A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘client relationships’

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.”

The future of law has fewer seats for grads

In Articles, Commentary on 16 September 2018 at 10:53 am

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 September 2018

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The pyramid has been the foundation operating model in private practice law firms 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 three or four juniors below them. These ratios obviously vary from practice to practice. Leverage and utilisation of the mid and lower levels of the pyramid are the primary profit engines of most firms that charge by time.

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 junior lawyers and their work substituted by a combination of technology and lower-paid process workers.

The shift towards the rocket model is being driven by both the demand and supply side. Sophisticated clients are stating that they’re happy to pay premium rates for highly-trained senior practitioners to provide strategic advice, insights and judgement, but they’re not willing to pay high rates for junior lawyers to do largely process work.

On the supply side, many NewLaw and legal technology providers have seen the market opportunity to supply legal process services directly to corporate legal departments, to SMEs, to private clients and to law firms. Catalyst Ventures estimated the global LegalTech market to be worth over $US 16 billion in 2017.

There are four major strategic implications for private practice law firms in moving towards the rocket model.

#1 The role of partner

Law firm partners will no longer get by by just being great advisors and team leaders. Project management will become a critical element of the partner role. This means partners need to become adept at configuring the most appropriate mix of legal, process and technology resources to solve a client’s problem. They need to be able to design, prepare, price and sell project plans. To manage projects effectively they will need to be both digitally and economically literate. Teaching old dogs these new tricks will be a very big challenge in many firms.

#2 Size and access to capital

Economies of scale have not traditionally been a key success factor in labour-intensive law firms. New York’s Wachtel Lipton is one of the world’s most successful firms despite being a relatively small single-office partnership.

With the addition of product, process and technology to the business model, firm size and access to low-cost capital may bring specific advantages. These include the ability to wear the risks of R&D, and the ability to invest in high-potential start-ups, technology infrastructure, marketing capability and big data. There is also a defensive argument in that if your firm can’t afford the new bright shiny toys some clients might stop playing with you.

#3 Recruitment and development

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Source: strikingly.com

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.

Firms will need to make profound strategic choices around whether they ‘make or buy’ talent. If clients are not prepared to pay for junior development and apprenticeship, then some firms may prefer just to poach mid-level staff trained by others. However, this free-rider approach may negatively impact firm culture and ultimately drive up labour costs.

#4 Pricing and measurement

Imagine your firm offers a new compliance solution for its clients that incorporates legal advice, training and a suite of software tools. You cannot bill for the software tools using hourly rates. Charging for the training by the presenter’s time severely undervalues the IP. Tracking staff utilisation in this scenario would not only be meaningless, but dangerous.

It is clear that 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.

Measurement will shift away from input measures like utilisation towards more outcome measures like client results and clients’ propensity to refer.

In conclusion

The rocket model scenario poses some profound challenges but it also presents many significant opportunities. There is clearly a benefit to be ahead of the curve in thinking through these issues and shaping your future. Not only it is critically important, the journey to becoming closet astronauts can be quite fun.

 

 

 

10 ways to describe the Client Relationship Partner (CRP) role

In Articles, Commentary on 29 August 2018 at 11:41 am

Client Relationship Partners or CRPs are responsible for the overall success of the firm’s long-term relationship with each key client. Listed below are 10 different ways to describe the CRP role each with its own nuance and emphasis. These descriptions are useful in creating clarity in expectations, CRP selection, capability development and accountability.

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Source: strikingly.com

#1 The firm luminary and client advocate

The CRP faces outward and represents the firm to the client. At the same time, they face inward to ensure the voice of the client is heard and client’s interest are appropriately served. Read David Maister’s famous post to dive deeper into this job description.

#2 The pedestal seller (aka the Tinder Tactician)

The CRP networks actively within the firm and the client organisation, and brokers new relationships. They put colleagues and client contacts on a pedestal and talk them up wherever they can. They start their day by thinking about who they can introduce for mutual benefit.

#3 The strategic account leader

The CRP has the primary role of leading the team of practitioners and functional specialists servicing the client. As with any leadership role, their job is to set direction, communicate the strategy, inspire, motivate, cajole and align the various constituencies to execute this strategy. They span across formal organisation boundaries and facilitate collaboration in the core client team and with everyone in the broader client community. This job is made especially difficult in professional service firms because they usually have signifcant responsibilities without formal authority. They typically would have an internal network map looking like Partner 2 from Heidi Gardner’s recent research:

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#4 The planner

The CRP documents a clear set of activities that will help build a successful firm-client relationship over the short-, medium- and long-term. Their plan may look something like this:

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#5 The front-door

The CRP is the client’s first point-of-contact and the key person to address any service failures or concerns. They help redirect work to the most appropriate person within the firm that can service their need. They help make the client’s experience frictionless and engaging. This CRP role is a little more passive than the other models described, but it may suit a ‘care and maintain’ relationship that has little profit growth potential.

#6 The rainmaker

The CRP’s job is to maximise revenue and profit from the account. Full stop.

#7 The co-creator

The CRP facilitates the process of aligning the client’s strategic needs with the firm’s capabilities. They explore in some depth the client’s critical problems and opportunities and help bring together integrated bespoke solutions often involving multi parties, technologies and vendors. The CRP’s role would be to understand deeply the key elements that create value for the client. Page 1 of their client plan would be Bain’s 40 elements model applied to their key client:

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#8 The intrapreneur

Most relationships need ongoing renewal and inspiration in terms of product, process, people and pricing. The CRP role is to generate new ideas that add value and help get the best ones implemented.

#9 The elder

The CRP role is that of senior door opener, shmoozer, steward and repository of institutional memory. The role is less hand-on in terms of day-to-day account management but they do what’s necessary to influence key decision-makers and help win major new projects.

#10 The relationship choreographer (MY PREFERENCE)

The CRP orchestrates a set multi-lateral connections, value exchanges and mutually beneficial projects. They work internal and externally, strategically and tactically, short-term and long-term. The CRP brings the best of the firm to the client; and the whole of the client to the firm. Their job to drive the pink process to win more blue:

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