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Listening by leaders – it’s part-science, part-art

Posted in Uncategorized

I am often asked for my views on the main challenges faced by leaders, or what to look for in potential leaders. While internal thought processes immediately scurry through dozens I have come across from experience and recent assignments, on brief reflection, a few always rise to the surface as being particularly important.

Of course, leaders have to provide direction, make tough important decisions, give speeches and lead strategic initiatives. But realistically they also have to build trust in themselves and the organisation through their leadership. Directly related to this is the oft-discussed activity of listening, which is to some extent common sense but is also part-science and part-art.

A few leaders and managers are naturally good listeners; they know no other way. Many are not and they should think about this carefully and work on it. Fortunately it is one of those things which can be improved with the right attitude and willingness to adjust one’s styles of behaviour, thinking and interaction.

While many leaders appear to be listening when engaged with one or more others, careful study or experience with them can confirm otherwise. In my view, this is a serious failing for leadership, so calls for very careful thought. Let’s consider it in more detail.

First up though, let’s look at the positive side and consider some obvious benefits of good listening in the initial phase of this process:

  • as leader or senior manager you are showing a genuine interest in the other person which makes them feel more engaged and more likely drawn to open and honest communication with you and, ultimately, trust you;
  • you are showing respect, which makes the other person feel good;
  • you build confidence as the other person is more likely to feel there is a chance they will be ‘heard’ and their comments acted upon;
  • the listener feels it is not one-way communication and it is more akin to a discussion between like-minded professionals; the other person feels confident some good may come of it;
  • if this is a pattern from past experiences for the listener you will start earning their trust and respect, arguably the most important foundational element for the best kind of professional services firm leadership;
  • you will have their loyalty and support and this will rub off on others;
  • as a result more of a team effort starts to evolve in the organisation and things mysteriously get done and better results are achieved; and
  • finally, the leaders’ individual brand (what other individuals feel and think) strengthens and this can only be good for that leader and the organisation she or he heads up.

When I think back on a life in law firm partnership, managing partner roles or consulting in and to legal industry service professionals, I have come across dozens of people in leadership or management roles who let themselves down by not being good listeners. What are some characteristics that stand out:

  • regularly arriving late for meetings without explanation or apology or with poor excuses indicative of not caring (and being oblivious to others doing the same thing);
  • low levels of emotional intelligence (EQ) (in itself, such an important determinant of good leadership);
  • clearly being only interested in their perspective, conclusions or views;
  • ill-considered early responses or jumping to premature conclusions;
  • prompted by something said by the other person, interrupting and going off at a tangent unrelated to the main subject (extremely off-putting to the other person);
  • poor body language –
    • slouching back in a chair;
    • simply looking disinterested;
    • fiddling with something;
    • foot tapping;
    • negative verbal clues;
    • fidgeting;
  • downright rudeness –
    • taking a call or interruptions from others mid-meeting;
    • leaving a device switched on and sometimes glancing at it or reacting to sounds;
    • talking across people or cutting them off in mid-sentence.

What are some of the things leaders and managers should concentrate on improving or doing? Importantly some of these are not only about what takes place in a meeting but rather, after that. What is done following the meeting is easily as important as what took place at the meeting;

  • meticulous timeliness for the meeting;
  • proper prior explanation for any upcoming interruptions;
  • recognising that often others with whom they are meeting may be extremely nervous, possibly petrified, and making allowances for this and trying to put them at ease;
  • good body language – I’m no expert on this important subject but good summaries of do’s and don’ts abound on the internet. The obvious ones that spring to mind include eye contact, leaning forward, taking some notes, asking for clarification, verbal clues, undertaking to follow up or asking the other party to do so (if this is appropriate);
  • be honest and sensitive in your response/s. If you can’t help, say so, but explain why. Offer alternatives and a wise course forward;
  • after the meeting:
    • do whatever you undertook to do or delegate someone to do it for you;
    • follow up in an appropriate way, even by seeking out the person concerned;
    • remember what the issue was about and touch on it at a future time to see whether it has been addressed or the appropriate steps were taken. The much-loved and respected Nelson Mandela was quite remarkable in finding time to follow up with people, many in so-called lowly positions, he had talked to over the years. Through this he naturally built trust and respect and much more;
  • by doing these things and more, leaders set a good example and this style of leadership will quickly permeate an organisation.

