Tag Archives: midlaw

Law firms: consider the pilot fish and the shark

pilotoceanic_whitetipFor all the well-known reasons, aggregate demand for legal services delivered by traditional law firms is flat. That has been pretty well documented. (In fact, enough already.)

So, the firms that are succeeding are the ones taking business from others (they are taking business from other law firms and taking it from alternative legal services providers, as well).

Here are three opportunities for midsize firms in this jungle:

Midsize firms can take business from big firms when clients elect to hire smaller firms where (i) the service is equivalent or better, (ii) costs are lower, and (iii) firm principals are more directly engaged in direct client service.

Midsize firms can take business from small firms where the midsize firm can bring broader and deeper capabilities.

Midsize firms can take business from anyone, anywhere, any time a midsize firm can provide experience-honed legal judgment delivered person-to-person by empathetic, seasoned professionals.

But “taking business” from others need not be all tooth-and-claw. Think instead pilot-fish-and-shark.

Artful midsize firms can build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with other firms — large and small — law firm and alternative provider —  by networking, collaborating, complementing.

Midsize firms are uniquely apt for networking.

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Mid size law firms doomed to planning, diligence

due-diligenceGuilford College president Jane Fernandes once counseled the College’s board of trustees that there is a difference between “planning” and “hoping.” (She communicated this very diplomatically, a measure of her fitness for her job.)

In a word (well, two words) the difference is “due diligence.”

British law firm consultants Edward Drummond & Co recently advised “mid-tier” firms in England that the largest London firms are shouldering mid-tier firms out of high-margin work. Mid-tier firms, Drummond says, are in danger of losing their ability to attract new business.

But, there is hope. Drummond, itself a planning consultant, says there is

scope for mid-tier firms to improve their margins by placing greater focus on ‘rigorous strategic planning’. For their new ventures to be effective, the consultancy said, it was imperative that mid-tier firms dramatically ramp up in-depth market research and competitor analysis while also ensuring a thorough understanding of the potential opportunities and risks of the work.

Firms were warned that without carrying out detailed due diligence, they could risk seeing seemingly profitable new business ventures suffer or even fail.

Before firms commit to “new lines of business” though, a Drummond partner counseled

  • analysis of competitors,
  • identifying gaps in the market, and
  • targeting potential clients

Failure to commit to rigorous due diligence is more strategic hope than strategic planning. It risks doom.

What all this means in the context of mid-size American law firms is a horse of a somewhat different color than what British mid-tier firms face, but still a horse.

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Midsize law firms showing vigor

A glass building in downtown Greensboro,North Carolina. Notice the reflection on the glass.

An outfit that calls itself “MidLaw” and extols the virtues of midsize law firms probably has an obligation to call attention to January 12’s Georgetown Law Thomson Reuters “2017 Report on the State of the Legal Market” wherein it is reported (pages 13 and 14) that

midsize firms saw a consistent upward trend in demand growth and fees worked, as well as an improvement in productivity from the beginning to the end of the [last 3 years]. … One possible interpretation of these results is that clients, while still directing some types of work to high-end, fairly specialized, premium firms (like the AmLaw 50) are increasingly willing to move substantially down market to smaller firms (midsize firms) in order to achieve significant price savings.

For purposes of discussion, MidLaw is going to be large-minded about these references to what is “high-end” and what is “down market.” We could have found more directionally accurate terms.

Much in the 18-page report confirms what you’ve heard here at MidLaw for years in multiple posts.

 

Law firms are surrounded. We must circle the wagons. But around what?

165hThe Financial Times recently published a very good, short article about legal technology: “Artificial intelligence disrupting the business of law.” It drives home the point that law firms are surrounded by new technologies, by alternative providers, by accounting firms providing legal services, and more. Big Law is under attack and it is beginning to fight back by investing in big technology.

MidLaw can never do that. Mid-size firms must look to third party providers to bring technology solutions.

But that’s fine. It frees mid-size firms to focus on their particular competencies, their core clients, and their home markets.

