General business development issues

2018 was a great year for AusLaw firms*!

As we close out the year that was 2018, the graph below – from the recent (December 2018) Commonwealth Bank ‘Professional Services’ report – would appear to support the fact that 2018 has been a financially beneficial one for all those involved in private practice in Australia:

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The question I have though is this: is this a true correction?

And what I’m really asking here is this:

  1. have the underlying structural changes that we all know need to be made been put in place?
  2. if so, are we starting to see the benefits of these, or does this chart represent a false dawn?

And as we entered 2019 I’m going to leave those two questions out there, as I think many of us know what the real answers are here.

As always, would be interested in your views.

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* or was it?

My comments on today’s Lawyers Weekly article: ‘Observations on NewLaw in Australia in 2018’

Today (28 December 2018), Lawyers Weekly in Australia published an article by Lachlan McKnight, CEO of LegalVision in which Lachlan comments on his ‘Observations on NewLaw in Australia in 2018‘.  At the outset I should state that I don’t know Lachlan, and this post is no way directed at him, but is just a numbered-point muse on the interesting observations he makes in his article.

  1. ‘NewLaw’ (which is as meaningless a term as ‘Mid-tier’) is now an ‘industry’ – now that’s interesting.
  2. Agree with Lachlan’s comment in #1.
  3. While I agree with Lachlan’s comments in #2, I also believe the attitude here is changing within the more ProgressiveLaw firms. ProgressiveLaw firms realise that with greater risk (which fixed fees actually are), there should be a premium (much as there is with any insurance premium). EvolutionaryLaw firms go one step further and start to have a conversation about ‘value’ pricing.
  4. Three is an interesting comment: aren’t LegalVision in part owned by G&T  – as an aside (re #3 above), didn’t Danny Gilbert recently state that he thinks that clients don’t want move away from the #BillableHour?. Nevertheless, I agree with a lot of what Lachlan says in #3 but would probably set the bar at $75 million (we still only have a population of 25 million and IBISWorld still only puts the WHOLE legal industry revenue in Australia at $20bn [NB: the top 30 law firms in Australia make over $50m a year – in an industry this small!]).
  5. I would totally disagree with Lachlan’s comments in 4 and in my opinion you only need to look at the stuff MinterEllison and KWM are doing (with whom I have no association) to see this point – to me – is misplaced. In fact I would go 180 and say many BigLaw firms are going through their Arthur Andersen/Accenture moment (the original ‘child eat parent’?).
  6. The biggest challenge NewLaw (and Mid-tier law if such a thing exists) has to #5 isn’t OldLaw, it’s the #Big4.
  7. Number 6 is a point I have tried raising several times this year – scale. Law (Old and New) see ‘scale’ as being bodies (in part because of time-based billing). If it ever was it not longer is and any law firm, new or old, that get’s the right answer to scale will have a point of difference and in such a competitive market this is crucial. The reality is that potentially the biggest winners here should be the so-called Mid-tier (who have a lot of the grey haired industry knowledge without, currently, the scale – but I fear they have missed the boat because of lack of investment).
  8. For #7, see my comment in #3 re G&T.

As always, would be interested in your views.

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Okay you can keep the ‘Legal’ tag; but it’s just Project Management!

I’ve been ‘white-boarding’ legal matters since my days helping out on front-end major projects back in 1996; so the concept of ‘mapping out’ how a transaction might progress, what may be ‘in scope’ and ‘out of scope’, the approximate amount of time the transaction may take and how we are going to resource it are not new to me. In more recent times (largely following the GFC in 2008) the legal industry has formalised my approach of ’white-boarding’ matters to become Legal Project Management. 

While I was never really that sure over the years how Legal Project Management differed from the more general Project Management, I have been assured – on numerous occasions – that there is a difference. When asked how, the most common response I received was that:-

  • Legal Project Management is the discipline of project managing ‘tacit knowledge’ – as ‘knowledge workers’, while
  • Project Management is the discipline of project managing tangible products, e.g., the construction of a hospital.

And until the last month or so I thought that was a pretty good answer.

So what changed?

Well, in the last month and a bit I have attended a collective 5 day (2 day and then a 3 day) course on Project Management Fundamentals run by PM-Partners Group here in Sydney.

The two day Fundamentals (essentially, theory) session was outstanding and broken-down into the following nine (9) modules:

  1. What makes projects succeed (and by implication, fail)
  2. The essential project management philosophy
  3. The project life cycle
  4. Project planning – project definition and scoping
  5. Project planning – creating the WBS & schedule
  6. Project planning – estimating
  7. Project risk
  8. Project execution & control
  9. Project closure

In turn, if you were on a course where you learnt all about: 

  • scope creep
  • the difference between what a risk is and what an issue is (hint, one has happened and the other hasn’t)
  • how to do a business case and a project plan
  • the triangle of scope, cost, time and quality
  • the four dependency types [finish-start; start-start; finish-finish; and start-finish], and
  • you get to work on creating a Work Breakdown Structure and Estimating (Optimistic, Pessimistic and Most Likely – also looking at the Cone of Uncertainty)

Wouldn’t you think you had been on one of the best Legal Project Management training courses around?

Well, that’s exactly what the two day PM-Partners run Project Management Fundamentals course taught me and I have walked away from that course thinking to myself that you can keep the classify ‘Legal’, at the end of the day it’s project management and it’s this type of project management we need to get better at.

My biggest take-out though?

Understanding the difference between a risk and an issue, because anyone doing pricing should get their head around this because it really is as important (and probably goes hand-in-hand with) as what happens with scope creep [helpful extra tip: want to understand scope creep, look up what happens with the formula: n (n – 1) /2].

