Many support service groups in law firms do a fair job of delivering their services and work hard at doing it, but beyond that, do not ‘add value’. That is a fairly common observation we have when we undertake firm reviews for clients and my own experience having run large law firms in three jurisdictions. This is a missed opportunity. Support service groups potentially can provide distinct strength and even competitive advantage and differentiation.

Sometimes support service areas do not realise their full potential due to inherent problems in the way they are established, viewed, structured or supported. It is worth straightening this out and turning them into strategically powerful elements within your firm. (Sean Larkan image ©)

Why don’t support service groups provide that added value?

  • it is not easy – for instance, it is hard to show in any meaningful way that their services are superior to another firm’s offerings or that they are providing value relative to their cost;
  • often their roles are ill-defined, as are expectations and criteria for performance;
  • as a result, they are treated purely as a cost centre, and their performance is based in part on whether they are costing more or less, as say a % of gross fees , than other firms’ support groups, i.e. they are not an area that is expected to deliver added value;
  • inadequate budget or recognition by partners as to the value they can offer and that the firm is missing – in the eyes of some they are an expensive, ‘necessary evil‘ of modern law firm structure. In many firms practice groups simply ignore support services and try to go it alone;
  • inadequate leadership of support services;
  • lack of support for support services leadership i.e. in backing up their decisions and work and helping to grow the stature and role of the leader;
  • they don’t have a separate vision, strategy and implementation plan geared to support the main firm strategy;
  • if they do have a strategy, it is not aligned with the firm strategy or other strategies. As a result they often operate in splendid isolation, touching others only when they use their services;
  • the person or persons to whom support service leaders report, don’t understand these principles, which sadly, is frequently the case. The overall leader’s role is critically important, in fact I would say definitive, in determining whether that added value is created. Too often, it is left entirely up to the support services groups and/or their leader.

How can you start to get that added value? Here are a few ideas to start with:

  • a sine qua non, or given, is that they should try to supply service at a reasonable cost and also deliver very good services. Apart from technical skills they should focus on accessibility, responsiveness and reliability (and these things should be measured and reported on). If they do these basic things they are more than half-way there. But this is just the start.
  • ensure that the roles and requirements of each support service area are clear and well-defined. Take time and trouble to do this – get the support services team involved. Show them respect, listen to them. Look at what other firms are doing;
  • talk to them about this, explain what you are trying to achieve. In future you don’t simply want them to be a cost centre providing a service; you want them to add value;
  • one way to add value is to develop a separate strategy and implementation plan and align that with the firm strategy. This will bring a reality check to the support service area and help partners appreciate the critical role they are playing. By way of example: a human resources group would align its strategy with the firm’s strategy wherever the latter details issues, strategic key objectives or strategies around people. It would similarly align with the firm’s brand strategy, and more particularly its employment brand strategy.
  • part of the support service group’s strategy should be to build partnerships internally and to be focused on treating all users of their services as clients. This is vital to their success and appreciation by all as to the service they can and do offer. An example: inject or allocate members of the marketing team into practice group or industry sector group meetings so that they can understand their needs and be seen to deliver them. The good thing about this step is that it provides a ready measure of ‘added value’ by the simple expedient of getting feedback from the practice or industry sector group. It can also change the working lives and careers of the support service group members, making them feel far more relevant and valuable to others.
  • as leader, CEO, COO, or managing partner your role is critical – make sure you appoint only the highest calibre person for the support services head role you can afford. Too often these roles are ‘filled’ but that is as far as one can say. Also provide active and visual support for the support services head; if it is warranted by the size of the firm and the role, treat them like a partner, one that delivers a different kind of value to the firm. Remember, it is often how you treat them, support them, the respect you show them, the confidence you put in them, the freedom to make mistakes and innovate, that determines their success in getting the job done in the eyes of partners. Do this and you will be amazed how they deliver value to the firm. (I have found they often deliver more ‘value’ to the firm than many partners!)

There is real benefit in moving away from treating support services merely as a cost centre. If this is done in a structured, thoughtful way and you hire the right person all support service groups can provide much more than merely support services; they can become a strategic strength and differentiator for the firm.

all the best, Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International