A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘governance’

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.

Law firm partnerships could give BHP a productivity lesson

In Articles, Commentary on 7 September 2019 at 10:03 am

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 6 September 2019.

CEO Andrew Mackenzie and the top 200 global executives at BHP Billiton do not dig for iron ore, or cart coal, or drill for oil. They are 100 per cent dedicated to the task of leading and managing their company.

In contrast, almost all of the top 200 global partners in Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) are involved in legal service production in some way. This includes advising clients, supervising the legal work done by juniors and pursuing new opportunities.

A BHP vs HSF comparison points to one of the key differences between law firm partnerships and corporations; almost all senior people in law firms have a producer-manager-leader (PML) role.

As producers they win and deliver legal work; as managers they organise and control people, processes, resources and facilities; and as leaders they help set direction, align constituencies, innovate and inspire others to perform at a higher level.

There is strong evidence that most law firm partners bias production over their management and leadership roles. The reasons for this are both structural and personal.

Proof of legal excellence and client followership are the most common ways people get promoted. Production-related outcomes are the things that are celebrated and rewarded – acquiring new clients, winning high profile cases, beating budgets, winning awards and ranking higher in directories.

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Entitled Millenials

Ask partners what they enjoy the most in the job, the most common response is helping clients solve really important complex problems. The thing they enjoy least is dealing with entitled millennials.

As the business of legal becomes more complex and competitive, so does the importance of effective leadership and management.

As firms grow there are more cats to herd.

As legal technology evolves there are bigger strategic bets to place.

As client expectations and sophistication rises, so firms have to deliver more for less and still make a buck.

As younger lawyers leave the profession in droves, firms have to do much better at engaging top talent.

One obvious solution to deal with this production-bias is to employ full-time specialised managers and leaders and let the lawyers just do law.

This thinking is seriously flawed.

Rather than blindly follow what corporations do, law firms should wholeheartedly embrace the PML model and just work harder at addressing the problems listed above.

Empowered self-managed teams

PML results in law firms being run as a network of highly empowered self-managed teams. There’s no middle management pushing papers and inventing new reports. There’s no CBD head office tower filled with bureaucrats. There’s no intricate incentive system to extract more discretionary effort from senior executives.

In the main, premium law firms are highly profitable perpetual engines of productivity. As an organisational form, traditional partnerships create wealth, share wealth and reduce risk very effectively.

Boris Groysberg of the Harvard Business School mentioned during his recent Australian tour that many large corporations are in fact trying to move towards the PML model. They see the obvious benefits of reducing overheads, fostering empowerment and having executives much closer to customers.

The key lesson is for law firms to reframe their whole talent system around the PML model. This means hiring more rounded legal graduates. It means providing non-legal training, especially in people skills, at all career stages. It means fast-tracking those with obvious leadership potential to senior roles more quickly. It means adding new elements to the symbols and measures of success.

It also means support for incumbent partners to better manage the trade-offs and tensions across their current portfolio of responsibilities.

The frequently cited claim that the partnership model is an anachronism is misguided. Having an empowered organisation with almost everyone on the tools in some way would make BHP’s Andrew Mackenzie think he’s discovered another Pilbara.

Firms pay price for poor HR record

In Articles, Commentary on 4 August 2019 at 7:22 pm

Full text of op-ed first published in the Australian Financial Review on 2 August 2019.

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Almost all large and mid-sized law firms have an in-house human resources (HR) team to handle recruitment, development, reward and other people issues. A high-performing trusted HR team is essential in winning the war for top talent.

Unfortunately, many firms are shooting themselves in the foot by having poor relationships in and around HR.

At its extreme, it goes something like this…

HR team members perceive their firm’s partners to be disrespectful, disempowering and ignorant of the value that HR professionals can really bring. They feel excluded from critical conversations concerning performance management, remuneration and workforce strategy, especially for partners and senior practitioners. They are frustrated by people that don’t show up to important HR-initiated meetings, and if they do, they’re there in body but not in mind or spirit.

One the other side of the fence, the firm’s partners have an ambivalent or even hostile attitude toward their HR team. They perceive them to be process-driven, uncommercial, reactive and superficial fad surfers. Partners discount their advice because HR team members appear to lack deep knowledge of firm economics, firm strategy and broader legal market trends.

