A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

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The accountants re-enter legal. Meh!

In Articles, Commentary on 24 November 2017 at 12:17 pm

There are countless articles on the threat of the Big 4 re-entering the legal market. Yes, they’re cashed-up, capable and well connected, but I don’t think it will be as smooth a road for them as many are predicting. A deeper analysis suggests there are five factors that will limit their growth.

#1 The one-stop shop segment is small

The essence of the Big 4 value proposition is one-stop shop: buy all your business advisory services from us and there will be lower transactions costs, a deeper understanding of your needs, more integrated advice, higher levels of service consistency, better coordination and greater convenience.

The problem is many sophisticated legal buyers just don’t buy it!

For operational, run-the company work maybe, but for bet-the-company and reputation-sensitive matters, buyers generally prefer horses for courses. They back themselves in picking out tried and tested specialists, rather than relying on one firm to wheel out all their colleagues. Intuitively, these buyers recognise the benefits of cognitive diversity and are wary of the party line or groupthink. They feel it’s easier to hold a specific firm accountable (and sueable) for their advice when it’s more discrete. Many senior buyers regard the ‘all eggs’ approach as risky and lazy.

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Source: alphacoders.com

#2 Brand limitations

PwC is the most well-known and powerful brand in the global business services market. The other Big 3 are not far behind them. Over the years they’ve leveraged these brands to develop massive global management consulting depth, breadth and reach.

Notwithstanding these advantages, firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain still are thriving at the top-end of the consulting market. The evidence would suggest that many clients tend to shy away from accountants when it comes to solving their most complex business problems.

After decades of organic investment, PwC had to resort to paying top dollar to buy Booz & Company to make serious inroads into the high-value segment. Interestingly, they resorted to a new brand of Strategy& for their consulting business rather than a brand extension of PwC. It appears that PwC thought their own brand was a net negative in fighting the likes of McKinsey.

All the evidence from graduating MBA students across the globe points to the top students preferring the specialist consulting firms over the Big 4. I can only imagine it will be the same at the premier law schools.

#3 Ring binders

I did a small consulting project for Booz about a year before they sold out to PwC. Yes, it was all my fault :o)

In speaking about competitors, they referred the Big 4 as “ring binder” consultants. What they meant was that the Big 4 consultants were good at following a predefined process documented in a ring-bound manual. What was implied was that the Big 4 consultants couldn’t really think for themselves.

While grossly disparaging, there is an element of truth in these comments. In order to achieve scale and process efficiencies, resource fungibility, accelerated learning and service consistency across all business lines, the Big 4 have sought to codify their approach and have trained their consultants in how to use it. One can only imagine they’ll adopt a similar method in legal to achieve similar benefits.

The standardised approach is brilliant for repeat work but can come unstuck if things vary widely from the norm. Top GCs will run a mile if they feel they’re being ring-bound in handling their complex matters that they feel require bespoke solutions.

#4 Conflicts

I was shown some recent analysis that listed the number of different law firms and freelancers engaged by the ASX50. The list had over 300 names on it. I can’t vouch for the precision of this research but intuitively it feels right.

One of the key reasons for this fragmentation is conflicts. Most legal clients are particularly sensitive to the same advisors being involved, directly or peripherally, on both sides of a transaction or a dispute.

The Big 4 are just that. Four! This will inevitably put major limits on their penetration of the legal market. The threshold test of perceived conflict in legal matters is much higher than say helping competing companies implement an enterprise software system.

The large mid-tier firms like Grant Thornton, BDO, RSM and Pitchers will be loath to enter legal, beyond tax, because of the fear disenfranchising their major referrers of work.

#5 The club

For the Big 4 to make serious inroads into legal, quickly, they will need to poach some heavy hitters from heavy hitting firms. Assuming they can offer better incomes, they’re asking these lawyers to leave their club.

This is what a typical lawyer rainmaker will weigh up in considering the move..

The new club is a lot lot bigger and I will have even fewer decision rights. The new club will pander less to my specific needs give it already has dozens of heavy hitters. The new club will ask me to fit into their service style and product ‘packaging’. The new club will be run by beancounters.