I hope these pointers prove helpful reminders of some of the important things we can do, or should not do, around the art and science of listening!

with best wishes,

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International

New angle on NewLaw

Posted in Australasia, Brand, Business Models, Change, Financial management, Legal Profession, Professional Service Firms (PSFs), Uncategorized

My colleague Jordan Furlong and I penned an article in August 2014 on NewLaw  for the ALPMA website. In that we defined NewLaw as “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”.

We featured some firms as examples of NewLaw, including some from Australasia. At the time it was quite easy to identify firms ‘doing something different’. In the short time since then, this type of ‘new’ simply does not seem so unique and special any more, and a number of firms are doing something in this space.

We didn’t mention Nexus Law Group then, mainly as we didn’t know of them or what they were in the process of doing. That has changed: Nexus Law seems to be getting a lot of attention and recognition and it appears, for good reason. Nexus white small

What is different about them? I talked with their founder and Principal, Marcus McCarthy recently, and he outlined what he feels makes them unique in this space.

While they have some of the characteristics of some NewLaw firms e.g. engaging semi-independent contract lawyers, they seem to have done some other fundamental, structural things which could be very beneficial to clients and the lawyers who work for them as well as the profession in general. Let’s look at some of these:

  • they have a traditional legal practice as their central national hub, which has the advantage that it has facilitated them arranging proper compliant PI insurance and trust accounting arrangements for all of their contracted lawyers and employees;
  • this has also meant they can service clients optimally, depending on needs, by using in-house or out-sourced specialist lawyers, which they feel adds significantly to efficient client servicing;
  • they have developed a specialised legal practice management system they term ‘OpenLaw’ which enables their contracted lawyers to communicate and work freely with the hub firm, access centralised practice resources, precedents, matter folders and the like and generally operate as if they were in a traditional dispersed firm. This means their contracted lawyers are much more than traditional sole practitioners signed up to a mere umbrella brand offering;
  • a special characteristic of this structure is that it seems to address some of the fundamental issues around disenfranchisement and depression facing the profession – lawyers at Nexus seem to have a collective home and are at the front and centre of everything, and appear to be rewarded accordingly (see next point);
  • unlike other NewLaw firms, Nexus has structured its financial arrangements so that their lawyers earn up to 75% of gross fees generated and collected, plus an agreed gross fee split (I understand this is equivalent to an almost equal profit share) on all work referred to other Consultant Principals in the Group. This is seems generous to these lawyers.  This appears to be driven by an underlying ethos that the lawyers and not the owners should derive the highest possible benefit from their intellectual endeavours and direct client relationships; Continue Reading

Determine your law firm’s destiny

Posted in Australasia, Business Models, Change, Leadership, Legal Profession, Strategy

There are many interesting and innovative structural and strategic options for law firms nowadays which can be attractive to clients. It is wise for these to be considered in planning for your future.

The way legal services are delivered to clients and how firms are structured to do so, should undergo a significant transformation. This must also be factored into planning for the future.

So-called ‘NewLaw’ firms have been quick to capitalise on the opportunities this has presented, with an array of innovative structures and service delivery models all of their own. In this way they are determining their firms’ destinies, rather than having this dictated to them by market forces.

You can learn about these transformative practices as well at a Masterclass Workshop to be presented by my Edge International colleague, Jordan Furlong.

Jordan (at Edge we call him our ‘futurist guru’!) is a leading legal industry analyst, commentator and consultant, and will provides practical advice for traditional law firms looking to import and integrate relevant ”NewLaw” features into their businesses, in order to position themselves for their chosen future.  Jordan will be supported at the workshop by new Edge International Australia principal, Dr Neil Oakes.

