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:
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As highlighted in PART ONE and PART TWO of this series, there are real leadership lessons for legal leaders from the career, achievements and life of the late Steve Jobs – who in just two stints of 9 and 14 years, founded and then transformed Apple Computer into the world’s most valuable company. These were the lessons highlighted by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography, in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required).

In this post we include a final batch of important lessons, again with liberal editing and interpretation for legal leaders.

Jobs liked engaging face to face but was tough on people, was a strategic guru but totally focused on detail, strongly believed in the confluence of the humanities and sciences and in staying hungry and foolish – so many contradictions, such a genius, and so much, with the right attitude, we can learn from him. (Image composite by Sean Larkan courtesy of Google Images – photographers unknown)

 13    Engaging face to face and death(?) to PowerPoint

Jobs felt that creativity came from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions and was a great believer in face-to-face meetings: “. . . you run into someone, you ask what they are doing, you say “wow”, and soon you are cooking up all sorts of ideas“. He designed his buildings to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations. He felt that if you did not encourage that you would lose a lot of innovation in the magic that is sparked by serendipity.


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Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs autobiography, commented in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required), that following the publication of his book many writers have tried to draw management lessons from Steve Jobs, however, most of them, incorrectly, became fixated rather on the “rough edges of his personality“. He feels that one has to recognise that Jobs’ personality and approach to business were inextricably inter-twined, and we should go beyond this to appreciate the keys to his success.

A number  (but not all) of these keys provide great leadership and management lessons for legal leaders. I hope to persuade you to take some of these on board. In practice I find that very few firms do. I wrote an article on related points in our Edge International Communiqué (PDF) which may also be of interest.

In the quirky and sometimes controversial way Steve Jobs led and managed, there are important lessons for legal leaders. To make the most of these does require a different attitude and approach to that which one normally associates with leading a firm in a conservative profession. (composite image with thanks to the folk at Google Images)

Jobs was an amazing human being. He achieved incredible things as he managed and led Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. Remarkably, this all happened in two relatively short periods between 1976 and 1985 (9 years) and from 1995 to 2011 (14 years) during which time he was booted out of the company but then brought back to resurrect and save it. A lot of this had to do with his leadership and management styles.

He transformed:

  • personal computing
  • animated films
  • music
  • phones
  • tablet computing
  • retail stores
  • digital publishing

He created:

  • Apple, the company
  • Apple Stores
  • iMac
  • iPhone
  • iPod
  • iPad
  • Pixar
  • iTunes
  • iTunes Store
  • MacBook
  • App Store
  • OSX Lion

Not bad for a college drop-out!  So, what are some of the lessons legal leaders can draw from all this?

1   Focus – ‘deciding what not to do as important as deciding what to do’


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A notable Indian law firm merger came into operation on 1 April 2012. The merger was facilitated by my Edge International colleague Bithika Anand  between one of the oldest law firms in India, “Udwadia & Udeshi” and one of the most dynamic young law firms “Argus Partners”. This merger is interesting

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

Strategies which have been developed by professional service firms for areas such as finance, people, marketing, brand or innovation must align with and support a firm’s overall strategy. This alignment is important for both internal (partner and staff) and external (client and other stakeholder) consumption.

Small firms might say this is only for the larger firms, who have separate marketing and HR departments and the like. I disagree. I think every firm should and can develop a strategy around each of these key areas of practice – in many cases it only needs to be a one- or two-pager. The trick then is to align them.

Ensuring that firm, people, marketing and brand strategy aligns and does not conflict is one of the biggest challenges of strategic planning. You must achieve fusion and make sure you don't end up with a strategy gap ((c) Sean Larkan image)

What do I mean by align? It is really just about ensuring:

  • other strategies and their key objectives support firm strategy and do not conflict with the main strategy – in fact they should actively support it;
  • reality must match the key objectives – are they realistic or pie-in-the-sky? (for instance it is not uncommon for firm strategies or vica versa, people strategies, to make promises in regard to people management which are clearly not supported by the other strategy);
  • it should be clear that both strategies are firmly based around the firm’s core values;
  • what you promise you will do or will deliver must be seen to happen in practice; (e.g. what you promise about people in your firm strategy must be supported by the people strategy);
  • that resources are committed to support each of the strategies;
  • as far as possible that all strategies are seen as part of the firm’s overall strategic intent, not as separate unconnected items; and
  • that leadership is committed to all strategies and has played a role, if not in formulating/settling each, at least in signing off and checking on the implementation of each.

