General business development issues

Two graphs chart the rapid ascent of the Legal Operations role

There’s a saying that overnight successes take 20 years to happen. I generally agree with that; it is rare indeed to come across a true overnight success. With the incredible ascent of the Legal Operations role within the legal ecosystem over the past five years, I am, however, willing to make an exception to this saying.

Background

CLOC – the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium – was co-founded by Mary O’Carroll and Betsi Roach in 2016. From my background reading I understand Mary and Betsi started CLOC as quasi book club membership group for quirky people with a legal operations title or elements of legal operation within their role.

Within a very short period of time, CLOC had set parameters around what they called the ‘Core 12’ skill-sets/roles of a Legal Operations professional. These include:

  1. Business Intelligence
  2. Financial Management
  3. Firm & Vendor Management
  4. Information Governance
  5. Knowledge Management
  6. Organization Optimization & Health
  7. Practice Operations
  8. Project/Program Management
  9. Service Delivery Models
  10. Strategic Planning
  11. Technology
  12. Training & Development

So far, so good. Nothing too exciting about this.

Legal Operations: Where are we today?

‘Fast’ forward (if you can) six years and CLOC and the role of Legal Operations has a massive global footprint, as evidenced by the release of two reports in that past month that clearly highlight the rapid ascent of this role within in-house legal teams.

The ACC Graph

The first was the ‘2020 Legal Operations Maturity Benchmarking Report‘, published by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) in partnership with Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory.

This Report contains the following telling graph – the massive increase in the percentage of [legal] departments with at least one legal operations professional.

Take that graph in for a second.

Now let’s give it some context.

In 2020, just before COVID, when discussing CLOC and its role in ‘Episode 27: Legal Operation is it the new legal business game changer‘ of The Legalpreneurs Sandbox, the panel of presenters at the Centre for Legal Innovation (lead by the wonderful Terri Mottershead), took the best past of an hour explaining who CLOC where and what the Legal Operations role was.

This is in no way a negative comment on the Centre – far from it. They are a leading edge think-tank of highly knowledgeable people talking an audience that know what is going on at the forefront of legal innovation.

Frankly, they’re a clever bunch.

And yet, even for them, the ascent of this ‘Legal Operations’ role was – not to put too fine a point on it – mind-blowing.

The Gartner Graph

So we come to the second graph, which comes from a Gartner report that I read earlier today.

Again, this graph blows my mind. But, in this case, so far as I am concerned, the mind-blowing detail isn’t in the astronomical rise of Legal Operations role (which I think relies heavily on the ACC graph above), as it is in the number of so-called ‘non-lawyers’ who are doing this role.

If the growth in that yellow box doesn’t have you shaking your head, go back and take another look at the skill in CLOC’s Core 12 above. Then tell yourself that a ‘non-lawyer’ is in charge of those skills.

So what does this mean for law firms going forward?

The honest answer is, I don’t know.

I have yet to to decide exactly where the role of Legal Operations fits. Clearly this is an important role that will have a significant role to play in the day-to-day running of a legal team. But how do the tasks of Firm Vendor Management, Service Delivery Models and Strategic Planning fit with the role Procurement plays?

Truth is, I don’t yet know.

What these charts do show me though is that the role of Legal Operations here is to stay. We best get used to. And we best get used to working with them. So make sure it a discussion topic within your firm. And, I suspect you will actually be seeing this role playing out in your firm – with a ‘non-lawyer’ in charge!

As always, the above represent my own thoughts only and would love to hear yours.

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Survey clearly shows law firms who their biggest competitor really is – their client!

I have long held (see this post from September 2017 [‘Do you know who your competitors are?‘] and this post from July 2014 [‘5 steps to take when you client becomes your biggest competitor‘]) that in a hyper competitive legal market, your client – and not any of your more traditional law firm competitors in private practice – is actually the biggest competitor you face when trying to win new work.

Given this, it should come as no surprise that I found the graph below in the recent (September 2020) Gartner publication ‘2021 Legal Planning & Budgeting – Preview: State of the Legal Function‘ of interesting:

Take note all you private practice lawyers, in a three year period between 2018 and 2020, ‘The ratio of legal spend in-house vs outside‘ moved from 50.2% / 49.8% in 2018 to 57% / 43% in 2020.