Nah! I’d rather stay.

6 strategic shifts and implications for HR

In Articles, Commentary on 8 November 2017 at 4:22 pm

By Joel Barolsky and Sue-Ella Prodonovich

If you have HR responsibilities in a professional services firm then you’re working in the epicentre of turbulent times. Changes to our workforce population, participation and productivity are throwing up new challenges while the expectations of firm owners and employees are changing – but not necessarily in sync.

Here are six strategic shifts we’ve observed which we believe will have profound implications for HR.

#1 Shift to the rocket model 

The next five years will see a migration away from the pyramid model towards the rocket model. A typical pyramid structure has a partner at the top supported by one or two senior associates and four or five juniors. In the rocket model, most juniors are substituted by a combination of technology and para-professionals.

For HR this means

  • Partners need a new set of skills and knowledge to manage their rockets and to win and deliver projects, profitably
  • Improvement in digital literacy across the board.
  • The end of the apprenticeship model that involves training juniors on-the-job on low-level process work.
  • New recruitment markets, processes and criteria to include non-technical areas.
  • Measurement and reward systems that reflect non-time-based pricing, innovation and collaboration.
  • Managing a much more diverse culture of professionals, para-professionals, technologists and project managers,

#2 Shift to workforce accordions

Most firms currently operate with a defined cohort of full-time staff. With growing variations in client demand, there is a growing trend towards the accordion model. This model means having a blend of full-time staff plus a pool of pre-selected trained variable cost contractors. Corrs’ Orbit, Minters’ Flex, Pinsent Masons’ Vario, Allen & Overy’s Peerpoint are firm-based accordions. LOD (Lawyers on Demand), LexVoco, Crowd & CoBespoke are examples of specialist providers in this space.

Other variants of the accordion include flexible work arrangements, hot-desking, secondments, reverse secondments and sabbaticals. Maddocks recently reports that over 20% of its partners were working outside the ‘normal’ 8 to 6, five days a week model.

HR complexity increases exponentially as a firm increases the variability and flexibility of its workforce.

#3 Shift to smart collaboration

With the increased competition from in-house providers, boutiques and individual freelancers, most multi-service firms are recognising that their main competitive advantage lies in the collective. If firms continue to be just a collegiate group of individual practitioners, then they will lose share to other competitors with lower costs and/or better-perceived quality.

Four-Seasons-Orlando-Coffee-Latte-Art-Barista-Bootcamp

Source: uspinjaca.hr

While economic geographers have identified the positive relationship between physical co-location of knowledge workers and firm performance, HR plays the critical part of bringing capable people together. It’s through true cross-practice collaboration that the firm can offer something that others can’t. Bringing a diverse set of expertise and experiences to solve clients’ toughest problems is more profitable, more fun and more valuable to the client. It’s also a lot harder to do.

#4 Shift to supportive intolerance

There is ample evidence that better leadership leads to better performance. Firms with a depth of leadership capacity across all its partners are in a much better position to handle market uncertainties than those with just one or two stars.

Developing leaders doesn’t just happen through a wish and a prayer. It requires a particular style of operating, first coined by David Maister, called ‘supportive intolerance’. The support bit is offering partners personal insight/reflection, coaching and training to help them develop their full leadership potential.

The intolerance bit is making them accountable for their actions and inaction. This means calling-out behaviours inconsistent with firm values, providing constructive, prompt and honest feedback, having full transparency around agreed actions, and if all else fails, reducing reward as a sanction.

HR should be the lead change agent in introducing this style of leadership and operations. Again, it’s really hard without formal authority, but it’s critical to the firm’s long-term sustainability.

#5 Shift to loving the problem (not the solution)

While we try to do more with less and stay up with game-changing ideas, many HR professionals are still expected to solve day to day problems so it’s easy – and tempting – to go into problem-solving mode.  Boudreau and Rice’s caution for HR professionals:  “Embrace too many ideas (from popular talks and articles) or apply them too superficially and you’ll develop a reputation for fad surfing. Dig beneath the surface to the fundamental scientific research and insights and you can set the stage for true impact.” So one thing HR can do to add more value is ‘fall in love with the problem’ – that way you’ll look forward to spending more time on understanding them more deeply.

