Like finding the toilet roll  empty, or getting a puncture, some things never come at a good time. But, of course, these things do happen so most of us have learned to respond with equanimity and of course maybe even do a little forward planning!

The same applies to losing a really top calibre lawyer or support staff member (especially to the dreaded opposition); just when you thought he or she was well settled and was going to be part of your landscape forever (‘even though I hadn’t told her, I thought she had ‘future partner’ written all over her’). It is always unwelcome, sometimes seems a bit unfair (‘we always treated her so well and she seemed so happy’) and the timing is always bad (‘I have just introduced him to the the new oil and gas matter and client loved him‘).

When something unwelcome happens, like losing high calibre staff, the challenge is always to retain some equanimity and try to understand it for what it truly is, and not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean not acting, or simply doing a few operational things as a knee-jerk reaction on the surface of things. It requires in-depth strategic analysis, careful review and thoughtful implementation with a view to re-building trust in your employment brand. (Sean Larkan 2012)

Especially for firms that put a lot of time and effort into their people, events like this can cut to the bone.  It can be very demoralising and quickly impact confidence. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible as you feel you are doing things right.

Real concerns should arise when it starts happening with some regularity and becomes a pattern. It is not just an isolated incident based on exceptional circumstances. Word about things like this – key staff losses – can spread like wild-fire, and this can have a severe impact on a firm’s employment brand and on engagement levels. Social media, Linked In facilities for recruiters, plus recruitment agency networks ensure the market knows about these patterns long before most firms even realise its happening. This is when leaders and managers need to take remedial action and get to the bottom of it.

As much as these events require a decisive response from leadership, the danger is that it can often cause knee-jerk reactions and the implementation of solutions which may seem okay on the surface, and may even appease (including one’s conscience), but in reality don’t do much to change anything substantive for the long term.

In the work I have done with firms around people strategy and we consider these strategic issues, two things come up as common threads:

  • when times are good – staff recruitment is going well, staff calibre is good and turnover is down – firms assume it is because they are doing a heckuva lot of things right (and have earned this status because of all the good things they are doing around people). Interestingly, dig deeper and you may find this is not in fact the case.  They may have hit a lucky streak (it happens) or be regarded as the ‘flavour of the quarter‘ in the recruitment channels (it happens). Further investigation can reveal that  many of the people fundamentals have not in fact been properly addressed;
  • when times turn bad (sometimes, unaccountably, not long after they were good), firms are invariably surprised and anxiously cast around for causes. They tend to hone in on what appear to be the obvious reasons (e.g. a few partners with poor records of managing staff, benefits needing tweaking etc), try to address these and too quickly conclude ‘job done‘. Unfortunately, superficial, knee-jerk responses usually achieve very little, even though they may keep a board and some partners happy for awhile. Chances are that down the line the same problems will still exist, the reason being that they are founded in culture and well established cultural norms which and run deep to the heart and soul of what the firm is or isn’t about. They therefore need much more thorough, thoughtful treatment.

When this sort of pattern arises around losing key staff it is a sure signal that firms need to take very careful and serious stock of what they are or are not doing in relation to their people. It’s a big job, it is complex and touches on so much of what a firm is or is not; it  should quickly becomes priority numero uno.

I would start by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • are our partners and managers more focused on meeting their own targets and performance criteria than they are on delegating good quality work and providing good access to clients, good feedback and other support staff crave and need to grow;
  • what is the state of our employment brand? Do we have a brand strategy? Do we understand brand and what constitutes our employment brand? Do we achieve Brand Fusion™ i.e. ensuring what we promise and say we do in regard to people, we actually do and deliver?
    Continue Reading Losing high calibre lawyers or staff – don’t see it for what it isn’t

So far we have considered some 18 leadership lessons from Steve Jobs from Parts ONE, TWO and THREE of this series and how they may be relevant for legal leaders – all based on the Walter Isaacson article it the HBR. There are some things however I wouldn’t recommned for legal leaders.

He was feisty, scary, tough on people, very often unreasonable and downright rude – people at Apple didn't want to get in the lift with him! But he did have another side. . . . . ..

So what are the personal style and leadership characteristics of Jobs one would not recommend for legal leaders?

  1. being more about me than about you
  2. not caring about others’ feelings
  3. aggression and anger openly used in discussions with others
  4. out and out rejection of ideas – ‘that is crap
  5. strong language
  6. expecting/demanding the impossible
  7. being devious in demanding things from others
  8. being more selfish than selfless
  9. not taking a genuine interest in the personal and professional well-being of others
  10. simply expecting others to be able to handle his style and approach

and so on, you get the drift, but he, unlike most of us, could pull this off because of who he was and what he had achieved. He could afford to hire highly paid, highly capable, tough people who could handle it all and it worked, brilliantly. In my experience many senior leaders like managing partners don’t exhibit these tendencies, and I don’t think it would go down too well or be swallowed in a legal environment.However, pause and look around the office and there are usually some leaders who do – they need to be addressed on this as it can be a deadener to your employment brand if it is not.