The consequences

In practice, this chicken or egg standoff results in things like:

  • Being too slow to respond to new talent opportunities and missing out
  • Being unaware of flight risks and reacting too late
  • More ‘ow’ than ‘wow’ in employee experience
  • Low impact and clunky performance management
  • Incomplete HR data and unreliable analytics
  • Wasted training and development resources
  • Expensive HR practitioners doing low-level process work
  • Partners second-guessing decisions in areas they have little or no expertise.

Accumulatively these problems add cost and become a strategy handbrake. Over time, firms simply become less competitive.

Addressing the problem

There are five things firms should consider doing to address this problem:

1.    Call it out. The standoff scenario described above is extreme. This problem may only exist in pockets or not at all, but it’s good to know the truth. An honest and comprehensive review of what’s working and what’s not can isolate what’s really needed. This review should not be seen as a HR witch-hunt, but rather how the firm’s partners and the HR team can truly collaborate to give the firm a competitive edge.

2.    Improve the science. Many HR initiatives are (a little unfairly) perceived as soft and fluffy and requiring a big leap of faith when it comes to return on investment. Applying the principles and practices of data science to HR can set the stage for true impact. New HR initiatives supported by compelling evidence will get much greater interest and uptake. There are myriad of fresh valuable insights waiting to be discovered from mining HR data and especially in the linkages with financial, operational and client data.

3.    Calibrate risk profile. Many HR decisions come with big risks. For example, a bad new recruit can become a cultural terrorist, or a poor reward decision can lead to a regrettable departure. These risks push many HR teams towards being very conservative and opting for the path of least resistance. This approach can be sub-optimal especially if the firm is trying to innovate and create a growth culture. A joint effort by the firm’s leaders and HR to calibrate HR decision risks and policy will go a long way to avoid blame-shifting and getting strategic alignment.

4.    Create lateral leaders.  As with all business service functions, HR has lots of responsibility but with little or no formal authority. This means HR practitioners have to develop lateral leadership skills to work across the organisation as influencers and catalysts for change. They need to learn to lean-in and develop the personal gravitas to have their voice heard.

5.    Learn from IT.  Many law firm IT departments have moved to a co-sourcing approach with the outsourcing and automation of low-level process, support and compliance activity, and insourcing of high-level advisory work and R&D. The managed service model is maturing at a rapid rate and HR should embrace this trend to focus their energies in becoming true trusted advisors.

‘True trusted advisors’! Surely that’s a better vision than process-driven, uncommercial fad-surfers?

Five lessons from successful lawyers

In Articles, Commentary on 8 July 2019 at 9:14 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 5 July 2019.

There are five stories worth retelling in comparing the 2019 AFR Partnership Survey to the one reported 10 years ago in July 2009.

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Original AFR article

#1 Resilience

Over the past decade, numerous commentators have predicted the end of BigLaw. Headlines such as, ‘Large law firms are about to have their Kodak moment’, ‘BigLaw is dead. Long live NewLaw’, and ‘Law is ripe for consolidation and disruption’ has attracted readers’ attention, but it is safe to say that these predictions have simply not yet come true.

Analysis of 2009 vs the 2019 Top 30 lists shows:

  • Average firm size is quite similar and there has been very little consolidation. In fact, the largest firm in the land by partner numbers was 297 in 2009 (Minters) compared to 266 in 2019 (HWL Ebsworth).
  • The business models of the Top 30 firms are by and large very similar to those from 10 years prior. They still operate within traditional professional partnerships, they make money through leverage of people, and they price directly or indirectly based on time.
  • While there are a number of global brands in the 2019 list, the Australian-based partnerships of these firms are still broadly the same set of people, putting aside obvious partner promotions and retirements. The vast majority of Australian legal work is still done by Australians in Australia.
  • For all the hype about the Big 4, PwC Legal does not make even it to the Top 30 list in 2019, and the other three are way behind.

#2 The shadow

In July 2009, DLA Phillips Fox had 164 partners and 434 fee-earners. It was the 7th largest firm in the land, the first trans-Tasman integrated partnership (excluding Perth) and a market leader in insurance, government and transport.

Ten years later the AFR Survey shows that DLA Australia has only 70 partners.

UK-based DLP Piper may be very happy with the slimmed-down version that their Australian branch office has become, but it seems amazing to me that nearly 100 of those original Phillips Fox partners who put up their hands to vote ‘yes’ for the DLA tie-up, left the firm they owned within a relatively short time period. Why did so many get it so wrong?

