Lawyers: show your clients some love (well, empathy at least)

It’s 12 months since I stopped being a lawyer.  Well, I still cling to my practising certificate just in case it’s ever needed as a life jacket, so technically still am a lawyer.  I guess what I mean is it’s that long since I stopped lawyering.

And one thing I’ve belatedly developed over those 12 months is an empathy with the sales-teams that used to be some of my in-house clients.  However hard I tried to ensure that my old legal team supported our sales colleagues, I was motivated to help them for not entirely the right reasons.  I knew their work was critical to the business because it brought in revenue.  Quite frequently, I would prioritise legal resource based on deal value.  And this is why I was motivated to help them, to push the revenue indicator in the right direction.  I wasn’t always motivated to help out of a sense of empathy, that a colleague needed some help to push months of their own hard work over the line.

Quite frequently too, I regarded these sales contracts that crossed our desks as more akin to order forms, which the hapless sales person had only had to pick up the phone to their client to get approved.  I guess I sometimes even dismissed sales as akin to order taking, something that didn’t require too much thought.  Surely not much of substance can have happened before the legal team was engaged by the business to review the small print?

As a result my empathy with some (not all) of my sales colleagues was occasionally (they can determine how occasionally!) lacking.  I’ll admit that one of my biggest bug-bears was the sales rep who’d turn up in the legal department with a low revenue deal, claiming it needed to be prioritised because “this is just the start”.

I now realise that I was missing a lot of the sales picture.  Sales takes time.  It takes skill.  It takes emotional intelligence.  It takes listening, a lot of listening.  It means persuading clients to try something new, sometimes to start small and think about going bigger if they like it.  It can even require a little bit of luck.  It is far far more than order taking.

I’ve certainly not mastered (or even half mastered, in fact make that quarter or an eighth for that matter) the art in 12 months.  But I certainly understand a lot more about it now than I did a year ago.  And as a result I know that if I ever went back to lawyering (*shudders*), that I’d be a better lawyer because I’d have a better understanding of how much work has gone on in the background before the legal team get asked to look at a sales contract.

I’d be more emotionally engaged in the process of helping to conclude a sale.

I was talking to a seasoned sales professional a couple of weeks ago with many impressive deal miles under his belt.  He was expressing frustration with the legal process at his company and how it slowed his deals down.  I suggested he take his in-house lawyers to a couple of sales meetings, to give them a feel for the sales process.  To help with the empathy thing (it has to cut two ways of course).

Whether he does or not, I don’t know.  But I’d be willing to bet that it would improve the contract turn-around speeds he currently enjoys if he does.  Empathy can be one hell of a motivator.

Advise, don’t execute

[This post was originally published by The Lawyer in May 2014]

We regularly read that the legal profession is on the edge of revolution.  We are told that in one corner stand the revolutionists (Reinvent Law London is coming to a conference centre near you next month) and in the other corner is Big Law defending the status quo.

For those who missed it, George Beaton’s excellent blog post last Autumn set out both sides of the argument (belated kudos must go to Peter Kalis of K&L Gates for the most acerbic and amusing legal blog post comment of recent times, although it is admittedly a niche category).

Yet in these arguably self-interested debates about the future of our profession, there is one voice usually missing (sadly, this was generally true of the debate beneath George’s post too), which is that of the buyer of legal services.  The voice of the general counsel.

One might wonder why the GC’s voice is not heard more often, why GCs the world over are not wading into online debating arenas to cast quick judgment on whether New Law or Big Law is the future.  Can’t they make time in their diaries to discuss the future of the profession with keyboard warriors who haven’t practised as lawyers but still know better?  Don’t they care about the service they receive?  Don’t they care about the future of law?

Of course they do.  Not only do they care, it is they who will do most to influence what it looks like.  However much of a pent up frenzy we might hear at Reinvent Law next month (I’ll be there but, perhaps paradoxically as a wannabe influencer of change in the profession, wondering whether any passionate calls for an instant reboot before we are all doomed go too far), it will generally not be those at Reinvent Law and conferences like it who will do most to influence the change they profess they want to see.