#6 Shift to ambidexterity

One can think about firm strategy as two parallel streams: one being ‘exploit’ and the other ‘explore’ (based on the work of O’Reilly and Tushman). Exploit refers to efforts to leverage current strengths and capabilities to make the current core business as good as it can be. Explore refers to new exploratory and experimentation efforts that will hopefully bear fruit in the future.

Firms need to become more ambidextrous, that is, change the firm’s culture so that everyone embraces explore and exploit in his or her everyday work and client interactions.

In an environment of rapid change and hyper-competition, every firm needs a healthy portfolio of both exploit and explore initiatives. A genuine commitment to exploring will most likely mean substantial changes to the firm’s dividend policy and capital structure. Firm governance and structural arrangements are also likely to be impacted, as will marketing, pricing, IT, operations and, in particular, HR.

Join us in Melbourne November 21 or Sydney November 22

HRMinds have asked Joel Barolsky and Sue-Ella Prodonovich to help finish their year of seminars with a discussion of major trends and practical ideas for those with an HR remit. These November workshops will be in Melbourne on Tuesday Nov 21 and Sydney Wednesday Nov 22. Details and registration here.

From pyramids to rockets to ecosystems

In Articles, Commentary on 19 October 2017 at 8:36 am

The pyramid has been the foundation operating model in professional services for the past century. Put simply, a typical pyramid has a partner at the top, one or two senior practitioners below him or her, and then four or five juniors below them. These ratios obviously vary from practice to practice. Leverage of the mid and lower levels of the pyramid is currently the profit engine of most professional firms.

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More recently there has been much talk of the pyramid losing its bottom left and right corners and becoming a rocket. In this model, there are far fewer juniors and their work will now be done by a combination of technology and lower-paid process workers. The rocket is being driven by powerful clients demanding that services be ‘disaggregated’ (using Susskind’s term), that is, highly-trained practitioners doing advisory and judgement tasks and technology and para-professionals doing process activities.

In my view, the rocket is not the destination but merely a stepping-stone. The rocket model doesn’t really take into consideration the growth of client co-creation and client involvement in the delivery of services. It largely ignores the role of third-party software vendors, freelancers and experts in adding value to the firm’s offering. And lastly, it underplays the potential impact of HR, IT, BD and Pricing functions.

Take this recent case study for example. In August 2017, Allens-Linklaters won the highly-coveted ILTA Innovative Project of the Year award for its Real Estate Due Diligence App (REDDA). Allens’ Chief Legal Technology Officer, Beth Patterson, stated that REDDA was “the result of a collaboration between partners, real estate lawyers, technologists, project managers and business analysts at Allens, client representatives and artificial intelligence provider Neota Logic.”

This case study illustrates a future with a delivery model where a partner or project leader will configure up to six different types of resources, in the form of an ecosystem, to address a client’s need or solve a problem (see diagram above).

A cup of latte is pictured at a cafe in Sydney

Source: vocative.com

It’s important to distinguish this ecosystem model from a multi-disciplinary offering. The latter involves multiple professional services or technical disciplines working together. The former is focused on one service line, such as legal, integrating multiple resources, both people and technology and both firm and client, to provide the most cost-effective solution.

Even if I’m half right, there are profound implications of moving to the ecosystem model for firm strategy, culture and operations. Almost everything is likely to be impacted, most especially the firm’s basic economic model and profit engines. It will also profoundly change recruitment and development, measurement and reward, pricing and firm governance.

How ready is your firm for this kind of future?

The State of the Legal Market

In Articles, Commentary on 27 September 2017 at 4:26 pm

This is my conclusion, as lead author, to the 2017 Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Melbourne Law School report on the state of the Australian legal market…

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 4.18.55 pmOver the past 30 years, larger law firms in Australia have had to make only two major strategic decisions: [1] whether to become a national firm and how, and [2] whether to become an international firm and how?

