A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘growth’

Is HWL Limited a buy?

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

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

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

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

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

#1 Insufficient surplus

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2020-08-30 at 12.18.35 pm

#2 Clients don’t buy the firm

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

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

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

#3 Vague growth story

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

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

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

#4 Key person risk

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

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

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

#5 More losses than wins

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

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

In conclusion

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

How your law firm can limit virus hit to bottom line

In Articles, Commentary on 7 August 2020 at 3:42 pm

The full text of my 7 August 2020 opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review.

There is every chance that COVID-19 will mean a big hit to your firm’s revenue for the 2020-21 financial year. So, what levers are you using to limit the downside impact on profitability?

Greg Keith, the chief executive of accounting firm Grant Thornton, recently indicated he was anticipating a decline of 8.5 per cent in revenue and 33 per cent in profit.

It means that for every 1 per cent drop in income, they are forecasting a fall of nearly 4 per cent in profits.

Accounting firms, like law firms, are mostly high fixed-cost businesses that are super-sensitive to changes in revenue – both on the downside and the upside.

To limit the profit impact, firms tend to first cut non-essential spending like travel and entertainment. After these “easy” savings are exhausted, reducing staff numbers comes into the frame.

While there are obvious short-term benefits – staffing can comprise 60 per cent of all expenses – there’s a significant risk of not having enough of the right resources on hand when demand picks up. So, the 2020-21 saving needs to be weighed up against the full cost of re-hiring and training in the future.

In my view, there are two areas where firms could do a lot better to enhance profitability without letting people go – pricing and the sharing of resources.

Pricing for profit

Over the last few years, most mid-sized and large firms have worked on their pricing practices.

With a significant market downturn and price war on the cards, one firm recently redoubled its support for partners to preserve and capture value through price. This included video training modules on value articulation, gamified programs around price negotiation, improved analytics, new pricing tools [like Price High or Low 😀] and more direct hand-holding for new business pitches.

Some firms are adopting a range of creative strategies to meet client needs rather than merely dropping price. They include:

  • Adjusting payment terms and conditions so strapped clients are more willing to brief the firm rather than others;
  • Offering non-time-based pricing structures such as subscriptions, contingency fees or amortising fees;
  • Special promotions in ‘ring-fenced’ service areas to avoid across-the-board rate cuts and safeguard the firm’s brand position; and
  • Offering options at different price points.

One law firm offers its clients three pricing options on every new matter. They’ve adapted Qantas’ pricing approach by offering the equivalent of the airline’s Red e-Deal, Flex and Business Class options.  As with Qantas, each option has the same core benefits around quality and reliability but differ in terms of the format of the deliverables, roles, timing and scope.

Another firm analysed their top 100 clients to determine how each was being affected so they could tailor messages and offers. In one instance, this led to a new digital service offering as some clients moved to virtual selling and distributed operations. In another case, they shifted to a self-service model for a client going through a major cost-cutting exercise.

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 6.43.54 am

Resource sharing

I was recently advising a law firm where analysis of time records revealed that some individuals and teams were extremely busy while others were well below capacity.

When I asked why resources were not shared to even out workloads, the most common response was that lawyers could not easily work outside their area of specialisation.

Not satisfied with that objection, I delved a bit deeper. My enquiries revealed a range of constraints – cultural, structural and personality – to collaboration. For some partners, “letting my people go” was a sign of failure. For others, they didn’t see any direct financial incentive to share resources, so they didn’t bother. In one office, each practice team saw itself as a self-contained business, and the prevailing mindset was more competitive rather than co-operative.

In good times, there’s often enough fat in the system to ignore these problems, But if your firm is looking at an equation that means every 1 per cent drop in revenue leads to a 4 per cent drop in profits, then you might need to change your thinking.

Will new partners need to keep grinding away?

In Articles, Commentary on 13 July 2020 at 6:18 pm

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

Most practice teams in the larger law firms have been set up with partners as the “finders” and “minders” and associates as “grinders”.

A decade’s worth of time records analysed by Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor shows that associates have around 10 more billable hours per month on average than partners in the same firm.

However, in April and May 2020 – the first full months of the COVID-19 lockdown and remote working – this long-term trend reversed and partners recorded more billable hours than associates.

There are two questions worth asking. Why are partners producing more now? Can all the new partners in the Financial Review Law Partnership Survey expect a permanent change in their role? In other words, will they have to be finders, minders and grinders?

AFR July

Why now?

Many law firm clients went into crisis mode with the onset of the coronavirus. Deals needed to be completed quickly. Funding needed to be secured urgently. Disputes on unfulfilled contracts needed rapid resolution. Almost daily changes to government regulation needed interpretation and action.

To deal with these pressing and complex issues many clients indicated a strong preference to get more direct access to partners. This meant fewer opportunities for delegation to associates.

Cost-conscious clients also had less tolerance for juniors being allowed to learn on these matters. As one general counsel put it to me: “I was happy to see one maybe two people [from the law firm] on [Microsoft] Teams, but not a football team.”

