A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Firms face danger if they stray too far from the core

In Articles, Commentary on 10 October 2020 at 12:24 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 9 October 2020.

Establishing non-legal businesses seems to be back in favour among Australia’s larger law firms.

Minter Ellison was an early mover with acquisitions of an IT consultancy firm and an executive remuneration practice in 2017. Others include Corrs Cyber (data breach and crisis management), G+T (Gilbert + Tobin) Innovate (in-house legal transformation), Ashurst Consulting (board risk and governance), TG (Thomson Geer) Endeavour (public affairs), McCullough Robertson’s Allegiant (insurance broking) and Hall & Wilcox’s Global Mobility Services (migration, tax and relocation).

The rationale for these new non-law ventures is mostly centred on strengthening or defending the core business and making significant client relationships stickier. Some firms pursue these adjacencies to deliver new sources of profitable growth or to provide a hedge in the event of industry disruption.

Original AFR article

To increase the chances of success of these new ventures and others seeking adjacent opportunities, there are four key strategies to consider.

#Reinforce the core

Many adjacency failures can be put down to firms straying too far from their core business.

Woolworths’ foray into the retail hardware sector via its Masters business was an unmitigated failure. Masters did not reinforce Woolworths’ core grocery business or leverage existing customer and supplier relationships. While its retailing and property management capabilities were strong, they couldn’t outmuscle a formidable incumbent (Bunnings).

Success comes from investing in areas where there are substantial, measurable and mutually reinforcing economies between the current and the new.

#2 Align financial expectations

One of the main reasons law firms have not persisted with non-law businesses in the past is that they have simply not made enough money.

Well-run premium law firms are very profitable. Despite intense competition, the market price for specialised legal advice has increased significantly over the past 20 years.

Many of the new ventures compete in market segments where the price point for partner-level advice is 30 per cent to 40 per cent lower than law firms. Others are pitched at the ‘brain-surgery’ end of the market with relatively low leverage and utilisation.

The upshot is there is a significant risk regarding profit expectations. My advice is to ensure everyone is 100 per cent on the same page early on – and if there are irreconcilable gaps, walk away!

#3 Pre-empt cultural clashes

While great strides have been made in recent years on using the talents of those without legal qualifications, the lawyers still market – and see – themselves as the smartest people in the room.

So, it is vital that your cultural due diligence cover over things like common aspirations, values and standards. When it comes to adding advisors from non-law disciplines, there is an added risk of professional arrogance.

One of the keys to success is to pre-empt and address any cultural differences between the lawyers and those other idiots. Only joking!

#4 Ensure a founder’s mentality

Why is profitable growth so hard to achieve and sustain?

Chris Zook from Bain & Company researched this question and found that when firms fail to achieve their growth targets, 90 per cent of the time the root causes are internal and not market related.

He also found that firms experience a set of predictable internal crises, at predictable stages, as they grow.

Zook suggests that managing these choke points requires a “founder’s mentality”— someone with fire in the belly who is relentless in pursuing the business’ mission, adept at leading others through change and imbuing the firm with a strong client focus.

So, in summary, all it takes to succeed is to have a driven intrapreneur leading a new venture that is deeply connected to the core business – from a market, financial and cultural perspective.

It sounds easy. Until you try.

Will law firms be more productive but less human?

In Articles, Commentary on 7 October 2020 at 9:00 pm

Full text of my Australian Financial Review opinion piece first published on 11 September 2020.

In April, I made three predictions about a post-Covid19 legal world – there would be deeper relationships between staff and clients, less paper and more flexible work arrangements. Five months on, it’s worth revisiting these predictions and to ask what else might change?

The argument for deeper relationships was based on the notion that people going through acute stress together come out at the other end with greater trust, understanding and connection. Given that we’re still living through the pandemic, it’s probably too soon to tell for sure whether this prediction will come true or not.

It appears the sense of a life-threatening emergency is being replaced by a collective consciousness of fatigue and despair. In Victoria, tempers seem to be a bit shorter and patience a little thinner. This trend doesn’t augur well for a future of more kindness and mutual support.

The predictions around less paper and more flexible work arrangements are looking rock solid. Many firms have eased into hybrid operating models and have hardly skipped a beat. Some have already publicly stated that this model is permanent.

But there are some emerging trends that justify three new predictions.

#1 Fewer legal secretaries and assistants

Over the past few months, some firms have reported increases in overall production but lower productivity amongst legal secretaries and assistants. Lawyer self-sufficiency and the move to working from home have been the primary reasons cited for this shift.

It’s not too much of a leap to suggest many firms will look to reduce secretarial support ratios by a combination of redundancies and retraining of some assistants as paralegals.

One of the possible consequences of reducing secretarial numbers is a more fragmented work culture. Secretaries often provide a bridge between people and practices by sharing news and gossip, fostering relationships and retelling stories.

They offer a valuable pastoral care role, especially when the senior legal practitioners are EQ-deprived. Without this cultural glue, firms run the risk of being more productive but less human.