This alignment is easier said than done:
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Challenging one’s vision and strategy somehow seems counter-intuitive, especially when so much time, effort and thought has gone into putting it together. But strategy is about achieving a competitive, and ideally a dominant positioning, and challenge it you must.

Stress test your strategy during formulation, prior to finalisation and regularly during the implementation phase, with semi-formal and formal reviews at designated times. Do this and strategy quickly alters from being an annual 'necessary evil' to an essential and practical process which is key to your business success.

Professional Service Firms (PSFs) find determining and reviewing vision and strategy a real bind. A necessary evil that has to be done each year (or every so often). Unfortunately it does not often get the real attention and passion it deserves. For this reason it is also often not properly stress-tested and reviewed.

Address the basics: I often come across firms which have completed their strategy but are still not clear on basics like:

  • what category of clients they will focus on?
  • what industry sectors will they concentrate on?
  • what geographic areas are relevant for them?
  • how will they deliver service (in a unique and differentiated way)?
  • what cultural attributes or guiding principles do they need in place to ensure they will achieve this strategy?
  • what is their people strategy and focus to deliver on this?
  • what is their brand strategy and level of understanding around brand?
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The challenging future legal and business environment which is widely anticipated will demand a lot more from law firms than providing quality legal advice. This is the view of Ian Robertson, long-standing managing partner of Holding Redlich’s Sydney office, writing in The Australian (apologies; link requires subscription or log-in) recently.

Whether it be around service offerings, fee levels, management of fee-related activities or developing individual brands and thought leadership around industry sector knowledge, law firms will want to work out what they will bring to the client table in future. Simply basing decisions on past experiences is not likely to be enough.

This advice backs up on the findings of a recent survey of Australian managing partners and chief executive officers indicating tighter times ahead – with recruitment levels and profit margins expected to be down over the next five years based on deteriorating business confidence.

For Australasian law firms the writing is on the wall for some or more of the following:

  1. Better service at lower fees: this is simply because clients have more choices, are more canny and have realised it is increasingly a buyer’s market. Even more challenging is that given market conditions this will be coupled with fewer and smaller transactions and disputes. The only possible exceptions will be in resource–rich states such as Western Australia.
  2. Fee estimates, fee capping and fixed fees will be the order of the day: on top of this clients will look for real value and will carefully analyse all charges to ensure they are justified.
  3. Quantitative leverage will be rejected: clients will accept leverage, but only qualitative leverage, in the sense of high calibre, suitable staffing on a team where work is pushed down to the lowest (highly)competent level and charge-out rate.
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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.
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In the recent WSJ article “Stark choice for lawyers – firms must merge or die  author Jennifer Smith reasons that due to client and competitive pressures law firms have a ‘stark choice:  to ‘merge or die’. As a result, she says, there has been a ‘flurry’ of merger deals.

A decision by a law firm to merge or not should ideally be the result of a carefully thought through strategy, and implementation of that strategy and the firm's vision, not a knee-jerk reaction to competitive and client pressures. It should certainly also not be because other law firms are doing it. (Illustration adapted from FT image, graphic artist unknown)

The author’s conclusions are hard to reconcile with the actual numbers relied on; only sixty deals world-wide last year (2011) which is understood to be based on the Altman Weil Mergerline. While it is hard to get accurate numbers of law firms per country, based on a rough guesstimate of close to 60,000 for the USA and say 30,000 for the rest of the world, this number represents a minuscule fraction. It leaves one to wonder what is happening to the other 99.9% of law firms?

Unfortunately headlines and statements like this appearing in a respected publication like the WSJ, when repeated, re-tweeted and commented on, can over time lead to unintended and unwanted trends in the legal profession. As I have written elsewhere, while lawyers are sometimes referred to as cats (the oft-repeated being hard to herd/manage etc.) law firms can be like sheep – if one respected firm does something (especially when the pressure is on) others are more likely to follow suit (remember the ‘wait and see’ attitude about staff cuts during the GFC?). It seems some firms will not do anything different until others have tested the water. We have all heard the question around the partners table “what are Able Bodied and Bloggs doing about this?”
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