A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘client relationships’

Does your law firm really need a barista?

In Articles, Commentary on 11 June 2020 at 2:14 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 4 June 2020.

For the past three months, many law firms have been in crisis management mode.

The focus has been on ensuring staff safety, staying close to clients, sustaining productivity and shoring up financial reserves. The mindset has been mainly about conservation and survival.

It’s time now time to look up and to look ahead – to work out what’s needed to succeed in the next normal.

Here are four things to think about in creating your future.

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#1 Organise for a hybrid workforce

Most law firms will seek to capitalise on the success of remote working and will adopt a model in which people work two or three days a week in the office and the balance at home. While this offers benefits in terms of staff flexibility, reduced commute times and lower occupancy costs, the rhythms of office life will be very different from life before coronavirus.

Firms will need to help their staff create boundaries and new work habits. This includes setting clear ‘office hours’; finding new ways to socialise that replace the serendipitous corridor bump; ensuring consistent supervision of graduates and clerks; and providing regular and balanced performance feedback.

#2 Speed up decision-making and execution

During the ten days from March 16-26, most law firms discovered that if push comes to shove, they can execute big decisions very quickly.

My advice: keep going!

The short-term public health crisis helped concentrate decision-making power. And it appears that in the main those vested with that power acted promptly and professionally.

Firms should build on this experience and streamline decision-making processes for times when things are back to normal. It could mean less consultation on trivial matters, fewer meetings, better communication and greater respect and appreciation for leadership roles.

Most law firms are designed as network organisations with self-managed practice teams as nodes and a small central bureaucracy. In theory, this should make them agile and responsive, but the reality is often quite different. Firms should harness their structural strength to move earlier and faster.

#3 Plan and budget with less inertia

The coronavirus crisis has given firms the opportunity to assess the merits of every revenue and expense item.  Recent McKinsey analysis shows most organisations only reallocate 2 to 3 per cent of their budgets year to year. But those that do more—in the order of 8 to 10 per cent—create more value.

While starting each year’s budget with a blank sheet might be overkill, reviewing each item on a two- or three-year rotating cycle should ensure smarter allocation of resources.

Revenue targets might set with an honest assessment of market potential and how your team stacks up against key competitors. Expense items can be set with a clear-headed view on value creation.

#4 Personalise the client experience with scale

The client experience pre-coronavirus included numerous face-to-face meetings; document preparation shared via email; and multi-touch file handling.

The evidence from the past few months is that productive client meetings can still be held without a barista on call; documents can be prepared collaboratively in real-time and remotely; and that most aspects of file management can be automated.

In designing the firm of the future, think about creating a client experience that is personalised, streamlined and scalable.

This is the time to start imagining your firm as it should be. If you stay in conserve mode too long, you will land up being two or three steps behind those that are determined to create their own future.

A post-corona legal world: more kindness, less paper

In Articles, Commentary on 4 April 2020 at 4:45 pm

Full text of opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 2 April 2020.

At some point later this year or early next we will move into a post-Corona world. What might that world look like from a law firm perspective? On my reckoning, it will involve deeper relationships, less paper and more flexibility.

Deeper relationships

There is much research that shows that people that go through acute stress together come out at the other end with stronger relationships. War is one of the greatest stresses anyone could ever encounter yet it also often leads to deep human friendships and incredible acts of heroism and sacrifice.

As Stanford’s Emma Seppala states, “Understanding our shared vulnerability — that life makes no promises — may be frightening, but it can inspire kindness, connection, and desire to stand together and support each other.”

To illustrate this point, I heard a story this week of a law firm partner checking in every day with every person in her team via Zoom. These check-ins covered some work matters but mostly were about sharing the fears, loss, grief and the black humour of the pandemic and the remote working experience. She said she encouraged her team members not to avoid interruptions from partners, kids and pets during the video calls.