Another factor that has led to the increase in partner hours at some firms is partners holding on to more work due to fear of a broader market slowdown so they can hit their personal billing targets.

During the GFC, many large firms cut partner numbers through a combination of de-equitisation, early retirements, dismissals and reduced promotions.

While many firms now prefer measuring the contribution of a team rather than an individual, having a healthy personal practice can strengthen a partner’s case for retention if things get tough. In recent weeks, it appears that some partners and associates have been getting a little tired of working from home.

After the rush of adrenalin in dealing with the crisis and keeping connected during March and April, there’s now slightly less enthusiasm for the weekly video drinks – and growing frustration with the clunkiness of a distributed workforce.

Supervision, training and delegation is hard enough when everyone is co-located and physically present in a purpose-designed city office. It’s that much harder when associates are working from a kitchen table in a shared rental apartment with variable NBN speeds.

As time moves on, some partners might resort to the easier – though strategically flawed – option of doing most of the work themselves.

Will there be a permanent change?

No, and yes.

Leverage of non-partner fee-earners is at the heart of the law firm business model. The economics of having lots of associates doing lots of production will not change in the years ahead. Effective and efficient delivery of larger transactions, projects and disputes will still require teams of lawyers, paralegals and legal technologists at different levels.

Over time, firms that don’t tailor their approach for each project will lose out to those that do.

When demand returns, the issues around less delegation should ease. Intransigent hoarders will get caught out and move on – or be moved on.

As technology and workflows improve over time, the clunkiness of the remote workforce should diminish and become less of a handbrake.

One change that will hopefully stick is that of the law firm partner as the client’s primary strategic risk advisor. The coronavirus crisis has revealed the relevance of experienced lawyers in assisting clients on things that matter. This period should hopefully build their confidence as strategic advisors from a legal perspective and not just narrow technical legal specialists.

The discussion above suggests that perhaps the finder minder grinder characterisation is a little out of date.

A better description of the role of partner is that of a strategic advisor and leader – a thought leader, a team leader, a client account leader, a project leader and a sales leader.

The winners will be those firms that recruit and develop outstanding legal leaders and not just see their associates as high-billable grinders.

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.

Screen Shot 2020-06-05 at 8.49.43 am copy

#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.

Love the tech you’re with, at least for now

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 11 May 2020 at 11:16 am

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

One of the key decisions law firms need to make during the COVID-19 crisis concerns investment in new legal technology and innovation.

While some firms are keeping their R&D spend intact, anecdotal evidence suggests the majority are going into some form of hibernation.

AFR op-ed May 2020 copy

Regardless of whether your firm decided to stop, reduce or continue, there is a strong business case for getting more out of what you already have. It’s not quite as exciting as playing with shiny new tech toys, but sometimes – as in the words of that great Stephen Stills’ song – it’s better to “love the one you’re with”.

To make more of your existing technology it’s important to ask three questions.

Can our partners and lawyers use it well? 

Taking Microsoft Word as an example, my guess is that your firm currently uses it semi-well.

Most partners and lawyers use basic features like track changes, automated numbering, cross-referencing, indexing and sections. However, I suspect only a handful would be good at using styles, templates, programmed auto-corrects, tailored designs and macros.

There is much to gain in terms of lawyers’ and clients’, time and money from investing in targeted Word training. Not having everyone at a base level proficiency in the basic tool of the trade is going to bite hard especially if you are looking to reduce secretarial support ratios or to have a more flexible work-from-home operating model.

Can we make it work better for us?

The COVID-19 crisis is also a good time to experiment with add-ins, plug-ins and tools that add power and functionality to your existing applications.

It is much easier to extend an existing technology with a familiar user interface than adopt something completely new. What’s more, existing apps are usually fully deployed, paid for and supported.

Taking Word again as an example, there is a growing number of complementary tools on the market that are worth investigating. David Bushby, a lawtech expert from InCounsel, has kindly curated this list:

Are we becoming too dependent on it or its vendor? 

During COVID-19 crisis, there has been a rapid uptake of Microsoft’s video-conferencing tool, Teams. It appears that the latter has become the favoured video application of many large law firms and the Federal Court.

Given the vast installed base of the Office Suite and now Teams, it’s not hard to imagine that Microsoft will attempt to monetize its strong competitive position further.

One scenario involves them adding code into documents and emails to capture data around document preparation time, quality, cost, originality, storage and authorship. Combining this valuable data with its established software suite and ‘voila!’ – they will control or strongly influence the entire legal supply chain.

In this scenario, it would be tough for individual firms to counteract Microsoft’s power. However, new collaborative application platforms owned by law firms, like Reynen Court in the USA, may point to a future with more options.

In this future, there may be opportunities to follow the advice of Wet Wet Wet rather than Stephen Stills – and make sure your “love is all around”.

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.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 7.12.23 pm

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.

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?

Headline

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-07 at 9.51.46 am

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.

IMG_9451 (1) copy

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?

%d bloggers like this: