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Killing clients with complexity – be sure to recognise and address it

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Legal Profession, Partners, Personal Effectiveness, Uncategorized

In talking about client relations lawyers like to talk about the importance of using simple English, killing clients with kindness and generally keeping things simple for clients. It seems years of training and our natural lawyerly DNA inhibits this. So, instead, we are killing clients with complexity and bloody mindedness. Clients use this as yet another reason (did they need another?) to try to get their ‘legal’ work done elsewhere (i.e. outside the legal profession), sometimes at all costs.

Yes, that complicated mess is the array of plugs and wires for an office building! Something like the complex layers of mush some lawyers seem to be making of clients’ favourite projects! (Photo Credit: Bitterjug via Compfight cc)

This was brought home to me twice in the last month in conversations with clients, both interestingly enough experienced lawyers themselves.

The first client, let’s call her Sue, heads up a very sizable charity and has recently been involved in some very large commercial transactions worth millions of dollars. As most will know many charities have been forced to fend for themselves nowadays and so engage actively in supportive commercial activities. Inevitably Sue had to engage lawyers. Her legal bill with her main firm amounted to millions of dollars per annum.

(graphic: courtesy of www.dilbert.com)

Being an experienced ex-corporate lawyer of a leading firm herself, Sue thought she knew how to run transactions and lawyers. That didn’t stop her lawyers denouncing her views in a meeting attended by many other parties to the transaction and then adding layers of complexity to an already challenging deal. Sue was astounded by their behaviour, but found the most irritating feature of their conduct was how her own senior lawyer became entrenched in his views on some issues. As Sue said to me:

at times I felt I had to dynamite him out of his fixed positions on things. Frustratingly, it became clear to me the real issue was not a legal issue at all, but that he didn’t really understand our industry. His insecurity caused him to create blockages for us and the deal. Unfortunately at the heart of it too was the unfortunate arrogance one too often finds in experienced members of our profession. This time I experienced it all from a client’s perspective”

This dragged things out while Sue felt his inflexibility was largely due to his lack of understanding of the nuances of social enterprises and how they engage in commercial matters.

The second client, Steve, is a practising corporate lawyer and also chair and director of various corporate entities, highly regarded in business and legal circles. One entity of which he is chair has been engaged in some critical project work involving hundreds of millions of dollars, all  subject to tight performance and delivery deadlines – again here the lawyers, one of which was a national top 4 firm, proved exasperating to deal with. In his words:

“At times there were twelve lawyers in a room with us trying to reach agreement. It seemed to me that the CEOs and Chairs of the various parties quite quickly reached agreement but we then had to hand it on to the lawyers to document. This is where the issues arose. In some cases it took up to 3 months – what seemed to happen each time was the lawyers then felt it necessary to re-negotiate everything. Of course, each time it had to come back to us to settle and agree once again. In the meantime legal fees blew out horribly. The worst experience of all this was the very entrenched positions the lawyers each took. In one case it took us six meetings to negotiate back to where we had started from.”

He couldn’t believe the unnecessary layers of complexity they added to the transaction with what appeared to be little consideration for the commercial realities of the matter, or the deadlines.

Obviously there are always two sides to these stories and no doubt the lawyers would tell one they were only trying to protect everyone’s best interests.  I do think however we as lawyers don’t spend enough or any time thinking about how we may be coming across to clients in this area. We tend always to look at things from our perspective and perhaps should be much more sensitive to how clients are feeling.

The two examples I quote from above are real examples of actual events – in both cases the clients are experienced corporate/commercial lawyers with over twenty years experience in their own rights. They have certainly had their eyes opened at the way their colleagues can behave at times. I sent the Dilbert strip to them both after hearing these stories.

Why are these matters difficult to deal with in practice and therefore go unaddressed?