The partner indicated her surprise as to how deeply personal the conversations had become, and how much closer she felt with her team members. Seeing her team members at home interacting with loved ones added a whole new level of understanding and appreciation of them as individuals.

She imagines a post-corona world with much deeper social connections – with staff and clients. Going through a crisis together can help engender trust and understanding, the foundations of all solid business-to-business relationships.

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Source: AFR

Less paper

Over the past decade, many law firms have invested in sophisticated and expensive document management systems to reduce paper, streamline processes and improve control. It is a common experience that firms don’t realise the full benefits of these systems because a small group of lawyers, often senior partners, refuse to change their habits and prefer to edit in hardcopy only and/or keep paper copies of everything.

The coronavirus has forced some law firm partners to change their rusted-on work habits in about one week. When the hardcopy file is inaccessible and no assistant is at their side, only then will the penny really drop that a change is required and the painful process of stepping outside comfort zones will commence.

In a post-corona world, there will be less paper and greater compliance with enterprise-wide systems that promise so much but often deliver less. Allied to this there is likely to more defined workflows, greater support for cloud-based applications and better use of deal platforms.

As legal project management expert Ron Friedman notes, “Litigation and investigations have long employed [and co-located] armies of contract lawyers to review documents for responsiveness and privilege… The technology exists for secure, remote document review. Though supervision and collaboration may be harder working remotely, it does tap a much broader labour pool [and meet social distancing rules].”

More flexibility

Pre-corona, flexible working arrangements were mostly the exception rather than the rule in law land. The past two weeks have reversed this statistic.

The generally positive experience of meeting via videoconference, accessing files remotely, collaborating online on shared documents and engaging staff and clients virtually has brought a new realisation: actually, we don’t need everyone at the office all the time. If people want the option to work flexibly it can be done without destroying productivity or team dynamics.

While I don’t foresee a shift post-corona to complete remote working or agile office set-ups (that is, an office with no allocated desks), I would expect firms to be far more comfortable with people seeking flexible work arrangements that include some regular time working from home or other locations outside of the office.

Remote working must be balanced with having a team congregate in one space to collaborate to solve complex client problems, to share knowledge and to socialise. There is still no technological substitute for face-to-face interactions and the serendipitous opportunities that come from overhearing conversations – and unexpected bumping into colleagues in corridors and kitchens.

In conclusion

In conclusion, the post-corona legal world will be different. While there’s a lot to fret about, there are also some important positives to reflect and focus on.

Five ways to improve your firm’s balance sheet

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 8 February 2020 at 4:19 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 7 February 2020.

Law firm partners focus a lot their profit and loss statements but tend to glance over the asset section of their balance sheets.

This is a missed opportunity.

There are three main reasons assets are largely ignored. Firstly, in ‘zero-in zero-out’ partnerships with 100% dividend payout ratios tracking long-term asset value is relatively less important. Secondly, in some firms, the accountants lump all intangibles into a vague and unhelpful construct called ‘goodwill’. And thirdly, balance sheets tend to list boring things like plant and equipment.

AFR 7 Feb 20 Balance Sheet

Original AFR article

From a strategic management perspective, there is a significant benefit in framing goals around making the firm more valuable. This means identifying all the assets, both tangible and intangible, that the firm uses to create and sustain value.

A more detailed balance sheet can also be useful when it comes to partner performance management. Growth in asset value should be the heart of what’s expected of partners, especially in regard to their non-financial contribution.

Tangible assets are easy to quantify. The intangibles less so.

Here are five important intangible assets in your firm that are worth measuring, protecting and leveraging.

#1 Relationship capital

Relationship or social capital refers to the strength and stickiness of existing client relationships and, where relevant, referrer and community connections.

While there are no simple measures of relationship capital, good proxies include total client lifetime value, client commitment indices, net promoter scores, client loyalty rates, average service mix per client, share of wallet of platinum and gold clients, social network strength and percentage of sole-sourced work.