That equates to a 13% swing of legal spend in-house over this timespan.

In a period when legal spend on outside lawyers actually grew! (Probably providing a false sense of security!).

And, these numbers pre-date COVID. So it is highly likely this movement of work in-house has, and will continue to, grown.

So, next time your firm is doing a SWAT and/or Competitor Analysis, make sure to keep some room for the biggest competitor out there – your client!

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Happy Australia Day

Happy Australia Day for all of us who celebrate it.

For this week’s post I thought I would share with you a quote from the recent ‘2021 Report on the Legal Market‘ by Georgetown Law and Thomson Reuters:

“One of the most effective strategies for managing the costs of external [legal] services may, however, be tied to a significant change in the organisation and management of corporate legal departments themselves.”

For those of you out there who think this presents a great opportunity for law firms, I refer you to this post and to this.

Have a great day – enjoy the bbq, and most importantly stay safe!

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Some thoughts on COVID-19, being #FutureReady and 2021

In the early days of what we now call COVID-19, I saw the meme below. It made me laugh out loud. It was so accurate!

The only problem is, as with most memes, it turned out not be as true, accurate, and funny as I had first thought.

In 2020 I ended up working from home 174 days. Others that I know, especially those in Melbourne, ended up working from home a lot more (if that’s possible).

But here’s the thing,

How were we able to work from home for all that time, so quickly?

From where I sit, the answer to this question is that most law firms (of any size at least):

Were already #FutureReady.

We should be thanking the CTO, CIO, and Head of KM. They did an amazing job in 2020. I hope they get amazing bonuses.

In the meantime, let’s go out there, and enjoy what challenges the year ahead brings us (without trying to predict a thing!).

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BLC Question: ‘How does your organization handle COVID-19?’

If you have not been following it, Silvia Hodges Silverstein‘s Buying Legal Council has been running an interesting question since April 2020:

How does your organisation handle COVID-19?

For clarity, ‘organisation’ here is in-house.

Tracking the responses to this question over a six month period (see graph above) has been interesting.

  • Extending payment terms; which I thought would have ballooned, has actually contracted.
  • Ask for (additional) discounts; which I would have thought would be leading the pack, has actually held relatively steady.
  • Bring more work in-house (outside of a blip in June) has held relatively steady. But more on this one in a second.
  • Hire alternative legal providers has actually ballooned, and may go some way to explaining why may believe the alternative legal services providers have been the real winners from COVID-19 – there time has come.
  • Renegotiating terms with law firms – more on this one below.
  • Pushing non-urgent work to a later date. No surprises with this one, makes perfect sense.
  • Cut non-essential costs: this one has shrunk relatively significantly since April. Not sure if that tells us there isn’t much ‘fat’ in in-house teams?
  • Reduce internal head count; is on the increase again and would seem to suggest a conflict with the “bring more work in-house” response above. Alternatively, in-house teams are really busy at the moment, which coupled with the rise in the use of alternative legal providers could well be very true.

Anyhow, the purpose of this post was to remake on the significant rise in clients ‘renegotiating terms with law firms’.

While this BLC reports (from what I could find) doesn’t define how this renegotiation process is happening, my experience has been that since May of 2020 there has been a significant increase in pitch and tender activity. Many clients are looking for significant savings and are looking to lock law firms into those savings for lengthy periods of time.

And I would have to say that I expect this trend to grow, so if you are a private practice lawyer who hasn’t yet locked-in expert pursuit/pitch/pricing expertise, you’re probably in for a rough 2021.

In any event, keep an eye on BLC – seeing where this trend tack us will be interested in the coming months.

As always, the above represent my own thoughts only and would love to hear yours.

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How are Australian law firms fairing in this post-pandemic world?

Citing a recently published Thomson-Reuters ‘State of the Legal Market 2020‘ report, The Australian Financial Review (AFR) published two articles last Friday (28 August 2020) that, collectively, provide one of the first insights in to how Australian law firms are fairing in this post-pandemic COVID-19 world.

How is Australia doing compared to the rest of the world?