  • as it is often the firm’s top corporate deal maker lawyers who are involved in such transactions – one assumes they will instinctively get the balance right and not be so obstructive and difficult;
  • they will often feel they are bullet-proof and confidently intimate they know where to draw the line;
  • due to the stature of the lawyers involved, clients will sometimes be reluctant to say anything bad about them in the knowledge that annoyed as they are, they may have cause to use them or work with them again in future and want to maintain the ‘relationship’;
  • for these reasons one never imagines the issues to  ’be that bad’;
  • as many of these conversations happen behind closed doors, with no-one else from the firm present, it is hard to gauge what was said or actually took place or even know there is an issue. Where issues do arise it is hard to get to the bottom of them.
What should and can law firm leaders do about this?
  • this issue should be raised at partner discussion meetings. Ideally examples (from clients and outside the firm) should be provided;
  • someone, other than the partner concerned in the matter, and preferably outside the firm, should debrief all key clients during or after all key transactions;
  • obviously,  all key clients of the firm should be interviewed.
  • both of the last sets of meetings should be given priority and taken very seriously and the results should be fed into the partner review process;
  • this topic must be a topic at partner reviews and feedback meetings;
  • this should also be dealt with as part of the firm’s in-house training and coaching program for all firm lawyers.

Any similar experiences to share? It would be good to hear from you.

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International

Well dang! Those nimble NewLaw firms are at it again!

Posted in Australasia, Business Models, Change, Leadership, Legal Profession, Management, Professional Service Firms (PSFs), Strategy, Uncategorized

I recently posted on nimbler firms chipping away at others’ brands. Well, it seems they have been at it again – baking some more of BigLaw’s cake and eating a few more slices along the way.

NewLaw, particularly in Australasia, has quietly begun to call some shots, pushing old ways (and larger firms) aside, winning some important chunks of work and clients, and recruiting top people in the process. (Sean Larkan – Edge International)

Following this theme, an Edge colleague (Jordan Furlong) and I recently published a short Inventory of NewLaw in Australia focusing on what some smaller and mid-tier firms have been up to. The definition we used for NewLaw was:

“Any strategy, structure, model, process or way of delivering legal services that represents a significantly different approach to the creation or provision of legal services than what the legal profession traditionally has employed”

This definition allowed us to encompass not just law firms, but also new legal talent combinations, legal service managers and legal technology that both changes how lawyers practice and places the power of legal service provision in clients’ hands. We decided not to include American legal documets and consumer law portals, innovative legal companies and technologies whose primary focus is the marketing or management of law practices or e–discovery providers or accountants

I have long been an admirer of the mid-tier in Australasia – about a decade ago people were about to write them off but they have bounced back and then some. This has translated for them too – many are earning the same and more than the top ten, and doing some really exciting and innovative things into the bargain which is going to set them up against all comers for the future.

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Gen-Y comes through, again. . . and makes light of darkness

Posted in Australasia, Leadership, Personal Effectiveness

Pollinate Energy a small social enterprise start-up and brainchild of a group of young Gen-Y Aussies has found a way to get inexpensive light into tens of thousands of Indian homes. Visit www.pollinateenergy.org.

Remembering back to when I helped run large law firms I recall how impressed we often were with the energy, enthusiasm and good ideas that came out of our young people, especially when it related to helping others. We’d heard all the stories and media reports of the so-called ‘me’ or ‘my’ generations but in practice found the opposite was generally true.

On this theme, some months back I posted an article about the things we learn from young people (involving my son and his best mate, and the funds they had raised cycling and mountain biking for a charity) – well, it turns out the story had an even happier ending, as they went on to do a third ride and managed to reach their target of $100 000 for Youth Focus, a charitable enterprise in West Australia which supports young people at risk of suicide.

Here is another story (on video) to warm the cockles; about a small start-up called Pollinate Energy, the brain-child of a few young Aussies, who have found a way to get inexpensive light into countless households in India, as well as provide employment to others. Gen-Y comes through, again. . . . . and is definitely making light of darkness.

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International

Open Plan offices and Darwin’s natural selection bring unexpected law firm benefits

Posted in Business Models, Change, Culture, Management, Partners, People Strategy, Trust & Respect, Uncategorized

Open plan offices are not new, even for law firms, and no doubt there are a couple of examples in your region. The jury does still seem to be out though in regard to the pros and cons.

While there are those who proudly espouse the virtues of ‘open plan’ with benefits like:

It seems open plan offices can have some unexpected benefits, like selecting out the ‘dickhead’ factor. (image courtesy of BFX NZ)

  • better staff interaction;
  • everyone seen to be on the same footing;
  • more work gets done, etc.

others think they are a crazy idea. Arguments against tend to revolve around confidentiality, the need to work in peace, no interruptions and so on.