Details for the workshop:

  • time and date: 12.30 – 5.00 pm, Wednesday 9 September, 2015;
  • venue: Gold Coast Convention & Exhibition Centre;
  • investment:  $495 (including GST) for ALPMA members and $595 for eligible non-members and includes lunch and afternoon tea. You do not have to attend the ALPMA Summit (taking place that week) to register for this workshop;
  • more details:  click here

At this workshop you will gain an understanding of: Continue Reading

Don’t rush to join the ‘anti-Performance Review’ herd!

Posted in People Strategy, Personal Effectiveness, Professional Service Firms (PSFs), Uncategorized

It seems a momentum is developing in the corporate world for organisations to move away from performance reviews, certainly the once a year, formal jobs. It is only a matter of time before this trend gets some traction within the professional services market. I would caution against this. The rationale about moving away from performance reviews seems to be:

  • once a year is not enough and is far too long a gap between ‘discussions’;
  • they are not popular;
  • they are not done well;
  • they are often disguised as something else (e.g. a retrenching tool);
  • they don’t achieve what they should.
figures_shake_hands_SMALL 1600_clr_13616 copy

Performance Reviews should have as their main purpose to assist the person concerned to reach their full potential and succeed. Unfortunately both terminology and practice don’t always serve to achieve this. This does not have to be so.

While all of these points may be true in many cases it is not necessarily a good reason to not have them. It has always been a concern for me what they are termed and how performance reviews are conducted and perceived in both the corporate and professional services worlds. As a result they certainly don’t do what they are meant to and are most often even resented.

Professional service firms should be careful not to rush to get on this band-wagon. As we have all seen, these developments, initiated in the media and supported by social media and other commentators, can quickly gather momentum and become flavour of the month. Often for the wrong reasons, without organisations having properly thought through the implications and with bad outcomes for all concerned. Law firms are particularly susceptible to such changes, and follow like sheep other firms who are perceived to be leaders.

The purpose:

The answer is really to ensure your version of performance reviews is serving the purpose for which it was intended. But therein also lies the problem. Very often the purpose is problematic. I have always suggested to clients that the main purpose should be feedback, development and support for the person for whom the review is being done. Actuality has to follow the words though and you have to make sure that is really what they are for.

Too often the purpose for which they are designed in organisations is purely to support salary reviews or progression decisions. Sometimes to support things like retrenchments. This is dangerous, as it brings a whole new bunch of dimensions into the discussions and invariably clouds the discussion. I believe salary reviews should be separated from feedback sessions. The true purpose should be to help a person reach his or her full potential – you do this by honest feedback, support and helping them to develop and grow in their roles. Sure, you still discuss performance ‘issues’, but the primary focus is to help them develop. Even partners, CEOs and Managing Partners need this type of support. It is not just for staff!


Furthermore, it is not enough to have one discussion a year. That discussion should only have to serve as a semi-formal stock-take or fine-tuning on how the discussions that should be taking place year-round are going. We always tell people who are going to be Responsible Partners® or Responsible Persons™ (see below) that it is really a 24/7 role – it never stops and that is the way it should be.

Language and terminology:

There is also the question of language and terminology. I think it is fair to say that most professionals dislike the idea of being ‘performance managed’. Phrases such as these have always had a somewhat negative connotation and are perceived as something that is being ‘done to the person concerned’ and has an air of ‘righting a wrong’ rather than being what they should be – a discussion about how to help the person succeed and reach their full potential. However it is important that action should follow and support terminology. It is no good if you have nice positive terms but in reality they are still the old negatively perceived, one-sided performance reviews!

Responsible Partner® and Development Discussion™ methodologies:

It is for his reason that we developed the Responsible Partner and Responsible Person methodologies some two decades ago and have evolved and improved them ever since. They are geared to ensure proper feedback and support is provided to everyone to ensure they reach their full potential. It is a very serious responsibility and how it is conducted by the person who is ‘responsible’ is in turn an important factor in how they are contributing to their firm and are perceived to be performing.

