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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It does seem like we have been laying into angry or difficult partners lately – so much so, you (almost) gotta feel sorry for them! (not really, we all know how difficult they can really be and how much time and positive energy they eat up) –  3 recent posts attest to this:

  1. Difficult partners

Issues and challenges around pricing, alternative fee arrangements and value understandably still get plenty of air-time. They received top billing at the recent COLPM (College of Law Practice Management) Futures Conference in Chicago. I read through my notes from talks by two senior in-house counsel  – there are strong words and some important messages and tips for law firm leaders, particularly in non-USA jurisdictions:

In-house counsel are adopting different approaches to working with law firms around price and billing – some want a collaborative arrangement while others have had enough and are doing all they can to avoid using law firms. Firms need to take careful note of these developments. (graphic – Sean Larkan MPh)

Mark Ohringer, General Counsel of Jones Lang LaSalle (invented outsourcing of real estate management; top two property managers globally; 40 000 staff in 62 countries) didn’t pull any punches:

  • We have tried fixed fee deals and hourly billing with law firms – ‘in our experience it all sucks and the law firms simply don’t manage this well. I am flummoxed by how to deal with this – if I could have 100% of my legal work done in-house, I would – unfortunately for me, reality dictates otherwise’.
  • We minimise work we send to law firms as fees are not managed and are sky-high. ‘I choke when I see the bills that come through’.
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I talked on leadership tips and frames at a keynote at the annual Boss of the Year Awards Convention in South Africa in August 2011.

Brand Pretorius, recently retired former head of Toyota and McCarthy Motor Holdings in South Africa and a recognized ‘captain of industry’, also delivered a keynote drawing on his extensive leadership experience, with some very wise counsel for aspiring and existing leaders. I thought his leadership tips would be of particular interest to legal leaders – what follows is drawn from my rough notes of his talk –

Image by Patrick Hoesly

By way of introduction he noted that:

  • throughout his career he learned something new about leadership every day of his career and continues to do so.
  • a search on the internet will reveal in excess of 15 million books on leadership and management; clearly, a complex subject.
  • leadership is both an art and a science.

Important leadership tips:

Leadership is not management

  • to be an effective leader one has to strike the right balance between leadership and management
  • management is about things, processes, planning and speed
  • leadership is entirely different;
  • with leadership you have to have the courage to go first
  • leadership is about giving direction and inspiring and influencing people.
  • he said at times he felt he erred in placing too much emphasis on management and not enough on leadership – one often sees this in organisations, many of which are over-managed and under-led.

If you cannot manage yourself it is impossible to lead others effectively

  • you have to develop the ability to lead and manage yourself.
  • it is vital that leaders must have sufficient Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in that leaders need to be able to both understand and manage their own emotions and cultivate good relationships with others.
  • some leaders are functionally good but emotionally illiterate.


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