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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Linklaters, Schrage and rewarding the team not the individual

On June 30, 2015 Michael Schrage – a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business (and author of Serious Play, Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? and The Innovator’s Hypothesis) wrote a fabulous article on the Harvard Business Review website titled ‘Reward Your Best Teams, Not Just Star Players‘.

I remember reading Scharge’s article and thinking to myself at the time that law firm managers could learn a lot from it. I may even have posted a link to the article on my LinkedIn feed.

In the article, Scharge sets out that “top management should seek out talented teams, not just gifted individuals” and that “people need to feel that the benefits of being team players measurably outweigh the perceived and real costs of compromise and self-sacrifice“.

Scharge then goes on to set out that getting the incentives right and appropriately aligned in an organisation – such as a law firm – requires the firm embracing what he calls the 5 As:-

  • Acknowledge
  • Attribute
  • Assign
  • Award
  • Assess/Analyze

Concluding that “The 5 As are the essential ingredients for facilitating a transformation in teamwork incentives. They can put the right “I” in your teams.

With news overnight (Australian time) that my alumni firm Linklaters is “to ditch individual partner metrics to target team performance“, we may just be on the way to achieving Schrage’s goals.

And it may just be me, but doesn’t it make more sense to reward “client-winning, business development, training and innovation” as collaborative efforts rather than at individual partner level?

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PayPal’s Top Lawyer Louise Pentland comments on “Here’s the risk, you decide”

Casey Sullivan of Bloomberg Law‘s Big Law Business posted an interview transcript with PayPal’s Louise Pentland overnight [Australia time]. Overall this is a pretty good interview transcript, but there was one response in particular that Pentland makes that I wanted to bring to your attention. When asked by the team at BLB:

We’ve seen the general counsel role shift into more of a chief legal officer role that interfaces more seamlessly with the business side. Can you speak to that shift?

Pentland replies:

As an in-house lawyer, the best you can get is when you’re integrated with the business team and you’re part of the team making it happen.

I think with PayPal, it was different. It was almost like a law firm inside the company. People didn’t go to the business team meetings. They weren’t on the leadership teams. It was a very strange structure in many ways. People weren’t assigned or aligned by business initiatives. It’s a team of 200 people, so it’s not a small team. I immediately aligned people with their primary responsibility, dedicated to their teams and the businesses they supported. It was so welcome; businesses were crying out for it.

It’s easy for lawyers to sit in the background and say, ‘Here’s the risk, you decide.’ Then you think about how to litigate. But that resulted in what was sometimes, in the worst case, people were lawyer-shopping because they didn’t like an answer. There was no accountability.

(my underlining for emphasis)

It’s that last paragraph in particular that really resonated with me, and one which I think private practice lawyers accustomed to providing non-commercial but legally factual advice to clients should take heed of.

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“Good enough” advice and the billion dollar opportunity mid-tier law firms are wasting

Earlier this month (April 2017) LexisNexis published the latest in its series of legal market reports. Titled ‘Amplifying the voice of the client in law firms‘ and edited by the brilliant Mark Smith (no relation), this latest report from LexisNexis purports to identify specific areas of disconnect between UK top-50 law firms and their clients, by means of seeking answers from both sides of the equation to the following three questions:

  1. What are the points of disconnect between the client and the law firm?
  2. Why does the disconnect occur?
  3. What can law firms and their clients do to reduce the disconnect?

Among the report’s many interesting findings, the one that really stands out for me was the view of most in-house lawyers that, for the most part, solutions need only be “good enough”; provided they are delivered timely, and in a format that enables the in-house lawyer to make decisions quickly. But that, for the most part, in-house lawyers were not getting this service with most saying they received good legal diagnoses but very little by way of commercial solutions.

The findings here are reflective of what I heard Ann Klee, VP of Global Operations — Environment, Health & Safety, at General Electric Company say at a Big Law Business Summit in August 2015 – in describing how (in part) GE managed to reduce its outside legal spend by $60 million in a year – when she mentioned that the bottom line is that the role of a lawyer today is about managing more risk, it’s not about just being asked to do more for less, it’s being asked to do less with less.

So we are being told – by the clients themselves, from both sides of the Atlantic, that they do not need “gold standard” legal advisory services, but rather are not only happy to receive “good enough” advice, but would prefer it that way if the advice that was given was commercially applicable to them and provided in a timely manner (on this issue, see my recent post on ‘responsiveness‘).

And yet I have never seen any marketing or tender material produced by a law firm outside of the top tier in any country that says anything along the lines of “we are the good enough lawyers“. Conversely, I have seen more marketing material than any sane person should by mid-tier firms to the effect that “we provide top-tier gold standard legal advisory services at mid-tier [cheap] prices” – a service clients are repeatedly saying loud and clear that they don’t want.

To my mind, all of this adds up to be a massive billion dollar opportunity going to waste by any mid-tier law firm who would be happy saying to their clients (and, importantly, the clients of top-tier firms) “we’re the ‘good enough’ firm that will get you across the line at a fraction of the fee!“.

And I genuinely believe that the first firm that gets this – be it by unbundling, clause light reviews, collaborative teams, innovation, technology, knowledge sharing platforms, or a cross section of all and every, will make a motza!  

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