Questions on thought leadership, pricing, knowledge management & future challenges for lawyers were put to fellows of the College of Law Practice Management for the COLPM Futures Conference in Chicago recently and published in a special issue of InsideLegal’s Thought Leaders Digest last week – below are the questions & my responses:

Chicago – a city of art and architecture – the venue of the Futures Conference of the College of Law Practice Management in October 2011 (Photo triptych by Sean Larkan MPh)

Q1 – Thought leadership is the core theme of our Digest, but the term “thought leader” is often misused and/or overused. In your opinion, what makes someone a thought leader? [Provided by JoAnna Forshee, InsideLegal]

  • I think a thought leader (TL) is someone whose stature or the respect with which they are held is such that they are regarded as an authority, pathfinder or even futurist.
  • The most important thing about whether one is or is not a TL is that it is determined by what others think not what one thinks oneself. The key is “have they led your thoughts?”  If so they will be regarded as a TL.
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Most of the law firm leaders or senior management I deal with seem to be run off their feet, especially those who are also managing a practice. Part of this is because they unselfishly spend so much time worrying about their firm and others and not on their own affairs. Sometimes it is simply because they have too much on their plates for one person. Invariably they have not worked out a simple and effective way to prioritize and get things done.

The good news, there is light at the end of the tunnel!  It is simple and effective and all of us can do it – read on …. some months ago I read a popular blog post by Tony Schwartz (attached edited PDF version) where he talked about these challenges. He suggested the answer is to develop a few simple rituals and make them automatic. I have found that it works – I am sure it can for you.

The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy. Develop rituals — highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, so they eventually become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline. (graphic adaptation by Sean Larkan)

He felt that many leaders make the mistake of thinking that to get over these challenges they should perhaps:

  • have more discipline
  • more will-power
  • or maybe learn time-management in one of its forms.
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Despite a period of patchy M&A work, scratchy demanding clients and less ‘sticky’ partners, Australia’s ten largest law firms (Big Law Australia: BLA) have recently reported record gross fees, high equity partner profits coupled with a bullish view of their future world (Alex Boxsell and Samantha Bowers reporting in AFR 16 September 2011). However, they are facing real challenges from abroad and locally; a few thoughts on all these below.

 

On the back of excellent reported results, top Australian law firms are being challenged by foreign firms entering the Australian market, as well as local mid-tier innovators – graphic by Sharon Larkan on iPad (adapted from online image – artist unknown)

Good news for a majority of the top ten Australian law firms:

  • improved gross fee income over the past year with partner teams (equity and fixed share) generating annual fee revenues above $2m
  • tightly managed expenses
  • profit margins averaging 41%
  • average top equity partner earnings in the range $1.8m to $2m

These are outstanding results by any world standards, from some of Australia’s best-run businesses. However, a more in-depth consideration of developments over the past year or two, and the published AFR performance results for Big Law Australia (BLA), seem to indicate they have been (or should be) feeling the heat from both internal and external forces – some obvious and some not so obvious:

  • After (in some cases) years of discussions or negotiations, foreign firms have bypassed BLA firms and entered the market in numbers:
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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.

  • While the article is focused on clients I think there are also implications for law firms in their interaction with potential recruits and lateral hires.
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