#2 Human capital

Human capital refers to the quality, performance and commitment of all partners and staff. Management reports often include data on salaries, recruitment, training and turnover, but these don’t get to the heart of tracking human capital growth or depletion. Additional measures might include:

  • Toe-to-toe analysis comparing the quality of key practitioners in the firm versus direct competitors
  • Loyalty and career intention indicators
  • Succession and talent development pipelines by practice area
  • Diversity and inclusion metrics
  • Glassdoor, Seek and social media ratings
  • Employee net promoter scores
  • Leadership capacity and capability
  • Culture maps, highlighting hot spots or blind spots
  • Real-time measures around staff morale, firm climate, employee experience and discretionary effort.

#3 Brand capital

This refers to the strength of the firm’s brand and reputation in key target markets. Traditional measures include brand awareness, consideration, preference, use, board room impact, recommendation and social media following. An ability to attract star recruits is also an indicator of its brand capital.

One benefit of a strong brand is the ability to command a price premium. By way of example, in 2019, Apple’s brand premium enabled it to capture 66% of smartphone industry profits, 32% of overall market revenue while only selling 13% of total handset units.

Proxy measures around the firm’s pricing clout impact might include the percentage of bids won where the firm was priced higher than competitors, depth of discounting and percentage of matters with supernormal margins.

#4 Data capital

Most firms are sitting on mounds of valuable data with most of it stored on disconnected databases collecting digital dust. The main data islands include:

  • client data such as matters delivered, interactions, service feedback, event participation, agreed pricing and billing,
  • staff data such demographics, salaries, tenure, engagement, training, feedback and performance records,
  • operational data such as time records, matters processed, productivity and utilisation, and
  • financial data such as revenue, margins and expenses.

Joining these data sets and applying some smart predictive analytics will allow firms to make much better decisions. For example, the analysis could point to using a specific team with a particular process to do a specific type of matter for a certain client category using a defined pricing model. Each of these choices might mean a 2% improvement, but accumulatively you’re looking at +10% gain without working any harder.

#5 Intellectual capital

The last category is for important bits of firm know-how that don’t neatly fall into one of the other four areas. This might include the proprietary legal products, algorithms, websites, domain names, precedents, templates, applications, patents and trademarks.

Growth in intellectual capital could be assessed by things such as the firm’s investment in research and development and its innovation portfolio. Quantifying the revenue from new products and services can indicate success or otherwise in this asset class.

A call to action…

Take a quick glance over your firm’s strategy papers and board reports over the past 12 months. Is there a way to elevate your firm’s strategic thinking by delving into the intangibles that will sustain your long-term success? I bet there is.

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Is bigger better?

In Articles, Commentary on 13 December 2019 at 7:20 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 12 December 2020.

Ranking law firms by size implies in some way that second position is better than 22nd. But is it?

As with many things in the legal business world, the answer is not straightforward.

Gilbert + Tobin is a wonderful case study of a relatively small firm – only 16th in The Australian Financial Review Law Partnership Survey – competing very successfully in every market it chooses to focus on.

The firm is widely recognised as a powerhouse in corporate, banking and dispute resolution and is one of the most profitable commercial firms in the country.

In the US, Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz has only 260 attorneys but is No. 2 on the Vault table of best places to work for graduates, first for mergers and acquisitions work and generates in excess of $US6.5 million ($9.5 million) per equity partner per annum.

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AFR print edition

Russell McVeagh is regularly ranked as one of the top firms in New Zealand. Their website lists only 36 partners which makes it the smallest firm among its peer group by a significant margin.

Despite these compelling examples, there are four areas where it appears bigger is better.

Lower-cost operators

Australia’s largest partnership, HWL Ebsworth, offers partner rates at 30 per cent – 40 per cent discount to comparable firms. It is able to sustain these rates by having a low-overhead operating platform, maximising the utilisation of it, and consistently increasing the number of partners sharing its cost. Size does yield economies of scale to HWL Ebsworth and others that have adopted this model.

