinations at Minters to say whether this is a fair judgement or not about the firm’s chairman, David O’Brien, it does raise the question as to what should be expected of a chair?

 In my view, the answer lies in the confluence of governance, guidance, and glue.

Governance

The chair of partners usually has an active leadership role in firm governance. As such, his or her job is to ensure that management’s direction is broadly aligned with the interests of equity partners and other stakeholders.

Unlike company structures, partnership governance roles and responsibilities are not stipulated in any statute and are largely ambiguous. All partners are assumed take on all responsibilities concurrently. In this context, the chair and managing partner are expected to carve out a tailored governance framework that balances stewardship, operational efficiency, risk-taking, control, transparency, partner autonomy and accountability.

The chair of partners would usually be expected to facilitate the effective functioning of board and partner meetings, ensure accurate timely and relevant information flow, oversee risk and compliance, manage board composition, and lead the process of reviewing the managing partner’s performance and succession.

In some firms, the chair is actively involved in deciding profit allocation and progression. In other firms, their role is more of an independent arbiter in profit allocation appeals. 

Guidance

While most medium and large firms have adopted a more ‘corporate’ governance model, partners as owner-operators still often want a say when it comes to critical decisions around firm purpose, values, capital allocation and broad strategic direction.

The chair plays a critical role in helping the firm’s executives navigate this decision-making minefield.

Their guidance is critical in deciding which fights to pick, what options are on or off the table, what’s the best approach and forum to raise issues, and where power really lies in and around the partnership.

Chairs often act as cultural barometers – forecasting the mood, energy, and tone of the partnership. Their predictions of an imminent storm, or conversely, a period of calm and confidence can be hugely beneficial.

At a more micro level, firm chairs often act as a sounding board or mentor for the managing partner. In this role, they help talk through tricky issues, provide honest feedback, and offer comfort when exasperation overwhelms.

This mentoring role is particularly important for the induction of new managing partners or an external appointment. In the latter case, the chair needs to lend some of their social capital until the new leader’s position is firmly established. 

Glue

The third role of the chair is to foster partnership cohesion and stability. This doesn’t mean leading the firm cheer squad, but rather putting out spot fires and addressing corrosive politicking.

Spot fires may include a major fallout between two senior partners or where an individual partner has displayed behaviour incongruent with the firm’s values or there is a case of systemic underperformance.

It is quite common for the chair to join the managing partner in having a fireside chat with these problem partners. The chair helps create a sense of deep collective concern. This threat is hoped to be the catalyst necessary to change aberrant behaviour.

Pie-splitting is often a source of ‘corrosive politicking’. For example, in meritocracies choosing a side when there’s a commercial or legal conflict could result in a major differential in individual earnings. In these instances, the chair may get involved in dialling-down the emotions and ensuring that trust in the model is maintained.

Coming back to the MinterEllison situation, I don’t have any first-hand information as to assess whether the firm’s chair did an effective job in governing, guiding, and gluing? As with so many tricky issues in law firm partnerships, that’s ultimately for Mr O’Brien’s partners to decide.

How law firms can do more with less

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 5 March 2021 at 6:22 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 4 March 2021.

Commercial law firms face constant pressure from clients to do more for less.

They can respond in three ways: say it can’t be done and risk losing out to competitors, drop their prices, or make a step change to improve productivity.

Most are pursuing option 3 and are looking to legal operations to make it happen.

What are legal operations?

Legal operations usually include some or all of these disciplines:

  • Business Management – commercial managers focused on improving profitability, increasing revenues and optimising efficiency.
  • Service Design – workflow and client experience specialists that evaluate, accelerate and support legal process improvement projects. They also often assist with new product development and act as incubators for new business ideas.
  • Legal Project Management – project professionals that make legal work tractable, trackable and transparent, for both lawyers and clients.
  • Pricing – pricing experts that help partners to have better client conversations, align price with value, protect margins, and where appropriate, use alternative fee arrangements.
  • Alternative Legal Services – a team of paralegals, legal technologist and lawyers focused on high-volume process work including e-discovery, transactional and dispute support, language editing, document review and IP management.

Australian experience

In Australia, some very large national firms have embraced a centralised approach to legal operations. Others have adopted a more decentralised model with each major practice group acquiring the resources specific to their needs. 

Over time, I would expect most firms will move to a model of centralised governance to avoid duplication and facilitate the sharing of knowledge and applications. At the same time, operational specialists need to work right at the coalface to find smarter ways to deliver more for less.

Innovation roles will be also subsumed into legal operations. Legal secretaries and assistants will still work directly with local lawyers but will be more connected with and directed by legal operations.