#3 Spot-changers

Much is said about law firms’ and lawyers’ resistance to change but it is worth highlighting the success that two firms are having in changing their gender profile. The 2009 AFR survey revealed that 16.3% of Allens’ partners were female. Ten years later this percentage is 33.1%. Over the same time period, Maddocks has shifted its female partners from 16.9% to 36.6%. Interestingly, the pioneer in this area, Gilbert + Tobin, has seen its proportion stay roughly the same: 36.2% in 2009 versus 35.7% in 2019.

The numbers do not reveal the specific strategies to become more inclusive, but they do show that a real commitment to a goal can make some leopards become less leopard’ish.

#4 The trainers

The firms listed in 2019 AFR survey hired 1,222 graduates over the past financial year. Most of these firms will spend the next three or four years of training these graduates to become independent legal advisers. Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that this is around 1.5 million hours of training at a rough cost of $90 million.

Assuming one-third leave the profession, the market cost of this attrition is $30 million. Assuming 20% go into in-house roles, the law firms are providing an $18 million training cross-subsidy to their clients (now how’s that for a value-add!). Assuming firms are expanding their training programs to include digital literacy and related topics, these costs are only going to escalate.

All this data points to the cost of not getting significantly better at talent management.

#5 New and old friends

The 2009 AFR listing included IP specialist firms Davies Collison Cave and Griffith Hack. Both of those firms are now part of ASX-listed entities and playing a very different game.

The 2019 AFR survey includes points to two emerging strategic groups:

  • The multi-disciplinaries or MDPs – firms that include significant consulting and adjacent (to legal) offerings. The standout members are the Big 4 legal arms plus Minter Ellison. Others that have a foot or toe in this pond include Corrs, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and McCullough Robertson.
  • The global boutiques – firms that are focused on just one or two service line or sectors in Australia and tied to a mothership back in UK or USA. Obvious examples include Seyfarth Shaw, Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Clyde & Co, Squire Patton Boggs, Jones Day, White & Case and Quinn Emmanuel.

In conclusion

There are lots of other interesting case studies behind the AFR surveys. They provide a rich history of our legal market and we should be very grateful to the participating firms and the AFR that the data is there to be shared and stories to be told.

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.

 

 

 

Measurement matters more than money

In Articles, Commentary on 24 July 2018 at 7:56 am

A firm’s profit-sharing model is a poor determinant of collaborative behaviour.

Motivational theory predicts that firms with equal-share or lock-step model would be far more collaborative than those with more performance-based reward systems. The logic is that in equal-share firms there is a strong financial incentive for partners to grow the collective pie by sharing clients, staff and other resources.

I can think of a number of firms where this theory simply does not hold true.

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Source: strikingly.com

Despite equal profit share, partners in these firms hoard work and clients, they hold onto resources and they operate primarily in silos. They continue to do this despite all the evidence that better collaboration will result in higher profits, more staff engagement and stronger client loyalty.

SO WHAT IS GOING ON?

In many firms, partner performance measures are oriented around financial metrics like personal and supervised production, fees billed, fees collected, work referred, utilisation, write-offs and WIP. They are usually reported monthly in arrears and are transparent to the rest of the partnership.

It appears to me that silo’ed behaviour is driven by a reaction to the measurement system by three different types of partners.

Insecure Overachievers

Insecure partners view their relative ranking on performance reports as a signal of their worth, both to themselves and others. The data is a form of validation or redemption. Getting higher up the individual billings league table takes on new meaning, that is, proving that they’re ‘okay’. At the extreme, one hears of stories of partners gaming the practice management system and manipulating data so as to rank higher. Perhaps in an eat-what-you-kill firm, this behaviour is more understandable, but in an equal-share firm, it just smacks of paranoia.

Inflated Egos

Those with above-average egos use individual reporting as a competitive scorecard signalling that they’re winning and the others are losing. While some internal competition is healthy, in some firms, it strays into a dog-eat-dog culture where collaboration is the last thing on people’s minds.

Tenureds

‘Tenuritis’ is my term to describe the mindset of a partner who feels that as an owner they have a self-directed job for life with next to zero accountability. For those even partially inflicted with tenuritis, the performance reports have little impact. They’re mostly ambivalent about the data and care little whether they sit at the top, middle or bottom.

With the Insecures and Inflated Egos it is the symbolic power of measurement that’s primarily driving behaviour. With the Tenureds it is the over-reliance of measurement as a leadership tool which, with these individuals, has very limited power.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

The key issue here is that measurement should not be used as a proxy for leadership. It’s just plain lazy (and a little cowardly) if firm leaders send out the monthly reports and then think their job is done.