At the heart of the system is ensuring that a genuine interest is taken in the professional and personal success of your people.  They are supported by what we call ‘Development Discussions™’ (note the change in emphasis from ‘performance review’!). Working together it ensures that nothing is left to chance in how a person is supported and they receive feedback and are helped to reach their fullest potential. They are less formal, are personal and not mechanistic and take place on an ongoing basis. A further positive element of the system is that feedback goes both ways – ‘up and down’, so to speak. The important thing is that this approach works in practice.

It is quite challenging to get organisations to conduct these discussions and processes in this way but it is achievable. These methodologies have been successfully implemented in a number of different international jurisdictions and in both the professional services and corporate worlds. Contact me if you would like to learn more.

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International

Partner succession is not a standalone

Posted in Leadership, Legal Profession, Partners, People Strategy, Professional Service Firms (PSFs), Succession, Uncategorized
Picking right people resized

Picking and grooming the right successor in the context of the firm’s future strategic needs is arguably one of the most important duties every partner should have and carry out. Few do.

Arguably one of the most important things a partner should and can do for his or her firm before he/she retires is choose and groom a suitable successor. Given the ageing in the profession worldwide in recent decades succession is a subject that is getting more and more attention, and rightly so.

More and more clients are wanting advice on how to address succession within their firms. A common theme one comes across however is that it is assumed there is some sort of single system or process one can put in place which will address the matter and that will be that. It is also sometimes assumed the issue can be addressed ex post facto, sort of ‘in arrears’, and all will be well. Unfortunately it is not so easy, nor should it be. It is far too complex a subject for that to be the case. These are some of the many reasons why succession is not properly addressed by professional service firms.

For instance, for the right person to succeed a partner it would normally take years or even decades of preparation by both the partner retiring and the successor in relation to his or her personal brand, , technical skills, practice area, industry sector, staff and most importantly, clients. There are many things that need to be taken into account and put in place over time.

It is relatively easy to do a quick test on how your firm is travelling in the area of succession. Think of the last half dozen partners who retired or left the firm. How many developed suitable successors who covered the items mentioned above? Go further, ask how many left anything of lasting benefit in the firm? You may be surprised and saddened at the outcome.

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Matching, combining or switching leadership styles

Posted in Leadership, Management, Personal Effectiveness, Professional Service Firms (PSFs)
Stick figure in thought small

Challenging circumstances often cause leaders to revert to their default leadership styles. instead, matching, switching or combining styles can be much more effective.

A senior leader of a corporate client recently expressed frustration  at one of her senior manager’s continued dogmatic, almost autocratic style of leadership, which was beginning to irk a number of people in and around his team. In his defence he was only trying to get everyone else to respond to emergency situations as assertively as he did, but it nevertheless seemed to be heading for real issues, and possibly even a disastrous situation for the manager and organisation.

It seemed that due to his background (para-military) and personality, he was defaulting to using his usual or trained style of leadership in all circumstances.  He was not consciously aware of adapting this style to match the demands of the situation or people he was dealing with.

It reminded me of an article I read some time ago by Daniel Goleman which provided a handy summary of some of these leadership styles and when they could and should be used. He includes a handy table in the article which I have shared with many clients.

Combining and switching leadership styles:

Sometimes it is best to combine these styles. During my time running law firms we were faced with two truly disaster-proportion situations – one when our corporate floor caught fire and burned out every office on that floor – in another case the city electricity supply was interrupted for about 6 weeks from a section of the CBD we occupied. Both situations called for decisive, firm leadership but also extensive consultation and communication. This was a classic case for combining different styles of leadership and also switching between them during the resolution of the crises. It was also a good wake-up call that such disasters do happen and one must be prepared for them as best one can. If anyone is interested in hearing how it all panned out please feel free to email me.

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International

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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