I did some work for a firm recently which has adopted an open plan for its new premises. The partners were quite open about their motivation – to save costs and make more money. Of course, they also hoped it would be okay for them, and for their people. On balance they felt everyone would just have to make the best of it.

Turns out it has gone straight to the bottom line with improved profitability. There has also another benefit which they had not anticipated which, with the benefit of hindsight, makes some sense. The managing partner gleefully confided to me the unexpected outcome – the ‘selection out’ of dickheads. Almost a case of Darwin’s* theory of natural selection.

The open plan office scene is just too tough for these difficult customers we have all experienced – their bad behaviours, thinking and attitudes are just too obvious to everyone around them. In an open plan there is no-where to hide. They can’t carry them on behind closed doors or slinking down passageways. Without anyone saying too much, natural selection takes its course and they move on rather than the staff around them having to resign to get away from them.

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Don’t let nimbler law firms bake your cake and eat it!

Posted in Australasia, Brand, Leadership, Legal Profession, Personal Brand

Each year I carefully review Interbrand’s excellent report on the top 100 global brands. No professional service firm brands feature there so you may well ask, what relevance do these largely commercial or corporate brands have for law firms? The reason I do is that Interbrand provides useful summary reports as to why these brands consistently outperform other brands and grow in value and we can learn from them.

Message from the top global brands – simply carrying on as we always have and hoping it will suffice, won’t work – nimbler brands will bake our cake and eat it – Sean Larkan, Edge International

First though, a few quick pointers in regard to brand (which are expanded upon in my book (no plug intended!)):

  • our brands are what other individuals think, not what we think (based on principles developed by Marty Neumeier in the Brand Gap);
  • we need to ensure that what we say we offer, we actually deliver (brand fusion™);
  • there are at least three types of brand we should be aware of – organisational brand, individual brands and our employment brands – each have their peculiarities and potentially, great value;
  • building a high value brand takes a whole bunch of highly talented people working together as a team i.e. your whole firm, legal and support.

Here are the points from the Interbrand report which I thought would be of interest to law firms:

  1. through the influence of social media brands are increasingly shaped by clients and others, and less by organisations themselves;
  2. design is no longer low priority – it is now the key to a brand’s appeal;
  3. corporate citizenship is no longer a nice to have or ‘add on’ but a palpable ethic that must weave right through an organisation and radiate outward – some law firms are doing a great job of this;
  4. a message we have heard before, but a reminder that the marketing rules have changed – the consumer’s voice now carries much more weight;
  5. simply carrying on as we always have and hoping it will suffice, won’t work – nimbler brands will bake our cake and eat it;
  6. something else we have heard often enough before but don’t really seem to heed – the new world involves engaging actively with our clients;
  7. as Apple (presently the top global brand – a cool $100b) has taught us,
    • brands can change lives, not just with products, but through an organisation’s ethos; 
    • brands can enable us to do more, more easily, and for us to truly experience and believe this;
    • customers value a company with a reputation for revolutionising how we work and communicate;
    • it as an organisation thinks differently, which we like, and seems to deeply consider the customer experience (us);
    • . . . . . thereby building trust and charisma, resulting in a leading brand for which users feel there is no substitute (i.e. charismatic);
  8. As a result brand is more than ever, a top leadership issue, not something to simply be delegated to marketing;

In an upcoming article on ‘NewLaw’ my colleague Jordan Furlong and I will highlight a number of law firms (mainly small and mid-tier) in Australasia who are doing something different and often special in the way they deliver service, and clients seem to be responding. I believe a number of them are well down the road to following some or all of the principles set out above.

I would value your thoughts and comments!

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International

 

Edge International Communiqué May 2013 – Firm Core Competencies, Budgeting as a Strategic Issue & Lateral Partner Integration

Posted in Financial management, Legal Profession, Management, Partners, Strategy

In the May edition of Edge International Communiqué Edge partners highlight three key focal points for legal leaders:

Nick Jarrett-Kerr in ‘Core Competence and the Competitive Edge  considers three vital attributes that make up the core competence of a law firm,which he argues goes way beyond mere ‘competence’ – it:

Nick Jarrett-Kerr on the core competence of firms (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