Get in touch if you want to hear/find out more, otherwise get yourself on a really good PM Fundamentals course because I can guarantee it will pay for itself!

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#RIP to the #RFT?

I came to Australia in 2007 to fill a tender writing role. Till then, while I was familiar with responding to tenders, I hadn’t comprehended that responding to tenders could be a full time role.

Since 2007 though, on average, I’d guess that I have responded to one RFT – panel or project – per week (and I should add that during this period my roles have changed from tender heavy to tender light to tender heavy without that much difference in tender workload). I would guess that I also probably respond to one Request for Quote (RfQ) every two days and I must assist with at least two capability statements per week.

What I’m trying to say is this:- I’ve worked on a lot of proposals over the past decade.

And why wouldn’t I have? So far as I’m aware, in Australia:-

  • every level of government – Federal, State, Territory and Local – is panelled to some extent. A number of states, including NSW, QLD, Vic and WA also have collective Local Council panels.
  • approximately 80% of the ASX 200 is panelled.

That’s an awful lot of tenders – some of which are public and others invitation only.

Right about now you’re probably asking why this all matters?

The answer is this,  last Friday Corporate Counsel reported that ‘Barclays Looks to Shake Up Law Firm Panel Model in Coming Years‘, going on to state that:-

“Beginning in 2021, Barclays will ditch RFPs and adopt a more flexible approach to outside counsel management.”

[Noting that the terms RFP and RFT are largely inter-changeable]

Having been at the coal-face of requests for tenders for so long, this is music to my ears!

Only, as a half decent tenderer can tell you, on closer inspection it isn’t.

Chris Grant, the head of Barclays’s firm relationships, has come up with guidelines that the Bank hopes will allow them to build better connections with their firms. These include Barclays using a “gateway process” that includes a probationary period for new legal service providers.

Hang on a second – this is suddenly sounding like an ad hoc – as opposed to a structured – RFT process.

Shame really as one day B2B clients will come to realise that legal panels are a very costly and time consuming process.

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Law firms need to change their definition of “success”

Read an interesting post by Alison Laird last weekend. Interesting as it was, Alison’s post (‘It’s Time’) isn’t the first to call ‘time’ on hourly billing. Nor, in my opinion, will it be the last.

Why do I say this?

Because, as important as the calls for “more for less” and “cost certainty” have been for in-house lawyers and clients more generally, behavioural evidence has shown they’re not really that important to law firms and that clients (in the more general definition of that term) are not willing to push their legal service providers to move away from hourly billing, if – caveat –  they can get a “quote” (read cap or fixed fee expectation).

In short it’s a game. Client says: “we want cost certainty”. Law firm says: “we bill by the hour”. Client says “meet you in the middle – capped/fixed/discounted fees”.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

What if your law firm really wanted to be “entrepreneurial” and decided to think outside the box – starting by changing its definition of “success”?

What if, instead of defining “success” as being the number of hours a year a lawyer works (note not paid for), and/or the amount of revenue the lawyer earns (note not profit), the definition of “success” becomes:

Success is measured in terms of the value received by the customer and the law firm.

I agree, not perfect.

But imperfect as it is, it’s a start. A start of a conversation we need to have as a profession: “How do we measure success?”.

Because until we have this conversation, all other conversations – including that around hourly billing (not pricing) are meaningless.

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‘Trusted advisor’ status… …the Holy Grail?

Ever since David Maister published ‘The Trusted Advisor‘ in 2001, it has been the daily pursuit of private practice lawyers to demonstrate that they have attained and retain ‘trusted advisor‘ status with their key clients. As is the case with many cliche phrases used or suggested by law firm marketing teams (like, “what keeps you up at night?”) however, I have often wondered – and vocalised – what being a trusted advisor actually means?

Sure there are many consultants who can (suggest) road-map your way to trusted advisor status. There may even be one or two lawyers out there who can articulate what that actually means. But as I have often been heard to say: “how often do you instruct a personal advisor – such as a lawyer, accountant, financial advisor – that you don’t (at least a little), trust?

My guess is that would happen in very few occasions (in my case I needed a plumber at 11pm and didn’t take too long doing reference checks 🙂 ).

But the interesting take is how in-house lawyers view this phenomenon.

And on the note, I was quietly pleased to see the following post by Richard Given – General Counsel and Company Secretary at 10x Banking – on a LinkedIn thread I was involved in last week:

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because Richard sums up my exact concerns/thoughts over the past decade and a half whenever the term “trusted advisor” has been thrown about.

Food for thought at least.

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The difference between value and money

Last week (18.5.2018) Seth Godin published a post on ‘The difference between time and money’. In the post, Seth states:

You can’t save up time. You can’t refuse to spend it. You can’t set it aside.

Either you’re spending your time.

Or your time is spending you.

Very profound. Especially if you work in the legal industry.

At roughly the same time (15.5.2018), the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) named its 2018 Value Champions.

One of the quotes – in the accompanying news reports to the announcement – states that, when considering value, the committee/clients give(s) consideration to: “cutting costs, improving predictability of spend, and improving legal and processing outcomes.

For a long time now our industry has used time as a metric of success and tried to equate value with the cost of that time.

What I hope we can take out of these two completely unrelated posts is this:- cost of service may have something to do with how we value something, but more often than not it has nothing to do with it at all.

So if you are looking to be a client-centric value champion ask yourself everyday:-

‘What am I doing to add value to my clients’ businesses?’

Because that’s surely how you will survive moving forward.

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