And now, one last thing. . . . many of you will know Steve Jobs often ended off his renowned presentations – many of them quite long – with a pause, raised his finger, turned to the audience and said ‘ah, just one more thing . . . ‘ and then launched into discussion about a key development. This was the item that usually stuck in everyone’s mind.
Continue Reading The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs – just one more thing: PART FOUR (final)

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:
Continue Reading Why law firm support service groups don’t add value, and how to fix this

Lex Africa, the first and largest network of African law firms, is holding it’s annual general meeting in April 2012 in Maputo, Mozambique. I thought I would mention Lex Africa in case readers ever need assistance in Africa and want a referral to a reputable firm. I am also delighted to be attending the

The world’s first listed legal practice, Australia’s Slater & Gordon (S&G), announced its agreement to buy national UK firm Russell Jones & Walker (RJW) for £53.8 million on the 30 January 2012.  My UK-based Edge International Partner Chris Bull joins me in this post as we consider some of the implications of this transaction and how the respective markets are viewing the development.

The S&G acquisition of RJ&W in the UK is a good example of successful law firms implementing carefully thought-through strategy and vision using merger or acquisition.

The S&G and RJ&W joinder is significant:

  • an acquisition as such, not a merger, by an Australian law firm of a significant UK firm.
  • the fact that the parties operate largely in the personal legal services space rather than the corporate market.
  • it will establish, when ratified, a foreign and publicly owned ABS (alternative business structure) in terms of the new UK Legal Services Act.
  • the amount involved.
  • the exclusion of outside parties such as insurers and investment companies.

This is a positive and exciting development for the legal profession generally but particularly the UK and Australia:

  1. Merger and acquisition as an outflow of carefully thought-through strategy: as recently stated we see this as affirmation that many law firms see acquisition and merger as simply one possible strategy in achieving their vision and carefully thought through strategic key objectives. It is not a knee-jerk reaction to client or market pressure.
    Continue Reading Slater & Gordon and Russell Jones & Walker tie up confirms law firms as business-savvy innovators, not ‘merge or die’ desperadoes

This is the final in a three-part series on Thought Leadership (click to see Part One or Two) based around an interview with Think Write Grow author Grant Butler. Himself a thought leader in his field he has provided some invaluable insights – these can be borne in mind as you ponder how to incorporate thought leadership in your next firm or marketing strategy review, or accommodate it in your partner performance management system or key performance indicators.

In this final post:

  • Grant talks about the importance of focusing on thought leadership quality, not quantity – this requires careful management (and some diplomacy!) but the aim must always be to provide material that gets clients and others thinking (and talking).
  • He also touches on the important topic of the resistance some professionals still feel to releasing their thought leadership material to the wider world. His view is unequivocal: be prepared to share more than you traditionally would – it will come back to benefit you.
The message is clear when working up thought leadership material – produce quality not quantity – try to make readers sit up and take note. Also be prepared to share material beyond your traditional comfort zones – it will help you build relationships of trust which will benefit you in a number of roundabout ways.

SL: TWG confirms thought leadership marketing should be a priority for many organisations. In the past thought leadership probably developed in a dynamic, less structured way – people became thought leaders “while they were doing their job” well. Now that thought leadership is becoming part of mainstream marketing and strategy-speak is there a danger it will lose its dynamic character? Will it become buried in marketing/management/consulting clichés, jargon, systems and processes?

GB: The internet has certainly made it both easier and more important to create thought leadership material and yes, there’s a danger of it being lost in the volume. The main defence is to focus on developing high-quality material. I would suggest consider the following points:

  • I’d encourage firms to focus on quality rather than quantity.
  • It’s better to come out less frequently with really succinct and insightful material that makes clients sit up and take notice.
  • This requires strong internal controls to ensure that substandard material is held back.
  • That in turn means making judgments and can be a political problem (try telling a partner their article is not good enough to release…), but it’s vital to remember that every time a firm publishes weak material, the less likely a client is to open their next email or attend their next seminar.
    Continue Reading Thought Leadership ideas for leaders – Part Three

Last week in Part One of this series Think Write Grow author Grant Butler defined thought leadership, talked about making thought leadership happen in practice and confirmed that just about anyone can become a thought leader. In this Part Two interview we cover thought leadership and personal brand, building trust as a benefit of thought leadership, and finally, how to unearth your goldmine of thought leadership assets.