Whilst proponents of change might doubt that GCs can influence things from outside of the reformist tent, what perhaps they need to realise is that it is the GCs who are actually sitting comfortably in the tent whilst the reformist protests carry on unnoticed outside.  The only way of finding out what GCs are really thinking is to sit inside the tent with them.

Which happily is what many of us who are want to bring a fresh perspective to service delivery spend most of our time doing.

And what are we hearing?

If there is a persistent theme it is a move towards what several GCs have defined to me as ‘an advisory and not execution strategy’.  To paraphrase, that means keeping the high level strategic advisory work in-house and outsourcing much of the day-to-day ‘doing’ of other work.  That ‘other work’ covers a wide range from complex, to routine, to repetitive.

Corporate boards demand their GCs to take on the role that the law firm client relationship partner once played and the opportunities for in-house lawyers to be (*cliché klaxon*) strategic advisers and not simply capable document turners (or ‘contract monkeys’ as one colleague once memorably referred to me and my in-house team) have never been greater.

Many in-house teams don’t want to be spending their time on what might broadly be referred to as ‘business as usual’ work, that’s not where they can make the most impact for their business.  And by the way, BAU doesn’t mean routine and commoditised work.  It generally means regular work-streams which have a complex twist requiring legal judgement somewhere along the way.

So where does this leave the role of external advisers?  If the high level advisory work that they once specialised in is now being done in-house, where do they now sit in the value chain?  Well, like any business in an industry in a state of flux, it’s time to pivot.  And pivoting might mean any number of things.

The Magic Circle, quite rightly, stopped pretending that they want to carry out business as usual work years ago and pivoted towards big ticket ‘bet the farm’ transactions or litigation.  The mid-tier (define that as you will) has perhaps found pivoting more difficult – they don’t play in high value M&A or IPO land and realise that seeking to be an ‘all things to all people’ full-service law firm is not a sustainable strategy.  Happily, we now see a few firms looking at doing things differently.

Neither is New Law immune from the need to pivot.  With a self-interest disclaimer safely inserted at the beginning of this sentence, at LOD we’ve been required to respond to clients who don’t always need a full-time secondee through our On Site model, and instead want an alternative to outsourcing BAU work where there might be peaks and troughs in demand.  Our On Call service is being used by many clients to outsource the ‘doing’ instead of doing it in-house or sending it to law firms.  LOD lawyers are doing the ‘execution’ whilst the in-house team concentrates on the ‘advisory’.

The real harbinger’s of change are not the noisy reformists or even necessarily the GCs on the speaker circuit, but instead what one GC I recently had a coffee* with (*it may have been a beer) referred to as ‘the silent majority’.  Those in-house lawyers quietly going about their day jobs with little fanfare and tweaking their strategies to meet the needs of their business.  It is these silent revolutionaries who will really influence the future shape of our legal profession.

And it’s an exciting place to be inside the tent, listening, as GCs rip up the rule book and start from scratch.

Fitba, bloody hell

That was the first, ‘football, bloody hell’ moment that I’ve experienced as an Albion fan for a few years.  The swinging pendulum of results just tick tocked into the right place just in time.  Then complete unbridled, joyful mayhem broke loose amongst the travelling Albion army in a way that took me back to the original North Stand, there were lots of lads and lasses all with smiling faces.

What a strange season.  Whilst 2012/13 certainly wasn’t a procession to the play-offs, it always felt fairly likely from Easter time onwards.  This season it feels like we’ve stumbled into the play-offs despite our play, rather than because of it.  But whilst its easy to think about the points that got away this season, there’s also a case to be made for the points we’ve won as a result of a late late show – in recent weeks late goals at Blackburn and Huddersfield as well as home to Yeovil have rescued what now look like critical points, when at the time it felt like too little too late.

And of course, today’s late late show the best of the lot.  The best perhaps since Deano beat the Flying Hippo (pick it up at 7.30 mins).