They now have to make a third.

The 2017 Peer Monitor data leaves little doubt that technology is changing the practice and business of law and that firms need a clear and coherent strategic response. Firms might decide to be pioneers investing in lawtech start-ups, teaching their lawyers how to code and experimenting with new cognitive technologies. Other firms might prefer to keep their powder dry and wait to see what works, which platforms take hold, and what their clients prefer. Either way, an active choice needs to be made. Each comes with their own risks and opportunities.

A key challenge in investing in a new way is that the current core business is still very successful. The 2017 Peer Monitor data suggests that despite a flat market overall, a fair number of firms are still making healthy profits. The challenge comes in balancing the old with the new.

One way for firms to address this balance is to think about strategy as two parallel streams: one being Exploit and the other Explore (based on the work of O’Reilly and Tushman). Exploit refers to efforts to leverage current strengths and capabilities to make the current core business as good as it can be. Explore refers to new exploratory and experimentation efforts that will hopefully bear fruit in the future.

One approach is to make the whole firm ambidextrous, that is, change the firm’s culture so that everyone embraces Explore AND Exploit in their everyday work and client interactions. An alternative approach is to keep the Explore and Exploit far from each other and avoid cross-contamination. In this instance, Exploit is the cash cow and hires the suits, and Explore is a cash burner and hires the black skivvies. A third approach is to try to do both.

 

latte-artttt

Source: academiedecafedemontreal.com

In an environment of rapid change and hyper-competition, every firm needs a healthy portfolio of both Exploit and Explore initiatives. A genuine commitment to Explore will most likely mean substantial changes to the firm’s dividend policy and capital structure. Firm governance and structural arrangements are also likely to be impacted, as will marketing, pricing, IT, operations and HR.

The role of managing partners is to lead the thinking around these issues and prepare the firm for its third really big strategic decision.

10 questions for your PLAN B

In Commentary on 1 June 2017 at 8:04 am
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Source: CoffeeStencil

MY 50th BLOG POST…

What’s your firm’s PLAN B?

PLAN B addresses the scenario of your firm primarily selling talent, to selling a combination of talent, technology and data. It means moving from the pyramid to the rocket business model (read this BCG report if you don’t know I’m talking about). It’s about the digitisation of professional practice.

These 10 questions may be helpful in crafting your PLAN B:

#1 How big do we need to get?

Economies of scale have not traditionally been a key success factor in talent-heavy professional services. One shining example of this is Wachtel Lipton Rosen & Katz, which is one of the world’s most successful law firms despite being a relatively small single-office partnership.

With the addition of technology and data to the mix, there may be specific advantages that larger firms may have over smaller rivals, including…

  • deeper pockets, that is, the ability to wear the risks of technology-related R&D, software and start-up acquisitions;
  • bigger footprints, that is, the ability to deploy new technology in more relationships and in more markets; and
  • more data, that is, the ability to develop better analysis, insights and products.

Small may be more nimble and cosy, but if you can’t afford the new bright shiny toys clients might stop playing with you.

#2 What’s our dividend policy?

Be they partnerships or incorporated entities, many traditional professional service firms tend to do more handing-out than hoarding when it comes to profits.

The “cash burn” phase of new technology acquisition is generally much longer than that of new talent. It took Amazon over 20 years to turn a profit. Firms need to re-align their dividend policy and balance sheets to suit their business models. Without patient capital, firms won’t be able to invest in or acquire the new tools necessary to compete.

#3 How do we (re)structure ourselves?

The rocket model raises a range of interesting organisational design issues:

  • Do we keep the suits and skivvies separate or together?
  • How do we structurally protect the core traditional business, while we invest in creating the new?
  • Is there a structural solution to the problem of improving the digital literacy and experience of everyone in the firm?
  • Do we structure our new firm primarily around practices, processes, products or technologies?
  • Do we separate sales from delivery?
  • How far do we locate the laboratory from the surgery?

#4 Who can become a partner in our firm?