The general insurance market in Australia has converged significantly over the past decade with four major companies now enjoying market dominance. The flow-on from this trend has meant that law firms specialising in insurance have had to get bigger to match the buying power of their key clients. Size helps these firms meet the unrelenting client demands for lower cost legal services and still make a buck, just.

Large matters

Clients do seriously consider the size, or “bench strength”, of the legal teams that compete for large-scale transactions, major projects, investigations or litigation work. Clients want the assurance that there are ample resources in place to manage large workloads without a hitch. They also seek to limit the risk of being reliant on just one or two key individuals; they want the B-team to be just as good as the A-team.

A large practice team also helps firms cope with the volatility of demand. A larger team can smooth out the peaks and troughs over a wider base of work. A smaller team runs a bigger risk of boom-bust actually meaning bust.

Innovation

Many of the new legal technology products that are emerging are based on cutting-edge cognitive technologies. The rough rule of thumb is that 70 per cent – 90 per cent of new products fail. Firms need to be of sufficient size with sufficiently deep pockets to be innovators and wear the cost of failure.

One of the key success factors in legal product innovation is effective distribution. Large firms with a wide reach will clearly have a market access advantage relative to say a smaller firm or a start-up offering a similar application.

Firm size also helps in taking a few more risks when it comes to lateral hire or practice acquisition. Recruiting a cultural terrorist in a small firm can be an existential problem. Larger firms tend to have more options and a bit more resilience to bad hire decisions.

Client panels

Many large corporate and government buyers of legal services have reduced the number of business law firms on their legal service panels.

A byproduct of this trend is that firms of scale, range and reach are often preferred to specialist boutiques. To target this market segment, law firms need to grow to ensure their full-service value proposition remains credible.

In conclusion

So, is bigger better?

Larger firms will generally point to their strengths in critical mass and coverage. Smaller firms will make the most of their focus and agility.

It appears they are both right.

Legal technology products: A new trick for old dogs

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 29 November 2019 at 1:46 pm

Full text of my op-ed first published in the Australian Financial Review on 28 November 2019

According to The Economist, advice on strategy accounts for only 10 per cent of revenues for McKinsey and its peers, Bain & Co and Boston Consulting Group. The balance comes from sources including designing and developing technology products for their clients.

So if meat-and-potato strategy advice has become a side dish for the major consulting firms, will legal advice become a niche product for premium law firms?

I don’t think so, but some are seriously asking the question.

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AFR article print edition

Tier 1 law firm Allens currently has nine legal products in its a+ solutions portfolio. One of these, SmartCompile, pulls together publicly available company information for due diligence reports. The firm is also working on new risk assessment apps, a FIRB notification app and a contract workflow solution.

A quick review of other premium law firm offerings suggests the ripple of new legal products will turn into a wave in the years ahead.

With that in mind, I posit that law firms have to learn five new tricks to make their legal product strategy a success.

New measures

Current law firm KPIs (key performance indicators) such as utilisation, leverage and realised rates are irrelevant in a world of legal products. New indicators should cover factors such as product life-cycle cost, annual recurring revenue, channel profitability and subscription retention rates.

The time frame around KPI targets also needs a rethink. The rules of thumb around time to break even and profit cycles are vastly different for technology-based products. It took Amazon 10 years before it started to generate any cash profit, never mind recover its investment costs.

The challenge ahead is for firms to redesign their KPI dashboard to include service and product measures, but also balance short-term and long-term strategic objectives.

New channels

Most traditional commercial legal practices rely on two primary channels to market: direct selling to clients and referrals from intermediaries.

There are far more options when it comes to getting products to market: app platforms, a dedicated sales force, accredited resellers or agents, other technology vendors or via competitors.

Other channel-related choices include compensation payments, sales incentives, spotter fees, territory allocation and channel exclusivity.

