ACCA Report: there has been a 30% increase in external legal spend in 2 years

Last month the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia published its ‘2017 Benchmarks and Leading Practices Report‘. Two leading take-outs from this Report being bounded about are:

  1. ‘the average total legal spend for ANZ in-house legal departments has increased from $3.1M in 2008 too $4.3M in 2017’, and
  2. ‘[average] external legal spend has increased from $1.8M in 2015 to $2.6M in 2017, representing a 30% increase.’

In what many, including myself, have called one of the world’s most competitive legal environments, with most reports showing flatline revenue levels for law firms at best; the fact that a report by in-house itself shows that there has been a significant uplift in external legal spend over the two years between 2015 and 2017 should give us comfort. But for some reason that doesn’t seem to be the case. Clearly this uplift isn’t being shared equally among firms and there appears to have been some significant winners, with rather more losers.

Other take-outs from the Report include:

  • More than half (51%) of GCs time is spent on ‘urgent high importance/highly strategic work’ – with the most essential skills and attributes required to being a successful GC being ‘the ability to translate complex information into simple communications, active listening, strategic thinking, broad business understanding and influencing skills‘. I would argue that many of these skills need to be top of mind for private practitioners too.
  • 80% of organisations rate project management as an important tool for improving the efficiency of in-house legal departments – yet more than half of in-house legal team (63%) have ‘no formal workflow management system‘.
  • Worryingly, the dominate project management principle used for ‘complex matters’ briefed out to external providers is, to ‘scope the work‘ (49%) [‘Obtain quote(s)’ is number 3 among cited project management practices]. I believe that if external legal providers are genuine in their declared aim of being trusted advisors to their clients, they may want to look at helping in-house up-skill in this clearly important area.
  • The top three considerations used to determine when matters should be outsourced or in-sourced are: (1) Whether external expertise is required (82%), (2) Current and projected internal workloads (59%), and (3) Amount of budget available for outsourcing (30%).
  • Work types most likely to be briefed externally are (1) tax (33%), (2) litigation/arbitration/ADR (19%), (3) employment/workplace relations (17%), and (4) banking and finance / capital markets (17%).

All importantly, in such a competitive market, the primary reasons behind in-house legal departments choosing one firm over another are:

  • ‘the chosen firm demonstrates an understanding of their requirements’ (72%),
  • ‘has specialist expertise’ (67%)
  • ‘provides good value’ (53%)

With the drivers of satisfaction being:

  • ‘demonstrated understanding of the role of in-house counsel’ (91%)
  • ‘demonstrated understanding of the organisation and its goals and priorities’ (89%), and
  • ‘the provision of commercially applicable advice’ (89%).

On the issue of billing:

  • 42% said that ‘hourly billing was not ideal’, but no alternative was provided,
  • disappointedly, 71% cited ‘discount hourly rates’ as the most common form of billing arrangement, but
  • the adoption of AFAs has increased from 28% in 212 to 42% in 2017.

Nonetheless, 88% of in-house counsel are ‘satisfied with their top provider’, meaning it remains extremely difficult to break an incumbent relationship.

One final take-out from the Report that needs to be seriously taken on-board by external (private practice) legal providers is this: – “women now account for 50% of head of legal functions“.

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‘Coopetition’

“Coopetition” = Cooperating while competing.

I heard a new word today, ‘Coopetition‘.

In an article in Philippine publication Business Mirror, Stephanie Tomampos credits Philippine Science Secretary Fortunato T de la Pena with using the term during his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the 17th Conference of the Science Council of Asia at the Philippine International Convention Centre on June 14th.

Although not directed at lawyers, but at scientists who cooperate while competing for research funding, I thought the word summed up well the role of the modern law firm; where firms are increasing being asked to cooperate with each other in order to contribute towards inclusive overall development of the client’s business.

Whereas in the past this sort of cooperation may have been limited to unbundling, LPO or labour arbitrage, today cooperation between the various legal service providers of a client extends way, way beyond this.

We see it in the way firms are now required to cooperate with each with the IT platform(s)/environment the client uses. We see it in the way we pitch innovation to clients, where if we work with multiple firms servicing the client we cooperate with each other on innovative ways of doing the job. We see it in the way we are being asked to work with project teams, often with New Law providers such as Lawyers on Demand and Crowd & Co.

Driven largely by a need for cost efficiencies, what we are increasingly seeing is a demand by clients for a cohesive, inclusive, approach to their client experience (CX) from all of their legal service providers.

This means that while we very much remain competitors, in the new world order we need to cooperate with each other in order to be in a position to compete at all!

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How often does your law firm managing partner call clients to thank them for giving you instructions?

It may sound slightly crass, but when was the last time your firm’s Managing Partner phoned a client to thank them for giving you work? Indeed, have they ever phoned a client to say thanks for the work they give the firm?

