Many law firm partners want their firm to either be pre-eminent or to seek pre-eminence. Few realise that there is a serious price to pay.

Look at the vision statements of most firms and chances are you will find words like ‘successful’, ‘leading’, ‘premier’, ‘top’ or similar. Nothing at all wrong with that. But the key thing to realise is that to seek and achieve such lofty visions takes serious commitment, both at the top and throughout a partnership. Without that understanding and buy-in from all partners, leaders and managers in a firm, any visioning or strategy process will be flawed from the core and likely be doomed to failure.

‘Pre-eminence’ – ‘yeah, that sounds good, let’s go for it’ one will hear law firm partners say, but how many realise that there is a price to pay for such lofty visions? The reality is that most firms seek pre-eminence or some version of it. However, if they are truly serious about such a vision, they must realise it takes enthusiastic and consistent commitment and adherence by a majority of partners to a wide range of key things. The firms that manage to achieve this rise to the top and stay there while others muddle along.  (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What then is this price to pay if you seek such status? In essence it goes to the heart and core of everything you do in the firm but here is a framework of some key things that I feel will be an essential part of any such quest:

  1. Leadership: strong, trusted leadership, not just at the top, but throughout the partners and managers, and a proper understanding of leadership and how it can be fostered and developed;
  2. Direction and Vision: clear direction from the key leaders and an agreed vision bought into and understood by all as to where they want the firm to go and what they want it to be. This takes a very clear understanding of ‘basics’ such as which practice areas, industry sector areas and geographic areas will be focused on and how the firm will differentiate itself through particular ways of delivering service;
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Alternative growth structures such as Swiss Vereins, global alliances, non-merger affiliations, expansion strategies and a great deal more is covered in the latest edition of the Edge International Review. It provides essential insights for legal leaders – in fact, just what legal leaders need to know about!

The latest edition

My wife and I bought a small farm three years ago. As the grazing was leased out to a beef farmer the quality of the boundary fencing was paramount. The lady we purchased from told me up-front (and has reminded me ever since!) – ‘now Sean, remember to walk your fence-lines‘.  She was essentially saying check them regularly for breaks, leaning or weak posts, or other issues, but also to see what was really going on around the farm – ‘you never know what you may pick up‘.

This advice reminded me of my days helping to run large law firms – I happened to enjoy walking around, at least weekly, talking to staff and partners in various sections of the firm – apart from being enjoyable, it was amazing how much one picked up and could convey in those informal interactions.

Remember to walk the fence-lines of your firm – talking to partners and staff – you will pick up on issues, identify achievements and be showing an interest in those who make the wheels go round (Sean Larkan image ©: Austral Eden region, NSW)

I did notice though as I got busy, or we had to deal with one or other crisis, this practice somehow seemed to slip into the background, priority-wise. Sometimes too, one may be tied up with a merger – ‘important stuff‘, and it always got priority. It always took time to get back to the walking around ritual, each time reminding myself – ‘can’t let that drift’.

I had this message brought home to me again last week when the editor from the publisher of my upcoming book on law firm branding arranged a new time-table for me. I had fallen behind my schedule – she said with my consent she would ‘walk my fence-line’ i.e. keep closer tabs on me. What a nice way to say ‘listen, I am keeping an eye on you – time to start delivering‘!

There are a number of benefits flowing from walking the fence-line:
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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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