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).

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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.

The wrong question

I attended a seminar last week which had 3 GCs on the panel.  The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions.

A member of the audience from private practice noted that many junior lawyers move from private practice to in-house roles and asked the following question:

Could we be doing more in private practice to prepare our junior lawyers for this transition?

This was not necessarily a bad question.  But it was the wrong question.  The right question was:

Could we be doing more in private practice to prepare our junior lawyers to provide commercially focused advice to clients at an earlier stage in their career.

Whilst in-housers are of course more than happy to reap the benefits of the investment made by law firms in their junior out-housers before hiring them, it is not the job of law firms to make sure their lawyers are ready for in-house roles.

But it is the job of law firms to make sure their junior lawyers are trained to provide advice that the client can quickly digest and act upon.   This should not be a skill restricted to more senior lawyers.

I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as a stupid question in business.  But there is often a better question that, if asked, will lead to greater insight.

Oh when the Saints

The Cup did not so much overflow with romance at Clarence Park in this FA Cup first round tie, rather than get drowned in reality.

But, without wanting to get too misty eyed about jumpers for goalposts, this was a reminder of what football is really about.

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Saints had already played through four qualifying rounds to get to this stage of the cup, to be rewarded with a home tie against league opposition, struggling Mansfield Town.  If Hertfordshire itself is not exactly a hotbed of football (sorry Watford fans), the cathedral city of St Albans certainly isn’t.  But walking through the cobbled high street at lunchtime before the game, there was a faint murmur of FA Cup excitement, the odd pub or two spilled onto the pavement and posters adorned local shop doors.

This was only my second visit to Clarence Park and this time we went en famille.  Fans queued patiently over the railway footbridge to make their way into the ground, about 3,000 more than usual, the programme seller was doing brisk business and had to make an emergency call into the club “shop” to restock his cardboard box fifteen minutes before kick off.

We took our place behind the goal on the terraces, kids allowed to stand at the front and almost able to touch the players.  The top boys (well, 16 year old GCSE students free of their parents for the afternoon) of St Albans filled the middle of the terrace, leading the support.  Terrace banter was ever present from the first minute after the linesman made a complete horlicks of a corner kick decision about a corner kick.  How we miss the wit of the terrace wag in our all seater stadia in the higher leagues.

Our community was evident everywhere we turned, bumping into people from the local school, the village football team, the rugby club and a colleague.  Congratulations must go to one St Albans fan who’d even made his own triple life size FA Cup to mark the occasion, fingers crossed it makes the highlights on the tv, it deserves to.

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The half time raffle included a tin of Quality Street with some mini Toblerones for one of the runner’s up.  Fittingly, local legend Dave Clarke graced the pitch before the match and it was nice to hear he has been appointed a club ambassador for the Saints.  A mention is also due to the Mansfield drummer, beating his drum periodically through the game, he must be a real favourite amongst the away support if he takes that to every away game.  And a special mention to the Clarence Park groundsman, I’ve seen many worse pitches in much higher divisions, it positively glowed that luminous green under the floodlights which only football fans know exists as an actual colour.

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To a neutral like me, the score was almost secondary, but for the record the Stags ran home winning 8-1.  There was a sniff of an upset in the air after the Saints sneaked ahead after 8 minutes and the first half was a pattern of consistent pressure from the home team.  But 2 goals in the last five minutes of that half put the Stags ahead and the result was never really in doubt from that point, with the second half turning into shooting practice for Mansfield.

I’m a cup romantic at heart and a bit of a grumble about lack of replays, penalty shoot-outs and worst of all Saturday tea time kick-offs for the grand old final itself, so this was a lovely reminder of what the cup is about.  In theory, anyone can get to Wembley.  In reality, that’s not the case of course, but at 3pm as the golden last shades of the sun fell over the trees in the park which border this typical non-league ground, the magic of the cup was certainly in the air.

I plan to be back to Clarence Park a bit more often and let’s hope a few more of today’s 3,000 do so as well.