New roles

Hall & Wilcox’s client solutions director Peter Campbell is tasked with providing technical support to the firm’s partners and clients as they develop and implement new products.

Other new roles like product manager, channel strategist and deployment specialist will start to emerge in law firms.

Existing positions will also be reshaped. Partners and senior associates will need to be trained to identify product opportunities and drive sales efforts. Marketing will need to hone their online retailing skills. IT will have to embrace working with both internal and external clients.

Interestingly, Allens has set up cross-functional “squads” to help develop new legal product concepts, test them and bring them to market – quickly.

New pricing

Technology-enabled products are usually priced via a licensing or subscription model. It can fluctuate based on the number of users or volume of transactions.

Setting the right price level will be tricky as there is often no clear frame of reference or way to compare prices for these products. In some cases, firms will be making the market or creating the category. Go too high, and there will be limited trial and take-up. Go too low, and the product will never be valued highly (or be profitable).

New norms

Many traditional law firms will need to adopt new norms in selling products.

Practitioners need to resist the buzz that comes from creating something new from scratch each time. The big egos need to get used to the idea of clients buying branded products, not them. Partners need to get comfortable with product-push campaigns rather than waiting for clients to call with a specific need.

In some ways, the most significant barrier for new legal product success is the firm itself.

If it does not adjust its business model, there will be little opportunity for these products to mature and flourish. Long-term, this will mean these old dogs won’t learn any of these five new tricks.

Why culture really really matters

In Articles, Commentary on 20 October 2019 at 2:41 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 18 October 2019.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, is a frequently cited quote attributed to Peter Drucker.

My recent experience with three firms suggests that Drucker, whom some call the father of management thinking,  might just be right.  These firms have consistently outperformed their peers and recorded double-digit profit growth. This success has come without superstar rainmakers, with undistinguished brands and with no fancy-schmancy disruptive business models.

So, what is it that has made them so successful?

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Original AFR article

It appears to me that the secret lies in their organisational culture, that is, the set of shared assumptions, values and beliefs that underpin how people do their work and relate to each other.

It’s their implicit management system that creates order and provides inspiration without the need to codify each and every activity.

I posit that there are seven areas where culture really matters.

#1 Productive politics

In firms with highly politicised cultures, enormous energy is expended addressing internal matters like who takes credit, who earns what, who ‘owns’ which client and who can and can’t work for whom. Power struggles and infighting between divisions, office locations, practice team and individuals distract from time with clients and staff.

A managing partner of a leading law firm once revealed to me that he spent around 40% of his time making and justifying partner remuneration decisions. In other words, splitting the pie, not expanding it.

#2 Collaboration

Research by Harvard’s Heidi Gardner reveals there is a significant financial upside when partners work together to solve wicked client problems. She distinguishes this kind of integrative collaboration from cross-selling. The former is about drawing together a diversity of knowledge and experiences to add value to clients, the latter is merely an arms-length referral to a colleague.

#3 Consistent high standards

In a recent panel discussion, I asked three General Counsel what distinguished top firms from the rest? ‘Consistency’ was the universal response. Leading firms were characterised by extremely high technical and service standards delivered consistently by all staff at all levels.

Successful firms are those that have cultures that are intolerant of mediocrity and expect, and get, high standards from everyone.

#4 Discretionary effort

Organisation cultures that are perceived to be purpose-driven and genuinely caring, trusting and fair tend to get the best out of people. Staff are more likely to go the extra mile, to act above and beyond the call of duty, or just do that little bit more. Toxic cultures often result in lower productivity, higher absenteeism and substandard output.

#5 Continuity

Continuity builds deeper client understanding and fosters trusting relationships. In a study in a large bank, the researchers found that where a client had five different relationship managers over a two-year period only 40% of clients were satisfied. This jumped to over 80% where there had been only one relationship manager.

Positive firm cultures facilitate retention and ensure continuity. A stable workforce also reduces the direct costs associated with staff churn.