Because, crass as it may sound, sometimes in life doing the really simple – right – things well gets lost in our haste to over complicate things and reinforce to all how important we are the role we play in this little merry-go-round.

All of this was brought home to me recently when reading an article on abovethelaw.com titled ‘Biglaw Idol’ — Or, How In-House Lawyers Actually Select Outside Counsel: Picking a law firm for a seven-figure engagement can take under five minutes by Stephen R Williams.

Stephen is in-house with a multi-facility hospital network in the US Midwest and in this article he sets out fairly succinctly and scarily (from an Australian business development perspective) near-verbatim transcript of a recent discussion on how the in-house team decided which private practice firm they would retain for “a rather sizable engagement” (the seven figure sum mentioned in the article’s title).

Turns out that once they had decided a select group of firms (5) who they thought could do the job, one of the deciding differentiators that set the winning firm out from the others was the fact that:

Their managing partner also called me this morning to thank me for considering them. He said he understood they may not be who we ultimately retain, but he appreciated the confidence we had in their firm for even considering them.

The GC’s response?

Well, it may surprise you:

GC: Wow, Managing Partner called? I passed over his shop a few months ago in favor of Biglaw 2 and thought he was still mad at me. I am impressed he called. Look, if we can’t get an answer from Biglaw 5 and Biglaw 4 is ready to go — I am signed-off, bring in Biglaw 4.

That Managing Partner just won his firm a seven figure engagement. With one phone call. And he didn’t even say thanks for hiring us. He said, “thanks for thinking about hiring us”. Pretty powerful stuff.

Food for thought…

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Defining success…

The latest Bellwether report from LexisNexis (The Art of Success: Why Independent Law Firms are Thriving) was published earlier this week.

As always, the Report is an interesting read (and I look forward to the next two publications later this year), but what caught my attention in this particular Report was the following definition of “success“:

Defining success

Most independent law firms see success as a trinity of three important elements:

  1. the quality of their expertise,

  2. solid commercial logic,

  3. commitment to treating staff and clients with respect.

Going on to say:

Being a ‘good’ lawyer isn’t just about knowing your law or being a skilled craftsman. It’s about understanding how to apply the law to serve your client’s business and personal needs. It’s also about exercising common sense. Having excellent people skills is as important as being commercially savvy.

Hands up, I have to say I wholly agree with all of the above (but I would add a few others).

But, “Most independent law firms see success” – I doubt that’s completely accurate, at least from an Australian law firm perspective.

My experience has been that most Australian law firms, independent or not, see success as a financial metric. And it doesn’t really matter how you reach that financial metric.

But wouldn’t it be a wonderful step in the right direction if we all printed out and used the above definition of success…

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Musings on the announced closure of Clifford Chance’s Bangkok office

At the end of last week I read with sadness the decision by Clifford Chance (CC) to close its Bangkok office. While I’m always saddened to hear that a law firm will be closing the doors on one of its offices, in the case of CC Bangkok it’s personal.

Let me take you back to 1998

The year was 1998, and what would become known as the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) had just come crashing through the door like an unwanted drunk guest to spoil what as a pretty good party. At the time this was still known as the ‘Tom Yum Goong‘ crisis in the local Thai press and the horrific murder of Australian accountant Michael Wansley (shot 8 times) was still a few months away (10 March 1999).

In short, the full measure of the financial mess, both in Thailand and the region, was only just becoming known.

What was clear however was the fact that a number of international law firms were making serious noises about entering the local market. Allen & Overy, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Mallesons, White & Case, Freehills, Freshfields, Coudert Brothers, as well as Clifford Chance all had some form of ‘fly-in, fly-out’ operation and were either opening a local offices or expressing an interest in doing so.

Meanwhile, Baker & McKenzie had been around for so long that almost anyone who was anyone in the local Thai legal world had ‘graduated’ from that firm.

Working with one of Thailand’s leading local firms at the time – Wirot International – I was privileged to have had a front seat to much of this activity.

If you had asked me early in that year (1998) who Wirot Poonsuwan – Founder, Managing Partner and Owner of Wirot International – would have merged with (and yes, he was fortunate enough to have several dance partners), my answer would likely have been Herbert Smith.

In the end Clifford Chance offered him a sweater that he simply couldn’t refuse and we all moved over to what would become known in Thailand as Clifford Chance Wirot (CCW) on 1 January 1999.

I often wonder what would have happened if Wirot had gone with Herbert Smith? Local legal history would have been very different, that’s for sure.

As it is, over the course of the next two years core members of what was Wirot International would leave CCW for Linklaters, Freshfields, Courdert Brothers (anyone remember them? They took on Freshfield’s operations when they departed Thailand)  and, eventually, Norton Rose (which itself was a sort of offshoot of Linklaters).