  1. must imply sustainable value, in other words sustainable competitive advantage over the long term, something which firms have real difficulty focusing on and building;
  2. should enable a firm to outperform its rivals, usually through specialist skills, tailored solutions and know-how resources; and
  3. must have strategic importance and so be strategically valuable and should help the firm in a number of different ways to out-perform rivals.
LLB views:
I like Nick’s treatment of this concept which we tend to bandy around without really carefully considering the implications. The first core competency around sustainable value can also be addressed by getting partners to think differently about their role and to focus them on building the long term, fundamental capital fabric™ of the firm as a key pre-requisite to carrying out their roles. Very few partners do this; those that do differentiate themselves and their firms. I think the second and third competencies can be tackled (at least in part) via a strategic treatment of brand – understanding brand in all its key forms and implementing a brand strategy which builds charisma i.e. a brand for which there is no substitute. This will strengthen and differentiate a firm in all the ways Nick highlights.

Sean Larkan reasons that some key financial activities are so strategic as to require active leadership involvement. Some are obvious, others not so. They do provide wonderful opportunities to stress-test many aspects of the firm’s operations. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

 

The author in ‘Financial Budgeting Is Strategic: Leaders, Get Involved’ urges a more active role for leaders around some key financial activities and for a start a health monitor should be placed on the budgeting process and the firm’a approach to budgeting. It is a terrific opportunity to do more than simply get the numbers together - a time for leadership communication, listening, coaching, and focusing your people on the key thinking, behaviours and processes that are critical for success, as well as aligning strategies within your firm, all with a view to supporting the overall firm vision and strategy. It is also about building true accountability on the part of partners. Done well, budgeting is also a fantastic stress tester of so many activities in a firm.

LLB views: since writing this short article I have come across a few situations where firms clearly do not regard their key financial processes as strategic – once a competent CFO or finance manager is in place ‘its in good hands’ and nothing more needs to be done. Maybe technically, but certainly seldom in the sense outlined in this article. It is a golden opportunity to do something special using what is after all one of the most common of all processes in any firm.
Michael White in ‘Lateral Partner Integration‘ focuses on a vital area – what a firm and its new lateral needs to do, together, to achieve ‘success’ in relation to the hire? This is important, as a track record of getting this right can help with later lateral hires down the line.  He outlines some very interesting and useful steps that should be taken by a firm to ensure success in an area which is often fraught with risk and uncertainty both for the firm and the new lateral. It is also something which firms tend to leave to sort itself out as it goes along.  
LLB views:  a little like merger discussions and agreement, lateral hires often get a lot of thought and energy in the lead up to and finalisation and announcement of the ‘deal’ but unfortunately, little structured thought and management in the aftermath, the so-called ‘golden hour’ (you may also like to read this EIC article on the post merger golden hour).

Mike White highlights key things that both the hiring firm and a lateral hire partner need to consider and implement to ensure success for both parties. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

Post merger implementation is such an important part of the success of mergers and I think Mike has highlighted a very important point here – to place the same sort of emphasis on lateral hires. After all, they cost a lot in time and money to put together and there is invariably a great deal riding on a successful outcome both for the firm and the lateral – so much so that neither can afford for it to fail.

Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International

Sciaroni and Associates the new business and legal advisory in Laos

Posted in Legal Profession, Management, Strategy

A long-standing powerhouse in providing legal and business/commercial/corporate advisory services out of Cambodia and Myanmar (since 1993), Sciaroni & Associates has announced  the opening of its Laos office.

Sciaroni & Associates, a long-standing provider of business, corporate, commercial and legal services in Cambodia and Myanmar has announced the opening of its office in Laos (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

Daniel Noonan heads up the office. Daniel has been advising on foreign direct investment, mergers and acquisitions and commercial regulatory matters for the past 5 years.  Prior to joining Sciaroni & Associates, Daniel had several years’ experience working for Baker & McKenzie in Vietnam. In Laos he worked for an international law firm advising investors entering the country as well as existing business operators.  Daniel studied law in Chicago and in Tokyo and is admitted to the Bar in Illinois. He speaks English and conversational Japanese. Email: dan@sa-asia.com

Since economic integration with ASEAN and the WTO, Laos has experienced strong economic development and has one of the region’s highest GDP growth forecasts for 2013. As a result, the country’s developing and increasingly diversifying economy offers unique business opportunities for investors. Continue Reading