Most firms see “multi-disciplinary” as adding more work types or professional disciplines. With the onset of the rocket model, this definition might need to widen to include designers, technologists, project managers, marketers and sales engineers. It is interesting to note that Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) recently appointed the head of their ALT business as an HSF partner.

#5 What do we measure?

David Maister’s profit formula (Leverage X Hourly Rate X Utilisation X Margin) has been the foundation of measurement (and therefore reward), practice management and pricing for the past four decades. The key assumption in this model is that the core asset being leverage is human capital. With new tech-based assets and products, firms will need to radically transform what and how they measure things. To illustrate, if a firm sells compliance systems and AI tools via a subscription model, tracking staff utilisation will not only be meaningless, but dangerous.

#6 How do we price?

Time-based pricing will be less prevalent in a talent + data + technology world. New pricing models will be required to set, communicate and capture value. This will include things like user license fees, subscriptions and incentivised retainers. What constitutes a “fair price” will become more complex, and need to factor in development costs and risks, IP fungibility, the scale and scope of application, and duration of benefit.

#7 Who are we competing with?

In 1960, Ted Levitt published a brilliant HBR article called Marketing Myopia. He cited the example of US railway companies going out of business because they defined themselves as competing in the railway rather than in the transport industry. In a world, where the client solution includes a combination of talent + technology + data, your biggest competitor may not be the lookalike firm three floors up, but rather the software vendor who is using your firm to iron out bugs before attempting global domination going directly to your clients.

#8 Which clients do we say ‘no’ to?

There is a general trend towards more co-created integrated solutions between firms and their clients. In this environment, firms may be forced to choose target clients, not on size, scope or sector, but rather on systems sophistication and complementarity. One could imagine a very progressive firm not being able to service clients who were technology laggards. Platforms and standards could equally determine relative client attractiveness.

#9 How do we adapt our talent pipeline?

The pyramid model creates a “tournament” where a large group of aspirants start at the bottom and are encouraged to beat their peers on the way up. The rocket model potentially changes the game with far fewer recruited at the bottom and a philosophy of retention rather than competition. It also challenges the apprenticeship system of learning and development.

On the plus-side, the rocket model opens up a number of new career pathways and facilitates a more diverse talent pool.

At more senior levels, the prerequisites for partner promotion might need to shift to include digital literacy, project management and solution integration. Partners need to be able to supervise people who are not like them. They also need to be able to align clients’ needs with the firm’s full talent + technology + data offering and be confident in selling it.

#10 What kind of culture do we want to become?

Many professional service firms have technical excellence as the dominant cultural norm. In the end, it’s scarce specialist knowledge, advice and skill that clients are willing to pay for. In changing the business model, firms need to question the kind of culture they’d like to become and what constitutes “cultural fit”. The new culture could be anchored around things like…

  • the client experience,
  • the client relationship,
  • navigating change,
  • digital literacy,
  • experimentation/innovation,
  • collaboration, or
  • operational excellence.

Your next strategy workshop

Rather than focussing on reviewing or tweaking PLAN A in your next strategy workshop, run an “alternative futures” session and flesh-out your PLAN B. As stewards of the firm, you owe it to your partners to have thought through these possible futures and your contingency plans. An expert independent facilitator would add considerably to the discussion. Call +61 417 305 880 to speak to one.

Are your practice groups primed to win?

In Articles, Commentary on 26 April 2017 at 8:23 am

If each of your practice groups is primed to win, then there’s a pretty good chance your firm will win as well.

With this in mind, there’s much benefit to be derived by assessing all of your practice groups on two dimensions:

  • A winning strategy – from strong to weak, and
  • Execution capability – from strong to weak.

 

Illustration of portfolio map – not real data

 

If most of your practice groups are in the weak-weak quadrant, perhaps it’s time to take that call from the headhunter. If all the groups are strong-strong, don’t change a thing! If you have a mix of everything, it’s time to get to work…

A winning strategy

There is a range of factors to take into consideration to assess whether a practice group has a winning strategy for the next three years:

  • Does the practice have clear aspirations to win? Is there a stretch intent?
  • Are they competing in sizeable, growing and profitable market segments?
  • Does the practice have a compelling value proposition, that is, clear reasons why clients should choose them over others?
  • Does the practice have a profitable and sustainable business model? Bonus points if the model is scalable.
  • Is there a Plan B if non-traditional competitors strengthen?
  • Are there pilots and experiments in place creating options for future growth?
  • Is there a clear implementation roadmap with accountabilities, measures and timing?
  • Is it clear what they say ‘no’ to, and why?