This time last year I felt confident we’d make the play-off final due to our run-in form.  We all know what happened and that left the club, teams and fans with a hangover that took until Christmas to shake off.  Today, I’m just amazed we find ourselves here.  We travelled to Nottingham more in hope than expectation, and for once it wasn’t the hope that killed us.  Whether this results in a reverse psychology meaning we go into the play-offs with nothing much to lose, who knows.

So, to quote Steven Gerard, ‘we go again’.  Derby up next who’ve had a solid end to the season and a 13 point gap tells its own story.  But the great thing about the play-offs, is that the previous 46 games mean nothing.  It’s a blank sheet, form is irrelevant and only 180 minutes stand between one team and Wembley.  It’s cliché central.  You need a little bit of luck to get there, and maybe today just showed that Lady Luck is spending her spring holidays on the south coast (not to take anything away from CMS’s precision point genius – never mind goal of the season, that was assist of the season).  We will see.

As a friend of mine texted me after the match, re-charge for the play-offs.  Let’s hope we do, fans and players alike.  I was delighted to see how psyched up the players seemed after the game when at times this season it has felt a little like 11 blokes who don’t know each other that well playing football.  Any doubts I had about the team spirit ceased to exist after I saw them at the final whistle.  They are up for it, no doubt about that.

The last word goes to a Reading fan I know.  His words below, which I received 5 minutes after the games today.  Now that is what I call a class act.  Thanks Mr Hop.

Oh yes, and thanks to Burnley too.  Football, bloody hell.

Art, brains and law

Have you heard the one about the artist, the neuroscientist and the lawyer?

No, nor had I until I attended my first Life With Law event last night where the programme (curated by a barrister believe it not) facilitated just that.

Life With Law is an LOD project, a series of talks which offer inspiration and ideas for living a good, happy and satisfying life whilst – wait for it – practising law.  Does that remind you of your training contract?  No, me neither.

I started my evening in discussion with a Legal IT Consultant as to whether the contract drafting process itself is creative.  The ability of the lawyer to speak to their client, grasp the idea percolating in a client’s brain and put it down clearly on paper.  We reached broad agreement that this was an example of creativity, of sorts, in action.  But I ended my evening putting forward this theory to one of our LOD lawyers who tore the argument apart, pointing out that the lawyer is merely documenting the client’s own creativity, rather than demonstrating any creative nous themselves. It’s up to you to decide who is correct.

Perhaps that lawyer’s view was reflected in an audience poll.  Whilst the majority of the audience felt themselves to be creative, only a minority believed the practice of law offers much room for creativity.  We’re just a bunch of frustrated muses trapped behind our keyboards.  Arguably most worryingly of all, only a few felt that their workplace was where they thought most creatively about work.

The main event was talks from Cathy Haynes, a curator, artist and writer, and Professor Vincent Walsh, Professor of Human Brain Research at UCL.

Perhaps surprisingly, we heard some common themes from the worlds of art and science (which reminds me that when I was at Uni, the Law faculty couldn’t decide which of these categories it sat in and Law was designated as a Social Science – perhaps that explains a lot).

Cathy advised us to: make it a habit to break our habits; create virtuous problems; set ourselves a weekly pleasurable conundrum; create empty head space; get bored to prompt some creativity; have the courage to be vulnerable; dare to get into the arena; not be afraid to fail; learn the rules then forget them; and do something different in our working week.

The Prof underlined the need to sleep a lot and often.  As he memorably put it:

Sleep is 36 per cent of our lives and we just hope it kind of goes alright [but] the smart things in the brain are done when we aren’t thinking.  Sleep helps creative problem solving.

There you have it – if you ever needed an excuse for being late for work, forget the tube strikes, this goes straight to the top of the list.

Life With Law attracts a broad church, there’s no agenda and the only rule is to come with an open mind.  You might not agree with everything you hear, but what you do hear will make you think and just possibly take you outside of your comfort zone (I certainly was when the discussion turned to finding out the weight of our soul…).