What does a mid-size firm do uniquely well? What is its focus? Get clear about that. There is a different answer for every firm. Context matters. Identity matters. Competence matters. Ethos matters.

The counter-intuitive next step after finding focus is to go beyond it. After you know who you are, the next step is to ask what goes with that? How do you grow it? What else can you be? What other services are natural expansions of core competencies?

And here is a key: growth beyond core competencies may not be limited to services that require a law license. The definition of the “practice of law” has limited relevance to the growth of a law practice. Do not allow the fact that you are a law firm delude you into the belief that you are limited to delivering legal services. Non-lawyer competitors are thriving based on the proposition that much that law firms do is not the practice of law.

Context matters:

  • who are you?
  • what are you good at?
  • what are you uniquely good at?
  • who are your clients?
  • what services can you provide to them, whether the practice of law or not?
  • what markets do you reach, can you reach?

The definition of the phrase “law firm” is shifting, shaking, and shrinking. Potential clients don’t see law firms as alternatives that all do about the same thing. And they don’t much care what the legal definition of  “the practice of law” may be.

MidLaw chauvinism

A photo by Charlie Harutaka. unsplash.com/photos/Gacd_XeSGQk

Photo by Charlie Harutaka.

Occasionally MidLaw has been characterized as diagnosing the obsolescence of mid-size firms. Sometimes we’re even said to be predicting the demise of mid-size firms. So I was glad that Kathryn Whitaker titled her JD Supra interview with me as “The Case for the Mid-Sized Law Firm.”

Of course, from time to time MidLaw does seek to understand the changes around us. And, from time to time it adverts to those who predict the end of the practice of law as we know it. Sometimes, MidLaw countenances those who proclaim the end of law firms altogether. But withal — MidLaw is solid – firm – in the conviction that mid-sized firms will be the last to go.

Kathryn quotes me as saying

A mid-sized firm is the best place on the planet to be a lawyer. The key is direct engagement with clients and colleagues.

Well, that’s what happens with oral interviews. You get all wound up and then you say something that you can’t take back. So, I am staked out. But, at least I believe what I said. No pivot here.

[In an earlier post, MidLaw proposed to republish Kathryn’s  JD Supra interview in this space, but I have come to the conclusion that the thing is just too long to put here, especially when it’s already been published over there. So, here’s another link instead.]

The main thing is: We will be the last to go!

Henceforth please understand: when MidLaw acknowledges the challenges that beset us, I am  simply setting the stage for us once more to demonstrate our resilience – to flex our agility. Remember, it was MidLaw who said these five years past, “Mid-Sized Firms Are the Only Hope for the Future of the Legal Profession,” and, later, more modestly, “I like MidLaw’s chances.”

The worm at the core of law firm management

Blake2Writing for Bloomberg Law, Aric Press gives an account of a presentation made by Albert Bollard from McKinsey about the nature of “expert organizations” like law firms.

There’s a worm at the core of law firms. “Expert work,” Bollard says, “is misaligned with customer value.”

Clients want “higher levels of service, delivered faster and more responsively, in a rapidly evolving landscape.” But, expert practitioners value expertise, autonomy, and independence, which they understand as the foundation of their ethics and the core of their identity as advocates and advisors.

In traditional law firms,

  • expertise is “valued for its own sake, rather than for contributing to customer value;”
  • knowledge is not “codified or shareable”, but is transmitted by apprenticeship;
  • individual practitioners own their separate engagements, and they are not oriented to improve “the way their organizations perform tasks;” and
  • there is no “end-to-end ownership” of the client’s experience, and limited ability to create and enforce “standard ways of working.”

Independence and autonomy foster counselors and empower advocates; but not managers and processors — and not efficiency.

It’s the rare law firm of any size that functions for very long as an integrated, cohesive, centrally directed team. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. And cat-like independence impedes efficiency. It breeds misalignment between lawyer and client. It feeds the worm.