#6 Self-management

Each of the three firms mentioned in the introduction is characterised by a lean management structure. All senior people, but excluding the managing partner, still retain significant practices. Each team within the firm has an ethos of self-sufficiency. They don’t see themselves as paralysed subordinates waiting for orders.

Alignment around firm direction, trust in leadership and a strong culture provide the glue that binds the collective but at the same time encourages individual empowerment.

#7 Accountability for action

Strange as it seems but many firms struggle with simply doing what they say they will do. An accountability culture is one where there’s a bias towards keeping promises and there’s less denial and deflection in cases of inaction. Successful firms have the disciplines to implement strategy and the fortitude to overcome obstacles that might emerge.

In conclusion

It is common for law firms to describe their cultures as ‘collegiate’, ‘respectful’ and ‘friendly’. In these tough times, I don’t think just being nice is going to be enough.

It is incumbent of every professional service leader to strive towards a cohesive, productive, healthy and disciplined culture.

This type of culture will take care of breakfast, but it will also allow the firm to have strategy for lunch and glass of the finest champagne over dinner.

When Google Comes to Legal

In Articles, Commentary on 10 June 2019 at 10:02 am

Full text of op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on Friday 7 July 2019.

The ‘legal supply chain’ can tell us a lot about the future for lawyers – and how much technology will disrupt the industry.

Will they become middlemen for technology providers?

Will the race to provide operations software yield a winner with extraordinary leverage over the legal sector?

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Original AFR article

Traditional law firms have been at the core of the supply chain for well over 150 years. In-house legal has a phenomenon of the past 30 years. Law companies – those providing legal process specialists, managed services and contract lawyering – have become a force over the past five to seven years.

Legal technology providers are the newest kids on the block, but the growth has been remarkable. Stanford Law School’s TechIndex points to 1,051 legal tech startups across the globe since 2016, all wanting to be part of the supply chain.

There are six broad entities that are involved in the delivery of commercial legal services in the modern era; the law and legal system; legal technology, algorithm and data providers; law firms and law companies; in-house legal; client organisations; and end-consumers.

Not all legal services involve all six entities, many don’t follow the chain sequentially and some services start and end at different stages. However, its still a useful conceptual framework for those who don’t’ have a crystal ball.

Many lawyers will become value-added resellers

Fast forward five years and legal technology will have matured to the point that it will become integral to legal advice and delivery. Many commercial lawyers will become value-added resellers of sophisticated technology developed by third party vendors.

To illustrate, Contract Probe software allows users to do a comprehensive review of draft NDA, service, supply, consultancy, IP license or employment contracts within 60 seconds for a fixed fee of $100 or less. Created by former Allens TMT partner, Michael Pattison, Contract Probe generates an overall quality score out of 10, highlights key omissions and errors, and makes suggestions for improvement. Contract Probe uses a machine learning approach which means it gets better each time it is used.

In this world, there will be fewer junior lawyers doing the grunt process work but a greater demand for the ‘human’ elements in the client-lawyer exchange, i.e. empathy, problem-solving, creativity and judgement. Competing as a reseller will require lawyers to have a profound understanding of how the technology works, and how it doesn’t. They will also need to get a lot better at pricing their service to capture value beyond charging for their time. Resellers will live or die based on the depth of their client relationships and their ability to be true trusted advisors.

Powerful platform providers will emerge

PwC and KPMG both recently announced collaborations with Australian providers of legal operations software for in-house legal teams. This SaaS technology provides a single scalable low-cost solution for in-house lawyers to transact with external counsel, manage internal workflows, prepare and store documents, service internal clients, communicate value to the C-suite and stay in control of their budget. While this software has been around for a while, attaching it to the world’s most powerful B2B brands with deep change management expertise is a gamechanger.

Fast-forward ten years and one of the Big 4, or another provider like Elevate or Xakia, will have won the battle to be the dominant platform for in-house legal teams. They will have unrivalled data around law firm performance, pricing, client satisfaction, in-house productivity and a myriad of other benchmarks. They will own the screen of every in-house lawyer giving them extraordinary influence and leverage along the entire legal supply chain.