Follow @LifeWithLaw for details of the next outing and see #LifeWithLaw for tweets from the event.

Bumps in the road

I don’t go to every Albion game (braces self for allegations of being a ‘plastic’ with no right to venture an opinion) but I go to a fair amount.  And I think I’ve just witnessed the worst (or certainly one of the worst) performances that I’ve seen for 3 or 4 seasons (for the record, losing to Watford 2-0).

photo (11)

Yes I’m irritated, disappointed, annoyed even.  But I’m not going to throw my toys out of the pram.

That’s not because I’m leaning on the old ‘look how far we’ve come from Gillingham’ argument.  That’s a compelling argument and always a reason for perspective.  But to be fair, it’s not an argument the club rely on when things go a little awry.  The club talks openly about being ‘Premier League Ready’.  To be PLR, we can’t always fall back on the ‘look how far’ argument, because if we do, we won’t get to the Promised Land (whether or not it is the promised land is of course open for debate).

The reason I’m not going to throw my toys out of the pram, is because I think we’re merely hitting a bit of a bump in the road.  I don’t mean the bump came today at Watford, I think the bump is this season.

Think of everything we’re encountering during season 2013/14:

  • the post-play-off hangover took us many months to get rid of.

  • the Amex honeymoon is over and home game atmosphere is lacking a bit.

  • like it or not (I like it), the board wants to comply with Financial Fair Play.

  • like it or not (I don’t like it), we’re missing Gus.

  • a new, young, foreign manager needing to acclimatise in a variety of ways.

  • competition for places means we’ve had to off-load good squad players before they fall out of contract, even though we’ve not been able to replace them.

  • a mini-injury crisis.

  • heightened supporter expectations after we probably beat most realistic expectations last season.

This was always going to be a consolidate and move on season.  We’re not setting the league on fire, but we’re okay, hanging in around the play-off places despite a very lukewarm season.  In some ways it would be better if we weren’t close to play-off contention as it would help re-align possibly unrealistic expectations of what might be possible this season.

Today at Watford was a microcosm of our season – not quite good enough and lacking the fire in the belly of the Poyet years.

Yes, today was a lacklustre performance and it does annoy me that we didn’t seem to ‘want’ it.  But I’m not going to throw my toys out of the pram today.  We have to be more patient than that, but at the same time we need to be ambitious enough not to look back where we’ve come from.  It’s about looking forward, where Messrs Bloom and Barber want to get us to.  I have faith in Bloom’s vision and trust that we will get there, this season is just our biggest bump in the road for a few seasons.  There may be more bumps ahead.

As fans, we need to help the club navigate them, rather than carry out too many post-mortems as we hit those bumps between now and May.  I think this tweet from @NorthStandChat is a good reality check on where we are.

Our visit to Vicarage Road in February 2014 won’t ever be one that stays at the front of the memory banks, but we may well need to take a few more of these on the chin until as fans we genuinely believe we are Premier League Ready.

Only then should we toy throw when things don’t go our way.

Assembly-line lawyering

I was talking to a friend over coffee the other day, describing what my old gig as an in-house lawyer had been like (don’t you just wish you had more coffees with me?).  I said that much of the time it had felt like sitting at the end of a never-ending conveyor belt of work, dropping onto my desk.  However hard I worked, the conveyor belt kept on delivering more and more packages of work that needed assembling, faster and faster.

That’s not to look for sympathy.  There aren’t too many jobs where the conveyor belt consistently delivers quality packages of work that require the recipient to apply legal intellect, strategic thought and commercial awareness.  And whilst most lawyers are not fat cats, the corporate end of the profession gets paid well for what it does.  But the problem with being a lawyer is that lawyering is a time intensive activity.  By the time you’ve dealt properly with one piece of work that fell off the conveyor belt, several more pieces of work have landed around your feet needing to be assembled.