Commercial and institutional clients are themselves, managers and processors. They want service, fast and efficient. Don’t talk to them about autonomy. Don’t try to get them to care about expertise for its own sake.

The worm is a core challenge for lawyers. The misalignment between professional values and commercial values generates tension. Expertise and independence are GOOD. Efficiency and responsiveness are GOOD. If managed well, the tension between them can be creative.  

Easily and obviously, mid-size law firms are the practice setting best suited for aligning values, for keeping clients close and fostering creativity.

 

The nature of the law firm – it’s about the client

pellicansLawyers are going now for 10 years contemplating The End of Lawyers? and how legal services organizations might be configured in the future. New taxonomies have emerged: Big Law, Mid Law, Alternative Services Providers, legal process managers, and more.

The thinking of economist Robert Coase has been rediscovered. Coase wrote The Nature of the Firm. Firms are needed, he said, only where performing functions within an enterprise costs less than outsourcing.

And so lawyers have taken Coase for guidance in how to build law firms. They ask themselves what advantages are won by taking functions in-house (specialty practices, IT, etc.) and what functions should be outsourced. “Full service law firms” are a challenged model. Is it better to be a one-stop organization, possibly with multiple offices; or a niche-oriented, highly networked shop?

But, wait.  Are law firms asking the right question?

The driving question is not so much how law firms should be configured. It is how will clients configure themselves? Can businesses obtain legal services better in-house or outside? If they go outside, are they better served by law firms or alternatives?

For law firms, the truly strategic question is not whether they need an ERISA capability, or a healthcare practice. It is what services will clients do for themselves? And, when clients choose to go outside, what can a law firm do better and cheaper than alternative providers? These are questions that are answered quite differently, depending on the size, location and practice competencies of different law firms.

The concept that legal services are best delivered from a stand-alone professional services partnership – in order to assure independence, competence and objectivity – has modest appeal for clients who have concluded that they can obtain the same services more efficiently elsewhere.

What can traditional law firms do best by these measures?

It’s about the client’s economics, not the law firm’s.

Quentin_Massys_-_Portrait_of_a_Man_-_National_Gallery_of_Scotland

Organizations, including law firms — the new “defining archetype”

Knowledge project height_250_width_250_tkp

“The defining archetype of the new world of organizations is no longer the middle manager but in fact the free agent.

Venkatesh Rao said this in the Podcast, “Venkatesh Rao on the Three Types of Decision Makers, Mental Models, and How to Process Information,” at The Knowledge Project.

Law firms planing for the #Social Era should start from this insight, which, as MidLaw has been saying, throws back to 19th Century models.

The ascendancy of free agents goes to the core of why the mid size is the right size for law firms. Rightly ordered mid size firms have no middles, and they are best suited to foster autonomous professionals.

New members of law firms, be wary of settling into roles that are too narrowly focused on your firm’s internal hierarchies or structures. Focus on external networks.

 

 

Sir Thomas More and the mid size law firm

HThomas-Moree was the great lawyer of the English common law. He stood at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of what came next. A lawyer who was canonized.

Thomas More’s 1998 biographer, Peter Ackroyd, says that

For most of his life, More was a lawyer and a public administrator; he was not a visionary or a scholarly humanist. … [H]e believed that experience in the practical business of the world led to prudent deliberation and good judgement [sic].

“Experience in the practical business of the world leads to prudent deliberation and good judgment.”

Experience, deliberation, judgment. That is the core franchise of the mid size law firm. It is the promise that mid size firms make to beginning lawyers; and the product they deliver to clients.

The same thing is at the core of “the practical liberal arts,” which President Jane Fernandes is defining at Guilford College. Practical experience married with structured study of tradition and learning.

10 practice management challenges for mid-size law firms


netword of lagunasOn those rare occasions when I am not optimistic about the prospects of mid-size law firms, I am very pessimistic. Oh yes, mid-size firms are the best setting for practicing law. And many of the current challenges to the legal profession play to mid-size firms’ strengths. And some legal subject areas are positively booming. But except for that, things look daunting.