In this future scenario, the Big 4 winner will become the intermediary that premium law firms, law companies and technology vendors have to deal with. They won’t compete as clones of traditional firms but rather as Google of the legal world.

A single platform will most likely lower transaction costs and improve choice, quality and responsiveness for client organisations. It won’t displace or disrupt incumbent law firms, but it will most likely reduce their relative bargaining power.

It is worth noting that data security and legal conflict concerns are major obstacles in the way of a single legal operations platform developing. Notwithstanding these issues, the momentum for change in the ‘more for less’ era is significant.

Stop trying so hard to be different

In Articles, Commentary on 6 May 2019 at 4:33 pm

Full text of op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 3 May 2019.

99% of Australia’s full-service law firms have a strategy based on seeking clear market differentiation. In my view, they’re largely wasting their time and money.

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AFR Legal Affairs op-ed

Conventional strategy thinking suggests there are two sources of sustainable competitive advantage: [1] having the lowest cost, or [2] differentiating from competitors on things that matter most to customers. The former strategy allows firms to win by having greater price-setting discretion. The latter strategy allows firms to extract a price premium for added benefits.

When it comes to the legal market, this theory starts to get a bit wobbly.

Research shows that while most law firm clients can distinguish firms between groups of firms, such as Tier 1 versus Tier 2 or domestic versus global, they really struggle to clearly discriminate between specific full-service firms within a group. To clients, many of these firms look and feel the same.

One of the reasons for this is market fragmentation. Unlike most industries with three or four dominant players (think airlines, grocery retail or banking), the Australian commercial legal market has nearly 30 firms claiming in some way to be leaders in legal expertise and client focus. Australia’s largest law firm by partner number, HWL Ebsworth, has less than 5% share of the total market. Carving out and keeping a unique and relevant market position in such a crowded market is next to impossible.

Another reason for a lack differentiation is a self-inflicted one. Most full-service firms present themselves as being all things to most people. Within the partnership model it’s political suicide not to give every partner a guernsey in describing what the firm is really good at.

So, what’s the solution?

The first part of the answer is to worry less about being known for being different and focus more on just being known. Strong brand awareness still counts in opening doors and staying top-of-mind.

The second part is to encourage more differentiation at the practice, partner and/or product level. With a more micro approach, differentiation usually come from legal specialisation combined with a focus on a particular market segment or industry. So, for example, a general commercial litigation team can distinguish themselves by positioning as class action defence specialists for ASX200 companies.

The third element is to concentrate firm strategy on how the firm competes. ‘The how’ refers to the resources, skills, standards and systems used to win. These are collectively called capabilities, or as Pier D’Angelo, Allens’ Chief Strategy Officer, calls them, the organisation’s “muscles”.

Most full-service law firms need work on these five muscle groups and the inter-play between them:

1.   Firm and team leadership – setting and aligning everyone around a clear direction; inspiring others to meet/exceed expectations; and providing support with accountability.

2.   Talent management – recruiting, developing, engaging and retaining the right workforce for the firm to flourish, both now and in the future.

3.   Winning work and capturing value – developing trusting relationships with clients and referrers; converting more of the right opportunities; and pricing profitably.

4.   Collaboration – shifting the mindset from ‘my’ to ‘our’ client and combining expertise from inside and outside the firm to solve clients’ wicked problems.

5.   Operating with discipline – having an efficient and effective operating platform; ensuring adherence to agreed policies; executing plans consistently; and optimising leverage and utilisation.

Spending more time at the law firm gym will, over time, create a form of cultural and operational distinctiveness. Paradoxically, this will most likely be reflected externally and create a firm that both top clients and top people will want to work with and for. They will be authentic points of difference not created by spin doctors but radiating from a firm truly fit for the future.