Thought Leadership can be an important component of personal brand, principally because it builds trust among those who determine the strength of your personal brand. However thought leadership assets often lie hidden in a firm – they need to be unearthed to realize their enormous benefit.

SL: What are the similarities and/or differences between thought leadership and building a personal brand?

GB: Developing, publishing and promoting thought leadership can be a really important part of building a personal brand:

  • The key thing for professionals to consider is whether they want to be seen as someone who has innovative and market-leading ideas, and in turn whether that is going to be a key element of their personal brand profile.
  • If they do want to be known as a thought leader then they should actively share their ideas and also consider the terminology they use to describe themselves in the descriptions they use on websites, in conference flyers and elsewhere. Would they describe themselves as an ‘expert’, a ‘leading expert’, a ‘thought leader’, a ‘leading thinker’ on their topic and so on? Once their positioning is clear, they should reinforce it through their actions and their words.

SL:  In the case of building a personal brand Marty Neumeier, author of “The Brand Gap” would probably say that your personal brand is what others think, not what you think it is. Is the same true of someone being regarded as a true thought leader?
Continue Reading Thought Leadership tips for leaders – interview with Think Write Grow author Grant Butler: Part Two

Thought Leadership is an important part of developing one’s personal brand, of contributing to the marketing and business development activities and successes of a firm, and to contributing to building the capital fabric of a firm. As professionals, it is ideally something all of us would aspire to do and be, a thought leader in our chosen area of practice or industry sector. Few of us achieve this.

Grant Butler has recently published his book Think Write Grow (Wiley 2012) which provides an excellent overview and many practical tips on developing and marketing written thought leadership material.  He principally focuses on written material, but the principles outlined apply equally to other ways of developing and supporting thought leadership. This short book will not only prove helpful to produce thought leadership material but is full of ideas and tips about writing any material or piece.

The author agreed to answer some questions which I hope will be helpful to you as law firm leaders and managers when contemplating how to develop your own firm’s thought leadership assets.  As it is quite a long piece and I would like you to get the benefit of all his responses, I will spread it over three posts – Part One, Two & Three. This is the first.

There are some very valuable explanations, ideas and practical steps set out in this readable work on thought leadership. It should be in every professional service firm library and be read by all those wanting to grow their firm's thought leadership assets.

SL: Congratulations on the publication of Think Write Grow (TWG) – I know it is in your book but for the benefit of my readers how would you define thought leadership and what does it comprise?

GB: Thought leadership is certainly described in lots of different ways. In the book, I try to keep it simple by saying that it’s about how experts share their knowledge and come up with new ideas to help people solve problems or uncover opportunities. It’s also important to pull the two words apart  – ‘thought’ and ‘leader’. The first part involves quality thinking, research and innovation about a topic. The second part involves actively sharing that knowledge with others through things like newsletter articles, blogs, books and speeches. That’s the point at which an expert moves from knowing their stuff to being a thought leader.
Continue Reading Thought Leadership – Think, Write Grow author Grant Butler provides some insights for law firm leaders: Part One

With thanks to Patrick Hoesly (c)

In small law firms it is not uncommon to hear partners or leaders say things like ‘damn, we need a dedicated marketing person so we can get some marketing done and can get on with our work’ . In large firms they may say ‘why doesn’t marketing sort that out and free us up to do some legal work’. It seems that for law firm leaders and partners things might be about to get tougher before they get better!

In the July 2011 McKinsey Quarterly piece titled ‘We’re all marketers now authors French, LaBerge and Magill reason persuasively that engaging clients today requires commitment from an entire firm (not just the marketing folk) — and a different sort of approach and structure for marketing. Every partner and ideally every staff member has a role to play. This would obviously have implications for people management as well.

In essence the authors say:

  • Firms feel that by simply adding extra marketing bodies to address things like websites, social media and strategic communications this will do the trick – not so . . . . . .
  • Clients no longer separate marketing from the practice group or industry sector specialty services we offer – marketing and the way we deliver service is the service.
  • As a result everyone in every firm now needs to take responsibility for marketing – in some respects this parallels what has happened with HR (where everyone has a responsibility to ensure a firm’s employment practices and employment brand are supported, not just ‘HR’).
  • The buying practices of clients are now collaborative – more than ever based on word of mouth, website affirmation and objective advice about law firms that want to form relationships with them – it’s now a dialogue not a monologue.

What does this mean for law firm leaders? I think there is a message here – for both small and large law firms.