The first article ‘Law firms prove world-beaters as virus strikes‘ by Michael Pelly would, at first blush, seem to suggest that law firms here in Oz are doing far better than the rest of the world.

Looking at the five key metrics of:

  1. billable hours,
  2. hourly rates,
  3. fee revenue,
  4. productivity, and
  5. lawyer growth,

Australia’s results look spectacular.

But kick the tires a little and you’ll see that a June Q19 to June Q20 period is an Australian Financial Year – and not all, in fact none of the other regions, works to that same time line.

So these results should be read with caution, in that they are a moment in time which may not be a true reflection of how the other markets are fairing (it would be interesting to run those same numbers on a Jan to Dec timeline which would probably be a truer period [admitting that even then the UK numbers would be out] because, as we know, not every month is equal – in that we don’t split an annual budget by 12!).

Nevertheless a good result for the Oz firms – but that ‘red blip’ of productivity would be a concern to me if I were a Managing Partner.

Which leads us to…

…who is doing the work?

One of the more interesting takeaways from the chart above is how the hourly rate in every geographic region has increased, even where fee revenue and number of billable hours has decreased (and in some cases significantly).

If you are asking yourself how can that possibly be, look no further than my post of two weeks ago – ‘When does the law of supply and demand not apply? – when you’re running a law firm of course!‘ – and this is also (in my opinion) reflected in the second of the AFR articles last Friday: ‘Law firm partners working harder during pandemic‘:

Look at that spike in partner hours!

For those who may not have read my post of two weeks ago there are, in my view, two reasons why you get that kind of spike:- (1) the work is more complex and needs more grey-haired thought, or (2) senior lawyers need to protect their budget – your choice.

So where are we at really?

I’d treat the financial results of the Australian law firms above with a pinch of salt till the end of February 2021, which -in my opinion – will be a truer barometer of how the industry is doing down here.

As always, the above just represent my own thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts (and; ps: if you want to know why I say end of Feb 2021, email me).

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This week’s photo credit shout-out goes to Joey Csunyo on Unsplash

Does your firm use data as a profitability management tool?

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I’ve just finished reading the latest Altman Weil ‘Law Firms in Transition 2020‘ report.

With all things COVID the Report (as it has done in any event for the past decade) makes for interesting reading.

But, the response(s) to one of the questions in this year’s Report  I found particularly concerning.

When asked:

“Which of the following statements describes your firm’s use of profitability data as a management tool?”*

16.2% of respondents replied:

“We don’t want to use the data because it is potentially controversial or divisive.”

16.2% of respondents believe sharing and using data in 2020 can be ‘potentially controversial or divisive.’

I find that rather sad.

And don’t even get me started on how it is possible that over 13% of respondents don’t even know how to use the data!

As always, the above just represent my own thoughts and always interested to hear the views of others.

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* see page 50 of the Report

[This post first appeared on my LinkedIn feed Thursday 2 July 2020]

My 5 x 5 Planning Tool

As we approach end of Financial Year here in Australia many will be looking at finalising, and implementing, their strategic plans for FY2021.

With this in mind I thought I would share my own base-level planning tool; my go-to starting point for any short, medium and long-term planning activity – I call it my ‘5 x 5 Planning Tool‘, it has served me well and works like this:

  • 5 Minutes: Will the decision I make have an affect/effect 5 minutes from now?
  • 5 Days: Will the decision I make have an affect/effect 5 days from now?
  • 5 Weeks: Will the decision I make have an affect/effect 5 weeks from now?
  • 5 Months: Will the decision I make have an affect/effect 5 months from now?
  • 5 Years: Will the decision I make have an affect/effect 5 years from now?

It’s rare, but possible, that a decision you make will have an affect/effect on all five plains; but, in my experience, what the above does do is give you clarity. It allows you to compartmentalise thoughts into the short, medium and long-term and gives you the ability to then focus on what is then, in that moment, important to you and your business.

Give it a try.