1999 would be a big year for CC. Not only was it the year the firm ‘merged’ with Wirot International, but they would also merge with Rogers & Wells in the US that year (we would joke that it was a three way merger and some may argue with the same level of success!). It would also be the year that CC’s Managing Partner at the time, Tony Williams, would step down and go on to found the highly successful Jomati Consulting (probably a wise move in hindsight).

And yet, from the start I was never quiet sure what CC’s strategic aims were in having a Bangkok office.

Were they looking to pick-up a large amount of debt recovery/restructuring work that was going on around town? Possibly, Wirot Poonsuwan had been at the forefront of discussions to changes to Thailand’s insolvency law to allow for US-style Chapter 11 restructurings to occur (Wirot wrote a weekly article in the Bangkok Post at that time [1998]).

Were they looking for the growing amount of divestment work going on? Possibly. Wirot did some of this work, but Simon Makinson and his team did more of it and they would go and join A&O (with whom Simon had a relationship as a trainee lawyer).

Were they looking for the NGO / Infrastructure work? Not really, Linklaters picked up Wilailuk Okanurak – who would go on to succeed Chris King as Managing Partner of the Bangkok office – to run a very successful infrastructure practice (although she does lots of other things).

What they did do was bring in the wonderful Andrew Matthews from Italy (along with his Ferrari if I recall correctly). But his practice at the time was aircraft financing, not the sort of thing you’d have expected to see done from Bangkok: but hey, why not…

My own view at that time then was that CCW’s strategic reasoning for being in Thailand was muddled. In part that was one reason I would leave CCW to join my good friend (and previous colleague at Wirot International) Pichitphon Eammongkolchai at Linklaters (where I would go on to enjoy 7 more years of fantastic times and memories).

Fast forward to 2017

Despite this, and despite the fact that there was some real hitters on the local scene at the time (late 1990s) in Siam Premier (to have a JV with Australia’s Allens – must be something with Allens and JVs!) and Chandler & Thonk-Ek (now part of the Japanese firm Mori Hamada & Matsumoto) to name two, the firm that was CCW would go on to to survive almost two decades.

That’s quiet and achievement in this marketplace.

And while much has changed – Wirot is no loner there, nor is Tim Jefferies; much remains the same – Andrew was there the last time I checked and current Managing partner Fergus Evans was a very junior lawyer back in the day.

So clearly something worked.

And so I will be very sad when I hear the firm has closed its doors for the last time. Particularly so given I believe the strategic decision for doing so is [probably once more] completely wrong.

Moving their ASEAN focus to Singapore is something CC should have done in 1998, not 2018. Having persevered to 2017, it seems short-sighted to close the office so shortly after the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) gives it access to a market of US$2.6 trillion and over 620 million people.

But that’s just my view.

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Getting all the silos to talk to each other

If you didn’t already know it, I’m a massive fan of Gapingvoid Art. Over the years I’ve purchased way too much of their stuff. But, what does this have to do with law firm business development you may be asking?

Well, the answer to that is that one of their pictures that I have not bought (to-date), also happens to be a picture I believe should be hanging from the boardroom wall of every law firm:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 10.32.58 pm

but not for the reason you may think – namely that practice areas and service lines in law firms don’t speak to each other.

For what it’s worth, my own view is this (partners speaking to partners) has actually improved in the past 10 years (although admittedly from a very low base).

Nope, my reason for say this picture needs to be hanging in the boardroom of every law firm is because law firm’s support services increasingly act with silo mentality.

As we have become bigger, we have lost the art of talking with each other.

We send 100s of emails a day, but we don’t pick up the phone and speak to each other.

We go to more meetings than is good for us, but we rarely invite the people who matter or, more importantly, could bring a useful and different perspective – HR, IT, KM, Marketing, BD, Operations, and the list goes on – to those meetings.

It’s my view that part of what is crippling Big Law (firms of more than 50 partners) is the fact that its support services are not talking with each other.

And, given we are the ones supporting the firm’s strategic directions, this is also happens to be why we cannot move to the next level.

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NB: anyone looking for a copy of this should contact Jason Korma, CEO of Gapingvoid Ltd

Does your firm have a forward thinking client acquisition strategy?

Last week I read the following paragraph over on BTI Consulting’s The MadClientist page:

Clients’ overarching needs don’t change every day. But, they do change every 18 to 24 months—like clockwork. The law firms who really want the business will be in dialogue with their clients about their plans for the year, will have in-depth and pointed client feedback, will be planning for the next year with their clients, and hopefully have helped on-board clients’ attorneys over the last 3 years.

and it made me wonder – how many firms looking to acquire (as opposed to just retain) clients have such a forward thinking strategy?

Not many would be my guess.

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