How do lawyers deal with this problem?  Well, for a smart bunch of people, we don’t always deal with it very smartly.  The initial inclination is to work harder.  That might be followed by a decision to hire more employees and get them to work harder too.

Yet my experience and that of many lawyers I know, is that working harder and hiring more permanent staff does not solve the ‘conveyor belt problem’.  Admittedly, it might mitigate it in the short-term.  Staying in the office until the small hours might mean there is one less package of work lying on the floor when the lawyer finally leaves to go home, but it doesn’t mean that everything gets dealt with.  Hiring new staff can have a short-term impact on picking up all of those as yet unopened work packages, but the problem with new staff is that eventually they end up sitting at the end of their own conveyor belts of work and suddenly two of you have the same problem that caused you to hire the second person in the first place.

So, what’s to do?

You know that there is a change afoot in the way we think about work when the Financial Times, the self-proclaimed ‘friend of the honest financier’, is publishing articles raising difficult questions about the long hours culture prevalent in the legal profession.

As the FT’s John Gapper put it:

“The good news is that this method of organising work is inefficient and thus ripe for reform. The bad news is that many lawyers do not care much about that.”

Gapper’s first sentence is spot on.  It goes back to my earlier point about lawyers needing to work smarter, not harder.  I’m conscious that ‘smarter, not harder’ is a throw away line and any lawyer reading this at 9pm on an evening looking at the piles of work in front of them is entitled to think that it’s easier said than done to re-engineer work processes.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

I don’t though agree with Mr Gapper’s view that ‘many lawyers do not care much about’ working long hours.  Nobody joins the legal profession because they want to spend 12 or more hours each day behind a desk.  The motives for joining are varied and not the point of this blog post.  But a desire to work long hours is not a reason to become a lawyer, people become lawyers in spite of the long hours culture, not because of it.

And it is now acceptable to say that.  It is acceptable in the modern legal workplace, whether in a law firm or in-house, for a lawyer to say that she aspires for a better work/life balance, that he wants to work flexibly, that she’d like to work from home on a day when there are no client meetings.

Indeed, a recent research report found that:

“Many young lawyers would like the law to be more like a commercial business than a profession and see embracing technology as the key to transforming what many consider to be outdated working practices.”

It may surprise you, if you have read this far, that this research was not commissioned by a legal commentator who has never sat behind a lawyer’s desk or a wishy washy not-for-profit think tank, but by Eversheds, a City law firm.  [*Teaser alert* tune in to the @LOD_Law twitter feed over the next week or two for a very interesting research piece we’ll shortly be publishing.]

Lawyers don’t really like to work long hours – they don’t mind hard work and they’ll pull an all-nighter without blinking if they have to, but they don’t like to work incessantly long hours simply on the basis it was ever thus.  They also want to work more flexibly, to take more control over their career and increasingly they don’t mind telling their superiors this.  Many are increasingly working as freelancers as a way of seizing back control of their career.  It is a given that technology will at some point help re-configure the conveyor belt, although I’m not aware of any single killer app which has done that significantly just yet.

The much heralded and inevitable change in legal services will come through incremental re-configuration of the way that lawyers work, not by big bang trickery.  For example, legal process improvement is a bit of a buzz work in law firm circles at the moment.  I’ve seen it in action and it is an incredibly powerful exercise that does not require expensive technology or a huge shift in working practices.  Nor do you need to be a six sigma black belt to make it work (I had to look it up too).  Two or three hours spent logically de-constructing a workflow can quickly highlight where the inefficiencies are in a particular work-stream, what the ‘repeat problems’ are that come up and how best to reduce them.

It’s all about working smarter, not working harder.  Lawyers are definitely smart.  When you’re next sitting at the end of a conveyor belt of work, you have two choices.

Work harder and sit there longer to get a bit more done.  That’s the wrong answer by the way.

Or instead, be braver, work smarter, ask yourself (and your team) a few questions.  How does the conveyor belt work?  Is the right work being put onto it in the first place?  Who does the work that falls off it?  How do they do it?  And most of all, just approach the exercise with a big WHY do we do it like this?  Don’t think you can’t make it work better. Of course you can.