Women lawyers in Australia – how you can possibly help

Posted in Australasia, Culture, Diversity, Leadership, Legal Profession, People Strategy, Trust & Respect, Values

The President of the Law Council of Australia today published a column in the ALMJ along the lines of the title of this blog post – as a request was made for readers to complete an important survey, and given the importance of the subject-matter and the tight time-frame I have taken the liberty of repeating the column verbatim below. Links to the surveys have been provided. [See also the recent LLB post referencing Jordan Furlong's article in the latest Edge International Communiqué on this subject]:

You can possibly help women lawyers in Australia by completing the surveys referenced in this post – please see the clickable links (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

“In my first column for the January edition of the Australasian Law Management Journal I referenced addressing the high attrition rates of women lawyers as a priority for my tenure as President.

Since this initial column, the Law Council has made significant progress in this regard. On May 6, the Law Council officially launched the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS). Research shows that there are significant gaps in diversity in more senior roles in the legal profession. Although women are graduating with law degrees and entering legal careers at higher rates than men, significantly fewer women continue into senior positions within the legal profession.

The Law Council of Australia has engaged Urbis to undertake a national research study to address diversity within the legal profession. Through this study, the Law Council is seeking to obtain quantitative data and confirm trends in progression of both male and female lawyers, and produce a report outlining practical measures which can be implemented to address the causes of high attrition rates among women lawyers, and re-engage women lawyers who have left the profession. Continue Reading

Get Tough on the Little Things and Impact the Big Things

Posted in Culture, Leadership, Management, Personal Effectiveness, Professional Service Firms (PSFs), Values

Sometimes leaders  need to be tough on some of the little things. These can have significant ramifications which are not always immediately obvious. However, because the benefits are not obvious, or seem unimportant at the time, many leaders don’t address them, also possibly feeling that they don’t want to be ‘petty’.

However, as we saw in New York between 1993 and 2001 when Mayor Giuliani tackled the horrific serious crime rates in that metropolis – he surprised everyone when he focused first on petty crime. The result was that big crime was reduced by over 50% to the point where it became relatively safe for womenfolk to walk down the streets. The same can apply here.

Meetings are just one of the examples of where addressing a few little things can have a big impact elsewhere. Allowing partners to consistently be late for meetings, fiddle with mobile devices or take calls, even if done quietly, is tantamount to what is depicted here; chaos, rudeness and ultimately will cause a break-down of communication and respect. Leaders need to nip this in the bud and set the example in doing so as it can have all manner of (positive) impacts around a firm. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What are some little things which at first blush don’t seem to warrant making a fuss over? Let’s take meetings as an example – for instance, allowing:

  1. people to be consistently late for meetings;
  2. people to get away with simply not turning up and not notifying anyone in time or giving a reason;
  3. the checking of emails or searching the net on PDAs;
  4. people to keep their phones switched on, take calls or walk out to do so;
Just one example, but it is surprising how common this is in many firms.

What message are being sent by the transgressors? Continue Reading

How Leaders can Track Actionable Emails and Electronic Media

Posted in Leadership, Management, Personal Effectiveness, Professional Service Firms (PSFs)

The life of a leader of a modern day law firm is full of variation, challenges and finding time to do everything. One of the toughest things for leaders to keep up with is attending to the small items – tracking and following up on actionable emails and other electronic or computer-generated items – those important, single emails you know you have to respond to or follow-up in some way but which are not attached to a particular project. Or it may be an important article you must track or send to someone else.  Leave these for only a day or two, or a weekend, and it quickly becomes very difficult to remember them.

One needs a simple system to track these elusive, important items.

Leaders need to develop a system to manage following up on the dozens of important, single items that crop up and need attention – via email, a web article, a tweet or a LinkedIn enquiry (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

Over time, all of us have probably worked up some or other system to try to do this – if they are anything like the ones I have tried, they are probably a bit hit and miss and sometimes more trouble than they are worth – this in turn creates its own pressure as you are always worrying that you may have overlooked an important item.

When I used to help run large law firms one of the things I used to say to new lawyer recruits on the subject of  ‘what it takes to succeed in a  law firm?’ is that I had seldom come across a successful practitioner who was not accessible, responsive and reliable (‘ARR’). I think this applies equally to leaders – that is why leaders need a simple system for following up emails and other electronic items that cross their desks. Continue Reading