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Survey: The 6 most important criteria in-house counsel consider when evaluating law firms

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In last week’s post I looked at the Top 5 Reasons Clients Switch Firms as recently reported by Wolters Kluner. Conveniently this same Survey also reports on the ‘6 most important criteria in-house consider when evaluating law firms‘ – so here’s a quick look at what they are:

The in-house view

1.  Specialization

In recent years I have heard it said on a number of occasions that in-house counsel no longer differentiate lawyers/law firms they ask to do work for them on the issue of ‘specialisation’ – it is a given that you know your topic and this merely gives you a seat at the table.

The results of this Survey clearly show that impression to be wrong – specialisation (at 23%) remains top of mind to in-house.

Unfortunately the term used in the Survey is ‘specialisation’ as opposed to ‘niche’. While there may not appear to be much of a difference between these two terms, for many there is and I would be interested to see the results if this was an option.

2.  Technology

The fact that a lawyer’s ability to use technology ranks equal top (23%) with specialisation shouldn’t be too much of a surprise in a survey conducted on technology adaptation in law firms.

That said, the use of technology in collaboration efforts should raise some eye-brows as it clearly shows, in my opinion, further evidence that in-house counsel want shared platforms and that knowledge sharing among law firms who continue to develop stand-alone technology platforms are likely wasting their money.

3.  Ability to understand client needs

At first the fact that ‘ability to understand client needs‘ came third in the list at 19% surprised me.

But then I thought: not many clients truly know what their needs are – maybe this question would have been better phrased as: ‘Understanding our business/sector?’

4.  Price – and 6.  AFAs

Price gets 16% of the vote. AFAs gets 9%. If you combined them, they get 25%. And would top the table.

But they are not combined.

They are seperate.

Which make me wonder: Why?

Also: if your law firm is really offering value – price, whether it be hourly rates or AFAs, would be the last thing that matters.

5.  Process innovation

I found the fact that process innovation only got 10% of the vote interesting, because if you read the rest of this survey a core message is that law firms need to get better at demonstrating efficiencies.

This result somewhat undermines that message.

The law firm view

I was pleasantly surprised how consistent the law firm view was to that of their in-house clients.

Of course there will always be one significant difference of opinions between law firms and their clients (in the law firm’s mind) as to why they were chosen: ‘Price’.

And what this Survey shows, as many before it have, is that law firms need (finally) to start moving away from that needle.

As always, these just represent my thoughts and always interested to hear your views.

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Now is the time to focus on your existing relationships


I read an article on Inc.com last week by Damon Brown in which Damon writes that if you run a business in a post COVID-19 world ‘You Need More Customers, Not Higher-Paying Ones’ – which [as someone with an interest in pricing] caught my attention.

There is no doubt that right now the appeal of diversifying your customer base and revenue stream is going to look appealing. As Damon writes, “your business needs varied and multiple customers” for essentially three reasons:

  1. Diversify income streams
  2. Lessen the over-dependence effect – security in numbers
  3. Protect your business against Black Swans

My mother would have called this: “avoid putting all your eggs in the same basket”.

But while insulation from risk is undoubtably core to a lawyer’s heart, right now – appealing as it may seem – would be the wrong time to be looking to expand your client base. And I say this for the following three reasons (in inverse order to Damon’s):

  1. This is a pandemic, not a Black Swan, event: in that none of us have a clue how we got here or how we will get out of it – we are not here because of strategic issues.
  2. Pareto: notwithstanding how large your client base is, the facts are in -: 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your clients. Expanding your client-base isn’t really going to have much beneficial impact on this, rather it’s going to suck-up much needed diminishing resources.
  3. Diversify income streams: isn’t a customer-based issue in professional services firms. If you truly want to diversify your income stream you don’t need to expand/diversify your client-base, you need to expand/diversify your product offering. That’s a whole different problem (and one which could be achieved).

In short, you don’t need to be expanding your client-base, what you need to be doing is focussing and developing your relationships with those top 20% of your clients.

Or, as Ron Baker has written: “It’s one thing to get more business, it’s another thing to get better business”. And while predictability and certainty of revenue is great:

“…if you bring in those customers at the wrong price, you have done nothing but add layers of mediocrity to your firm”.

Some thoughts to consider before you start chasing rabbits down holes…

Again, these just represent my thoughts though and always interested to hear your views.

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