Avoiding the Bermuda Triangle of law firm management

In Articles, Commentary on 2 March 2019 at 8:50 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published by the Australian Finance Review on 1 March 2019.

Is your firm getting trapped in the Bermuda Triangle of law firm management? It might be and, worse still, you might not even be aware of it.

In the early 2000s, Professor Ashish Nanda of Harvard Business School commissioned a study to test whether the concept of economies of scale applied in commercial law firms?

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AFR print edition

He plotted profit per equity partner (PEP) against the number of fee earners for over 200 firms in the United States. The results disconfirmed the scale economy theory but revealed something even more interesting: PEP was relatively high for small boutique firms focused on specific market segments, and for very large firms who were able to compete for larger bet-the-company M&A transactions, projects and disputes. However, a majority of mid-sized firms had lower PEP relative to their much smaller and much larger peers. While the graph had dots everywhere, the best-fitting line looked like a large ‘U’.

Two theories were put forward to explain the U-shape. The first was that many of the mid-size firms found it hard to differentiate themselves and as a result were unable to secure a price premium. The proposition was these firms were in the ‘mushy middle’ losing out smaller and larger firms that were better positioned in the market. A deeper analysis of the data revealed high- and low-priced firms across all the three groups and therefore market differentiation was concluded to be a relevant factor but not the full story.

Growth pain zone

The second theory was that many law firm partnerships suffered heavily from growing pains. Small firms benefited from quick, informal decision-making and lean management processes. Large firms had the advantage of more mature and formal management practices and leadership capability. Problems emerged when shifting from small to large. Professor Nanda called this growth pain zone the ‘Bermuda Triangle of Law Firm Management’.

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The Triangle phenomenon can be explained as follows.

Growth in the number of fee-earners, office locations, service range and clients often results in more management complexity. There are more day-to-day decisions around who to hire, fire, promote, take leave, reward and sanction. There are more issues to deal with in regard to administrative processes, technology and systems. Marketing and business development decisions such as client pursuits, pricing and conflicts become trickier. At a strategic level, there’s more at stake when making major investment decisions and signing long leases for larger premises.

Many law firm partnership struggle with this increase in complexity. A common response is to allocate more partner time to deal with management issues. As decisions become more complex, more and more time is taken up in internal meetings and management conversations. Partners are drawn away from the things that matter most, that is their clients, prospective clients, referrers and people. Firms become internally-focused at the very time that an external market-orientation is most critical. This collective distraction has a material negative impact on firm performance and competitiveness.

With the noble pursuit of partner equality, fairness and sense of proprietorship many firms are reluctant to take away any decision rights from partners. With this approach, almost every decision, from the colour of sticky notes to staff parking policy needs consultation and consensus. This often results in extensive delays and lowest common denominator decision-making i.e. doing what all can agree on rather than on what’s right.

Major blind spots

In some growing firms, partners take on designated management role in key functional areas like HR, IT, Marketing and Finance. While this helps share the load very often the partners overseeing these functions have next to no training or experience in these areas. They have major blind spots and often make sub-optimal decisions that ultimately cost the firm. Even when firms hire specialist managers in these business support areas it is quite common for partners to second-guess these professionals and override their decisions.

The most critical element in navigating through the Triangle is effective leadership and followership. If the firm has a competent leader, they tend not to over-invest valuable partner time in governance roles, they make the right decisions quickly and implement them. Effective leadership builds trust amongst the partners who are happy to cede many of their low-level decision rights. Good leaders provide the right support and intolerance for partners to perform to their full potential. They facilitate a culture that is focused on delivering a superior client and employee experience. All these things matter.

A quick review of the high growth firms in Australia over the past decade confirms this hypothesis. Many have a strong, effective leader or a leadership group that have helped minimise growing pains and navigated through the Triangle. The words of the Bear Hunt, “they haven’t gone over it / they haven’t gone under it / they’ve gone through it.”

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