#2 Renewed respect for HR

In many firms, the HR team has kept the ship sailing. This is no mean feat given the speed, scale and scope of change required, and the fact they operate with little formal authority within a partnership structure.

There is always extreme sensitivity around changes in people’s pay, promotions, leave entitlements, workloads and future job prospects. HR practitioners have advised on these issues as well as resource strategy, communication, mental health, resilience and fostering a strong team vibe.

Pre-Covid19, it was not uncommon for firms to suffer from the “HR standoff’. In one corner, the HR team members would complain about the firm’s partners being disrespectful and disempowering. In the opposite corner, the firm’s partners would regard HR as being process, not outcome-driven and uncommercial.

I think this standoff will be mostly a thing of the past, especially in firms where HR has risen to the challenge.

#3 Reset in decision-making

To deal with the government-imposed lockdown in March 2020, firms needed to make big decisions quickly. Managing partners were given the authority by the broader partnership to address the crisis. It appears many of these senior leaders accepted this mandate and blossomed with their increased power and autonomy.

Five months on and many firms have not shifted significantly away from the March model. With relentless partner workloads and no in-person partner meetings, the firm’s executives have largely kept their decision rights.

I expect that post-corona the pendulum will swing back slightly, but this recent experience reveals that the firm can still prosper without every partner having a say on everything.

Is HWL Limited a buy?

In Articles, Commentary on 30 August 2020 at 12:35 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 27 August 2020.

Earlier this week, the Australian Financial Review reported that HWL Ebsworth (HWLE) was preparing to list the firm on the ASX with a $1 Billion-plus valuation.

While details are scant at this stage, it is worth asking whether stockbrokers will recommend a BUY when the HWLE Limited prospectus is issued?

My prediction is they will give this IPO a thumbs down for five main reasons.

#1 Insufficient surplus

As a listed entity, HWLE partners will have to share a portion of the firm’s profits with external shareholders. For the sake of argument assume the current partners enjoy average earnings of $1.5 million per annum. In the future, partner earnings – salary plus bonus minus profit share – might reduce to say $1 million. The incumbent partners will most likely accept a reduced annual income given their significant capital gain upon listing.

This business case seems logical but misses one key point – there is a fiercely competitive market for top talent. Many of the best HWLE partners are proven rainmakers will still be able to command incomes around $1.5 million or more at other non-listed law firms or by setting up their own practice when their employment and escrow handcuffs come off.

At $1 million – the maximum the firm can pay and still maintain dividend payments – HWLE Limited will be way off the mark in attracting any new ‘$1.5 million’ partners.

Over the long term, there’s insufficient surplus to keep both partners and external shareholders happy.

Screen Shot 2020-08-30 at 12.18.35 pm

#2 Clients don’t buy the firm

When Shine Justice Limited first listed on the ASX, they presented strong evidence that their personal injury clients chose them because they trusted the firm’s brand and were largely lawyer agnostic.  When IPH listed, investors were enticed by a large proportion of annuity income from patent and TM renewals and an ambitious plan to scale.

When it comes to HWLE’s mostly business-to-business relationships, research shows that clients are much more discerning around who does their work.

HWLE external shareholders will not be buying a company with a strong brand with sticky institutional client relationships. They will be buying a collection of individual portable practices, each with their own reputation and client following.

#3 Vague growth story

External shareholders examining the IPO prospectus will be looking for a compelling growth story. They will want to see how a fresh capital injection will drive shareholder value.

Under Juan Martinez’s leadership, HWLE has a solid track record of acquiring legal practices without the need to splash much cash. Economies of scale work well in mining but less so in premium legal where even boutique firms can generate supernormal profits. Despite all the hype, there’s no legal technology yet available that will create a sustainable cost or client service advantage. Creating a multi-disciplinary practice or moving offshore is fraught with risk.

So, unless I’m missing something, the growth plan beyond more of the same seems less than convincing.

#4 Key person risk

From interviews with former staff, it appears that Juan Martinez has a robust directed leadership style. Overheads are kept to a minimum and all lawyers are encouraged to be on the tools all the time to compensate for below-market pricing.

This is the operating model that has been the bedrock of HWLE’s success to date.

Given Mr Martinez’s tenure and track record, the market will have many questions over the strength of HWLE’s bench. If the proverbial bus had to arrive who will keep the firm together and herd the cats? I’d imagine the firm’s value will be discounted heavily because of this key person risk.

#5 More losses than wins

Future investors in HWLE will have a good look at the investment category and proceed with caution. A 20-year analysis of law and accounting firm IPOs in Australia reveals far more losses than wins, especially for external investors. This includes firms like Stockfords, Harts and Slater & Gordon.

One of the reasons for these failures is the loss of the partnership culture that underpins their initial success. This culture comes from the incumbent partners’ sense of proprietorship, stewardship, collegiality and identity. Shifting from partner to employee is a big shock to many. Financial transparency, share price volatility and an added compliance burden all often have a negative cultural impact.

In conclusion

I have drawn strong conclusions about the potential float of HWLE without access to any specific details. I look forward to reviewing their IPO prospectus and seeing how wrong I am. But if I’m not, buyer beware!

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