Execution capability

On paper, the practice group might have a world-beating strategy but it may not have the skills, resources and systems to implement it.

a cup of coffee on the wood table.cafe latte with tulip latte art pattern on the wooden background.

Source: fotolia

The first, and most important, the question is whether you have the right practice group leader. Is she a true leader or merely a convenor? Does she lead or just manage? While she might seek to lead, does she have loyal followers? Does she have the ability to inspire and support team members to be their best? Is she strong enough to stand up to the recalcitrants?

Other questions to ask around execution capability:

  • Is the team a real team or just a loose coalition of colleagues?
  • Does the team generally follow-through on their commitments?
  • Does the team own its strategy and take accountability for it?
  • Does the team have the right talent necessary to win, now and in three years time?
  • Does the group have access to the right technology, processes and systems to underpin its business model?
  • Is there sufficient open-mindedness to adapt to new inventions and work methods?
  • Are there mechanisms in place to regularly review progress and tweak their plans?

The portfolio

While it’s important to assess the competitiveness of each practice, there’s also a lot of value in assessing the inter-dependencies, synergies and gaps across the portfolio. Another portfolio overlay is the amount of partner equity allocated to each group and expected ROE (return on equity).

A review of the portfolio should indicate which practices require investment, divestment or just be maintained. Handling the politics of these decisions is a topic for another post, or three.

In conclusion

While a firm is more than just the sum of its parts, the parts play a critical role in sustaining success. Your firm’s strategy needs to reflect firm-wide themes like overall market positioning, culture, brand, strategic clients, talent, R&D, infrastructure and support. It also needs to deep dive into the practice portfolio, making sure each plays its part and leverages the strengths of the whole.

Firm purpose. Seven options.

In Articles, Commentary on 5 April 2017 at 12:45 pm

I’d highly recommend Jordan Furlong‘s new book, “Law is a Buyer’s Market – Building a Client-First Law Firm”.

Furlong argues that firms should answer ‘the why?’ question with a statement around creating client success. He states that this approach is congruent with the pursuit of professionalism and will enable the firm to withstand the challenges of increased competition and rapid technology change. Furlong suggests that firms adopt a client-centric purpose statement, something like, “our firm exists to serve the interests of clients in our chosen markets by addressing their legal challenges and opportunities so that those clients can achieve their objectives”.

Cups of coffee on blue background

Source: fotolia

Last weekend I had the opportunity to road-test Furlong’s recommendations in a client strategy workshop. It became clear quite early on in the workshop that while there was strong resonance with a client-centric purpose, it didn’t tell the full story for this firm. They felt that defining purpose solely on clients risked making them client-compelled in areas like pricing and write-offs, and, interestingly, less likely to innovate. They cited numerous examples of innovative ideas that didn’t come directly from clients expressing their needs, but rather from an intrinsic desire to do better than competitors.

To help things along, I presented SEVEN related, yet distinct, purpose statement option:

  1. Client-centric: our firm exists to make our clients more successful.
  2. Business-centric: our firm exists to maximise returns to shareholders.
  3. People-centric: our firm exists for our partners and staff to practise their craft, earn the respect of their clients and peers, and make a good living. In short, the firm is about fun, fame and fortune.
  4. Community-centric: our firm exists to add value to the communities we serve.
  5. Benefit-centric: our firm exists to reduce and manage risk.
  6. Quality-centric: our firm exists to make all other firms look second-rate.
  7. Innovation-centric: our firm exists to set precedent, break new ground and pioneer new products and processes.

I’m happy to report that we came up with a hybrid version that everyone was very excited about. Sorry, I can’t share it here in this post.

Which one of these options, or combination, best describes YOUR firm’s purpose?

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