Effective leadership is about [i] providing regular feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly, [ii] active listening, [iii] setting direction, [iv] developing capability, [v] offering support, [vi] opening doors, and [vii] removing constraints.

In equal-share firms, effective leadership is crucial to mitigate the measurement system risks outlined above. It is also fundamental to restoring a sense of fairness across the equity partnership and to get everyone performing to their full potential.

Without effective leadership, meritocracies run the risk of letting the “money do all the talking”. The differential in reward might address the perception of fairness but it does little for partner development, especially for those not intrinsically motivated by the Dollar. Profit-share, on its own, is a blunt pseudo-precise deferred performance management tool.

I believe a firm’s leadership capability is a far better determinant of one-firm collaborative behaviour than its profit sharing model. There are thousands of examples of deeply collaborative public and private companies that operate with merit-based rewards. There’s no reason why professional service firms should be any different.

CALL TO ACTION

If cross-firm collaboration is on your strategic agenda, don’t just jump to the reward lever and expect everything to change. Rather take some time to think about what and how you measure and the critical role your leaders play in driving one-firm behaviour.

Strategies for whatever future holds

In Articles, Commentary on 6 July 2018 at 7:43 am

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 July 2018

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The opposite of a ‘perfect storm’ is what BigLaw is enjoying right now. The combination of the Banking Royal Commission, strong corporate deal flow, numerous class action defence cases, regulatory change, major infrastructure projects and general economic growth has seen many of the nation’s top law firms enjoy double-digit profit growth over the past year.

The key strategic question is whether these firms treat this as a one-off, or see it as the start of a new era of prosperity?

Both scenarios are worth exploring.

The One-Off Wonder Scenario

If firms predict a return to a shrinking market with a looming threat of disruption, then conventional wisdom would suggest retaining some of the current surpluses to make themselves ‘future-proof’. A war chest could be used over the next few years to transform culture, invest in adjacencies, craft new business models, acquire game-changing technology, recruit superstars and build relationship capital. It could also be used to introduce a more consistent dividend policy.

While this all makes perfect sense none of the major firms will do it.

Current tax law requires each partner to declare their individual share of the partnership’s net income in their individual tax return, whether or not they actually received the income.

It follows that most firms will distribute all F18 supernormal profits to avoid the partners paying tax on income they don’t immediately receive. This payout will be accompanied by a communal prayer session that the second scenario comes to fruition.

While this tax issue does provide some constraints to reinvestment, there’s nothing stopping firms setting up new investment vehicles outside of the partnership in which partners acquire a stake in their personal capacity. Gilbert + Tobin partners’ collective investment in LegalVision is a good example of this. This strategy may be useful for taking a stake in new discrete businesses, but it could get messy if only a subset of partners elect to invest and the new ventures were directly involved in co-creating the legal service.

The Glory Days Scenario

If firms are more bullish and expect the good times to continue, then maybe some really interesting strategic choices on the cards.

With a higher risk-tolerance, firms may elect to do some or all of the following:

  • Take the opportunity to incorporate and create the capital base and balance sheet to innovate that is not possible within the partnership model. With more money to play with, firms will be in a better position to compensate partners for any one-off capital gain issues.
  • Double their investment in developing the skillset, toolset and mindset to compete in the digital age. Within four to five years, the firm will experience a step-improvement in its capability to harness the power of new technology, but more importantly the willingness to embrace change.
  • Double the intake of legal graduates and make the life for junior lawyers more bearable. Creating more system capacity and having a bigger pool of talented happier people will make the firm mentally stronger and healthier.
  • Acquire a boutique management consulting firm will the express aim of accelerating lawyers’ abilities as holistic strategic business advisers.
  • Split the firm into two: one part that can command super-premium value-based pricing, and the other housing those practices that require market-leading operational excellence to thrive.
  • Create an internal ‘risk enterprise’ modelled on the litigation funding business model. This new business will enable the firm to enter more innovative gain-sharing pricing arrangements with clients and bring more creative value-building opportunities to the table.
  • Make an aggressive play in the compliance market. Over the years, the Big 4 accountants and other providers have controlled this market and reaped millions of dollars from it. The Royal Commission has essentially revealed that these incumbents have failed and it’s time for legally-trained risk experts to return.

So which one?

So which is more likely to eventuate: the one-off wonder or glory days?