You just need to switch it off for a few hours to see how.

Time to re-set the legal profession?

As one GC recently put it to me, “the re-set button has been pressed on the legal profession”. Whilst the button has certainly been pressed, the machine has not yet rebooted.

If one needed to look for evidence of the re-set, that was provided by Mark Harris, CEO and Founder of Axiom who received a Special Achievement Award at the as always excellent FT Innovative Lawyers awards held in London recently.  If anyone had suggested ten years ago that in 2013 a US start-up would be winning legal awards ahead of, and more importantly winning work from, the Magic and Silver Circles they would have been laughed out of the Square Mile.

If one needed to look for evidence that the machine has not yet rebooted, then it’s worth taking a closer look at a few of this year’s FT award entries.  Whilst many were truly innovative and congratulations must deservedly go to the winners, a handful  strike me as business-as-usual, not innovation.  For example, “providing cutting-edge competition advice”, having “a one-day brainstorm session” and “international expansion”.  Entries like this demonstrate that whilst the words “legal profession” and “innovation” are not quite paradoxical terms, they do not always fit comfortably into the same sentence.

Whilst many leading thinkers and practitioners have long talked about the systemic changes the market has seen over the last ten years, if firms continue to submit business-as-usual entries for the UK’s leading legal innovation awards, it surely illustrates just how far the profession has yet to travel on its innovation journey.

It’s too easy to lay the blame solely at the door of the legal service providers.  But (with few exceptions) any firm which thinks it can continue to rely on a model which is simply the continued provision of traditional legal services will at some point suffer a rude awakening. The market’s new ‘disruptor brands’ such as Axiom and Lawyers On Demand (LOD) are here to stay and as clients are awakening to the positives that innovative flexible legal resourcing may bring to their teams and organisations, many leading firms are reassessing their client offerings and adapting to these new services either by entering the market or seeing the business case for working with those alternative service providers on certain projects.

Ultimately though the providers will not reshape the landscape themselves, clients will play the instrumental role in ensuring that supply meets demand. Whilst clients understandably demand “more for less”, the most innovative General Counsels are also open minded in terms of how they are willing to work with their legal service providers.  More for less with no change to service provision just simply will not work.  More for less with structural service change will.

Over the last seven years, LOD has seen that many clients are already alive to this with client demand leading to major disruption in the market place.  LOD was an early stage service which was conceived to meet that early disruptive demand and we are now facing the challenge ourselves of seeing who wants to disrupt the disruptors. Whether launched as a standalone service, or with the backing of an international law firm, there is an ever increasing queue of alternative legal service providers ready and willing to play.  LOD’s secondment model remains an innovation success story, but we know that we won’t “win” unless we continue to evolve our service offerings and pricing structures in line with market demand and increased competition.

“Put yourself in the client’s shoes” is a constant LOD mantra and service development is a daily theme in our office. Whilst services like LOD are leading global law firms to reassess their models’ and not ‘rest on their laurels’, competition from other flexible legal resourcing services means we at LOD are constantly evaluating our offering to ensure we continue to fulfill client demand.

I’d like to think as the FT awards evolve that the bar will be set even higher and that we won’t see even a handful of “business as usual” entries and instead will continue to see people and practices push the boundaries of innovation in future years.  But to prevent that from happening, the profession (both supply-side and client-side) needs to think about what it wants the future to look like.  As Harris put it on the night, “Bigger is not better, better is better”.  Indeed, but what is better?  That’s a question which both law firms, alternative providers and in-house lawyers need to answer – because if they don’t, someone is going to answer it for them in which case they will lose far more than the chance of winning an award.  Change does not happen by talking about innovation, it comes through creative thinking, brave steps and hard work.

Once the machine does finally reboot, the game could be up for those who don’t play better.  But the good news is that those who embrace change, however uncomfortable that might feel at times, have the potential to be game-changers.  I see plenty of opportunity ahead.