The view from Syon Park

One of our favourite blog posts that we’ve recently read at Lawyers On Demand (LOD) is a piece about tribes by the irrepressible Seth Godin.  It resonates with us on many levels, not least with our view for our own business that those who choose to embrace the world of freelance work, in whatever sector, are in some way finding a new group of peers to learn from and contribute to.  The energy generated by a group with a common interest can help that group become far more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps this need or desire to be part of a tribe or group explains the success of events such as Legal Week’s Corporate Counsel Forum (CCFE), which took place last week at the rather pleasant London Syon Park Hotel.  This was my first official outing as LOD’s new Practice Development Director and it was interesting to listen to the conference discussions from a new perspective.  There is some irony that 60 or so senior in-house counsel choose to spend two days travelling to and then located in a London hotel in order to attend a conference whose theme is “going global – exploring the power of increased connectivity”.  Sadly, London’s transport infrastructure did not contribute to the feeling of connectivity amongst first morning delegates as we struggled in via traffic jams on the M25 and train failures on the Richmond line.  Couldn’t we all have just connected using Skype (other VOIP providers are available)?

Well, the delegates could have connected in a technological sense, but not in the Seth sense.  Because events like CCFE really do bring the best out of lawyers in terms of a willingness to share and engage with peers.  To a degree, the conference agenda is irrelevant, the real value is in the peer-to-peer conversations which take place around the margins of conference, the relationships made or renewed and the advice freely shared.  This kind of conference content is still very much king.

In-house lawyers are not averse to talking about the role of lawyers on boards and so it seemed fitting that a real life CEO should kick off proceedings.  Martin Glenn, CEO of United Biscuits, certainly got the attention of the room when he linked legal advice to corporate value: “if you are too cautious you will destroy value and if you are too gung ho you will destroy value”, he warned the room.  Martin went on to explain what he looks for from his in-house lawyers: not to make him comfortable; to give him the advice he needs, not the advice he wants; to get off the fence and provide solutions, not problems; and if all that was not hard enough, Martin also requires his GCs to be fortune tellers, “anticipating what general management will need to be thinking about in a couple of years time”.  Well, no-one ever said that being a GC was an easy gig.

Martin concluded with a remark that resonated with all those attending conference – that lawyers need to join what he called the productivity journey.  That all people in business are trying to find a better, quicker and higher quality way of doing things.  The clarion call was sounded when he provided the sober warning that the legal profession is not immune from needing to do the same.

This lack of immunity from change was the unspoken centre-piece of a panel discussion held by three influential GCs – David Eveleigh of BT, Chris Vaughan of Balfour Beatty and Richard Tapp of Carillion.  If anyone needed reminding, these three left the audience in no doubt at one of the key challenges facing in-house lawyers generally, that very real need to do “more for less”.  But it was evident from the discussion that this need is more than a catchphrase, it is a very real challenge being set for GCs by their CEOs and which the best GCs are tackling pro-actively before it is tackled for them.  Prevention, they say, is better than cure.

What was apparent from listening to this session is that the question facing GCs is no longer so simple as “shall I do it in-house or send it to my panel firm?”.  GCs are structuring their legal departments as centres of in-house excellence with a desire to keep the most strategic work in-house, with a variety of plug-in solutions for the in-house team to use on an “as needed” basis.  To an extent, the detail of the different solutions used by these GCs is irrelevant.  The real takeaway is that in-house lawyers are increasingly thinking strategically and laterally about how best to outsource or even in-source the work that does not, for whatever reason, belong with the core in-house team.  External service providers would do well to take note – the days of a one size fits all outsourced solution are long gone.  Those who are flexible and willing to plug and play are of far more value to clients than those providers who purport to be able to do everything equally effectively and efficiently.

Away from the main stage a variety of roundtable sessions offered delegates a range of choices to debate the issues du jour in smaller groups.  In a session on anti-trust risk, an interesting takeaway was not so much the delegates’ views on the details of the law, but the role in-house lawyers saw for themselves as influencers of the cultures within their organisations which in turn could shape a culture of compliance throughout a company.  The role of the GC as a guardian of ethics isn’t a new debate, but there was a general consensus that the GC’s success (or not) in promoting a compliance program is more about winning hearts and minds rather than explaining the detail of the Bribery Act.  If GCs weren’t busy enough, that’s another item to add to the action list: showing their clients the love rather than the law, if you like.

It was also interesting if not altogether surprising to see the in-house audience tackle subjects with pragmatism very much front of mind.  In particular, a session on the supposed legal minefields surrounding use of social media very quickly turned into a roundtable discussion about risk management, a theme continued in a separate session where in-house lawyers were urged to forge close working relationships with their peers in the in-house PR team.  It’s exchanges like these where the value in these get togethers really resides.  It might seem obvious that the GC needs to work closely with the PR Director, but sometimes it helps to just have someone credible say that out loud, to let everyone know that being a good in-house lawyer is not just about turning around the contracts.