My best guess is that it will be somewhere in-between. Yes, the Commission will end but there is a lot of underlying demand driving growth in top-end legal work. The broader economic outlook is okay to good, slated infrastructure spend is massive, in- and outbound capital flows will remain strong and post-Commission restructuring will keep the corporate lawyers busy for quite a while.

The perfect storm has become the perfect calm. The open question is just for how long?

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Source: strikingly.com

The end of the club

In Articles, Commentary on 25 June 2018 at 10:09 am

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 June 2018

A ‘club’ is a Tier 2 full-service firm of individual practitioners who enjoy each other’s company. It is a nice, collegiate, shared-office environment where partners enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy and welcome the occasional cross-selling opportunity.

And the club, as a business model, is about to die.

The principal reason for its demise is that most of the individual practitioners that make up the club will not be able to compete. Unless their expertise is unquestionably superior or they have welded-on client relationships, these solo specialists will start to lose out to a combination of freelancers, platforms, networks, focus and one-firm firms.

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Source: strikingly.com

Solo specialists versus Freelancers

Many of Australia’s Tier 1 law firms thinned their partner ranks during the 2010’s (a trend reversed in 2018). This was done through de-equitisation, early retirements and forced redundancy. Ashurst, for example, had 186 Australian partners in July 2013 and 142 in July 2016.

A number of these very accomplished practitioners set up shop as high-end legal freelancers. Using sophisticated cloud-based software, a laptop and a phone, these lawyers have next to zero overheads and the flexibility and agility to practice where and when they like. There is simply no contest when matched to a Tier 2 practitioner constrained by firm pricing policies, high office rents and administration expenses.

Solo specialists versus Platforms

HWL Ebsworth and Mills Oakley stand out as two very successful high-growth platform firms. Their strategy is about aggressively acquiring partners with portable practices and offering them incomes more directly aligned to their total financial contribution, both direct and referred. These firms have strong operational disciplines and lean back-offices. They are well led with partners focused less on office politics and more on things that matter, that is, their clients and staff. HWL prides itself on offering partner chargeout rates lower than many Tier 1 and 2 firms and fixing these rates over time.

These platform firms run harder and faster than the clubs. The energy and discipline they bring to the market gives them a real edge. And if they come across a high-flying solo-specialist in a sleepy club, they’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Solo specialists versus Networks

The past five years have seen the emergence of a number of network law firms and legal staff companies. Examples include Lawyers on Demand, LexVoco and Crowd&Co. There are also a number of legal staff companies aligned with established law firms, such as Corr’s Orbit, Allens’ Adapt and Minters’ Flex. One standout element of these networks is they have a very small team of full-time staff and only contract lawyers to work when there’s a confirmed fixed-fee client assignment.

The toe-to-toe analysis of networks versus solo-specialist yields very similar conclusions to the Freelancer and Platform models.

Solo specialists versus Focus firms

Focus and boutique firms specialise in a narrow range of worktypes or client sectors. Two standout examples in this category are SBA Law, a Melbourne-based corporate boutique, and Thoroughbred Legal, a general practice firm focused on the thoroughbred racing industry.

These firms position themselves as having deep expertise, knowledge and critical mass, and a service delivery model 100% attuned to the needs of their target market.

Beaton data points to technical expertise and understanding of client industry as key drivers of client choice. As such, focus firms will almost always out-credential and out-compete Tier 2 practitioners largely competing on their own.

Solo specialists versus One-firm firms

David Maister coined the term “one-firm firm” to describe a full-service firm where,

  • the firm brand is stronger than individual partner brands,
  • the firm has a ‘house style’ and delivers consistent quality across the board,
  • the firm’s culture is deeply collaborative in regard to sharing clients and resources, and
  • the firm is prepared to invest in new profit growth initiatives without prejudicing individual practitioners.

One-firm firm’s competitive advantage comes from wider ‘institutionalised’ client relationships and the ability to bring many minds to solve complex client problems.

Over the past decade, many larger clients have sought to reduce the size of their panels and form strategic partnerships with fewer (one-firm) firms. This procurement trend effectively locks-out the solo-specialist in a collegiate club.

The preferred strategic option

Over the next five years, some clubs will fold, some will fracture into a series of boutiques and some will be acquired. Most will try to address their situation by trying to become one-firm firms. The leadership challenge of this transformation is huge, and the risk of losing star partners and associates along the way is high. Unfortunately, I expect only a small number will be able to make the necessary changes and survive.

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