In medium-sized and smaller law firms, a new business service function will likely emerge with the status of HR, marketing and finance. It will often start with outsourcing basic IT services – hardware, software and helpdesk – and the insourcing of specialist tech-savvy resources to help lift productivity and client connection in key practice areas. Once this is established, other roles involved in supporting legal service delivery will enter the legal operations orbit.

New career pathways

This emerging area of legal operations is also creating an alternative – and attractive – career path for lawyers.

They benefit from a deep knowledge of the intrinsic needs within a legal workflow, but also enjoy the respect of the various stakeholders involved in migrating to a new way of working.

MinterEllison offers new lawyers the option of entering its Legal Operations Graduate Program. The program gives candidates exposure to lean six sigma, design thinking, change management and agile methodologies. The firm recently graduated its first cohort and is reported to be delighted with the outcomes so far.

The growth of legal operations is not just confined to law firms.

Stuart Fuller, the global head of KPMG Legal Services, recently predicted that “half of the [in-house] legal team will not be lawyers by 2025”.

Fuller says the use of automated solutions, chatbots and other forms of productised legal services will rise, and these will need support from lawyers as well as a more multidisciplinary workforce with different skill sets. As a result, the proportion of legal work done by paralegals, data analysts, operational experts and other specialists might rise to the point where legal professionals become a minority.

The key message is that the path to improved productivity is not pressuring lawyers to bill more time, but rather working smarter with the evolving disciplines of legal operations.

How law firms can avoid 2021 burnout

In Articles, Commentary on 5 February 2021 at 3:51 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 4 February 2021.

‘Exhausted.’

That’s how many managing partners described their firm in the last quarter of 2020. The reasons given for this sense of collective fatigue ranged from heavy workloads, endless screen time, social disconnection and pandemic-induced stresses. 

A key 2021 objective in many law firms is to build business resilience and to avoid burnout. Resilient organisations can ride out uncertainty instead of being overpowered by it.

The sense of exhaustion is mostly an indicator of sustained depleted energy. To cope better, firms must get better at understanding and managing energy levels.

Many law firms are rushing toward a flexible hybrid workforce with people working two or three days from home. While this makes sense, a potential trap is having a binary view that that sees work at the office as an energy drainer and home life an energy restorer. The opposite may also be true – activities at home like juggling parenting and family duties may deplete energy, where work-based tasks such as solving a complex client problem may be energising.

Related to this idea, the commute to and from work could be viewed as a restorative activity. If this time is merely replaced with demanding home or client work, the energy bank account stays overdrawn.

Taking a holistic view, working in a hybrid model might be wonderful for a few, but a net energy drain for many. If this is the case in your firm, then you’re on the road (again) to exhaustion.

There are two practical steps that law firms can take to manage energy levels better.

#1 Track the ebb and flow

‘What gets measured gets managed’, is an oft-cited quote from leadership guru Peter Drucker.

 Following his advice, law firms would benefit from developing better indicators or sensors around energy levels. This might range from a few scripted queries in regular staff check-ins to new questions in employee engagement and pulse surveys.

Tel Aviv-based McKinsey partner Gila Vadnai-Tolub defines four types of energy worth measuring: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

  • Physical energy defines how tired we feel and how well we feel in our bodies.
  • Mental energy is what we get from analytical and thinking tasks. Long periods of focused concentration are often mentally tiring. We each have mental tasks that seem to drain us or lift us.  
  • Emotional energy derives from connecting with others—from giving and receiving appreciation, or helping a friend or colleague discuss their troubles. In turn, negative emotions such as fear, frustration or anger drain energy and cripple performance. 
  • Spiritual energy is what we get from doing something meaningful to us, something that speaks to our inner core or sense of purpose. We each have experienced working hard and becoming physically and mentally tired, but somehow, we gain the energy to continue because it has fundamental meaning. 

Tracking energy levels over time can help to identify the ‘normal’ range within which energy ebbs and flows in your firm. It can signal the period just before people start running on empty.

Tracking also enables individuals to learn something of their own natural energy rhythms learning to readjust before fatigue sets in. 

#2 Build in replenishment

Elite athletes alternate between high-energy periods of performing and training with resourcing and recovery activities.

Time off on weekends, public holidays and annual leave is often as far as some law firms go in helping their people re-energise.

In recent years, many firms have expanded their health and wellness programs to address this issue. Things like paid gym memberships, cycling clubs, yoga, pilates, guided meditation classes, counselling and nutrition education are becoming more common. The biggest challenge is often to encourage those who are most in need to take advantage of the support that’s offered. 

With the rollout of the hybrid operating model, I suggest firms will need to redouble their efforts to find workable solutions. This will most likely involve conversations with each person to fully understand how they expend and restore energy over a typical day, week, month, and year. Together a tailored program can be developed to keep people productive, energised and, most importantly, resilient.

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