As someone who has attended a good number of these conferences albeit with my old GC hat on, it is apparent to me that the in-house legal community has upped its game significantly over the last decade.  Ten years ago, a panel session on “developing your legal team” might have revealed some game-changing information.  In 2013, it acts as a useful checklist reminder of best practice.  It has long been apparent that most GCs are experts in how to continually fine tune the engine of their legal department.  In-house teams are now operating at a quality level at least as high as the panel firms they used to rely on – and they don’t just develop excellent lawyers, they develop decent managers and business people too.

The challenge for GCs is how they move their teams on to achieve even more, to move them on to an even higher platform than the one they have climbed onto over the last ten years.  And the challenge for conference organisers, is how to trigger the peer debates that will allow the next generation of GCs to do just that.

Whilst technology is a game-changer and does indeed provide increased connectivity, there’s still nothing quite as useful as exchanging ideas in person over a cup of coffee.  The GC tribe still has much to offer its members.

Make mine a sangria

“Oscar Garcia, he drinks sangria, he came from Barca, to bring us joy.”

The latest song from the Albion faithful has lacked conviction until 11 wonderful second half minutes against Bolton Wanderers this afternoon.  A second half that has perhaps allowed Albion fans to drink from the good cup of optimism for the first time this season.

I’ll fess up that this is only my second viewing of the Albion this season.  A combination of reasons meant that I got zero value for money for my East Stand season ticket in the first three home league games of the season which I couldn’t attend.  My first sight of the mighty blue and white (well, yellow) was at QPR away on Wednesday followed by Bolton at home on Saturday.  Call me a Plastic if you like.

I didn’t enter this season full of optimism.  Defeat at Palace left me with the biggest football hangover I’ve had for many many years.   I’m old enough to know better but that defeat hurt deeply for a long time.  And we all know what happened after Holloway left the Amex with his Wembley tickets tucked in his back pocket.  We watched from the sidelines at the mini-implosion that was the departure of Gus, Mauricio and Charlie.  Whatever the reasons, it was sad that our journey on the Gus Bus had to end in such an excruciating way.  As a result of all this. I started this season predicting a tenth place finish for the boys in blue and white.

And the start to the season has, until about five past four this afternoon, been stuttering.  Not disastrous, but not spectacular.  The surge to the play-offs last season when we seemed to sweep all before us for two or three months felt a long time ago.

Until this afternoon.  There are lots of reasons I love not only this result, but this performance.

First, Oscar has removed the monkey off our back that was the “we never come from behind to win” moniker.  Nice to have that little curse lifted.

Second, Barnes got the goal that his running at QPR deserved.  Okay, well he deserved it even if he didn’t quite get it, but he caused it.  I’m an Ash fan, certainly think he has a part to play even if I doubt his ability to lead the line alone at this level, but boy does he put a shift in.  Nice to see that rewarded with his pressure resulting in an OG.

Third, Calde scored.  Cult hero that man is and anyone who doubts it really needs to listen to his performance on The Albion Roar last season.  Total class act.

Fourth, for the third goal Buckers showed us the skill we all know he has but which has been missing a bit of late.  Plus Spanish Dave seemed back on song on Spanish Day.

And fifth, and I’m not always his biggest fan, Lua Lua bossed the game.  I mean, really bossed it.  I’ve not seem him do that before for 90 minutes and he showed how effective he can be when his head is in game mode.  I found it puzzling in the extreme that the match sponsors gave man of the match to Rohan Ince.

So, it’s sangrias all round then.  The Seagulls’ flight path is back on track.  Six games unbeaten.  Five points from nine against Reading, QPR and Bolton is a healthy return.  Perhaps that will help the Amex finally get rid of its post-play-off hangover, an eleven minutes to blow away the cobwebs.

Of course, there’s a long way to go just yet.  This is only the beginning of Oscar’s journey.  But that second half today from a squad still somewhat decimated by injury was the cause for much optimism.  Who needs a Gus Bus when you have Oscar’s wardrobe, the only man who can get away with wearing Farahs, a sweater and tie and still look classy.  Well, I guess he has come from Barca, they can get away with that look on the continent.

Perhaps he really has come to bring us joy.  But I’m sticking with my prediction of tenth for now.  I hope I’m wrong.