So this title to a recent Dr. George Beaton blog post – “10 reasons BigLaw managing partners are not sleeping very well” – braced me for a jolt. Challenges to BigLaw most often are not so different from the challenges to MidLaw.

But then I examined Beaton’s 10 reasons. One by one, I liked MidLaw’s chances.

1. Client power.  Large corporations now have alternatives to hiring law firms. They can bring work in-house, or use alternative legal services providers, or exercise their formidable bargaining power for large engagements. Those are challenges that must vex the large law firms. MidLaw on the other hand, can appeal both to the largest clients and also to smaller clients. They can be closely engaged with clients in the management of their legal function. And, if a law firm is not fixated on having every bit of a client’s work, mid-size firms and their clients can find the balance where legal services are rationally allocated among alternatives, and law firms are sized and structured to do the work they are best suited to do (which is not all of it).

2. New competitors.  Alternative legal services providers are taking work that law firms once did. Good! New, alternative providers have found opportunities because law firms were doing work that they were not best suited for. Now, alternative providers are taking the routine, repeatable work. They are making the big investments in technology. Mid-size firms need not staff up or make the investments needed to provide those services. This is an opportunity. Stay smaller, learn to work with (and, to use) the alternative providers, to focus on what lawyers do best, and to build the kinds of firms and professional cultures around the smaller bases that this makes possible.

3. Big Four accounting firms taking legal work.  It was never about occupational licenses. From MidLaw’s perspective, what’s the difference between BigLaw and BigFour? There is also competition from smaller accounting firms, but the point’s the same. What’s the difference between competition from other law firms and competition from accounting firms? Accounting firms (all sizes) remain great sources of referrals for MidLaw firms. Monitor those referrals. They are a good indicator of where your sweet spot may be. If you elect to compete for the same work accounting firms do, then understand how you can do that work better-cheaper-faster than the competition.

4. Technology is a challenge for everyone.  Mid-size firms may be better positioned to navigate new technology than others. The place between the largest firms and the smallest looks like a good place to be. Mid-size firms are the most attractive marketing niche for many technology providers who are designing products to suit. Be nimble.

5. Firm brands are becoming more important than individual lawyer brands.  Beaton says this is inexorable. I’d say the pace is still gradual. Beaton says,

This trend is being driven by the interactions of clients’ buying patterns, technology, globalisation, and talent. Building a distinctive brand is more about culture and discipline than anything else. Custom and practice legacies and inertia are the enemies of brand-building.

These are good insights. Mid-size firms are well suited to nurture distinctive cultures, but they are deathly subject to “practice legacies and inertia.” And then there is “discipline.” Be intentional about who you are.

6. Globalization.  Twenty-five years ago, what was called “international law” was the almost-exclusive domain of large firms in large U.S. cities. That has changed as technology, global commerce and cross-border legal practice have evolved. Various forms of networking rival the advantages (without the formidable disadvantages) of multinational law firms. Globalization is now a MidLaw opportunity. Reach for it.

7. Attracting and holding talent.  Here is the greatest advantage of mid-sized firms: they are (can be, anyway) more fun. Beaton outlines the challenges for BigLaw (“the universal allure of life-time partnership in a BigLaw firm is no more”). The challenges Beaton identifies are also challenges for mid-size firms. But mid-size firms look better suited to meet them. Mid-size firms are better able to forge personal and professional connections among their members. Be intentional about it.

8. Change management.  Beaton says the ability to change is now mission-critical for law firms. You bet. Change will be a challenge from now on – everywhere, for everyone, in every endeavor, at all times. And there is quite a lot of change facing legal services organizations just now. Law firms have held it back for so long, but not any more. Mid-size firms, as smaller organizations, have the possibility of greater agility. But they can also fail much more tidily and efficiently than larger firms. Not every mid-size firm is agile.

9. Partnership structure.  The partnership form clearly does not suit large national and multi-national  law firms. Partnership impedes change and capital formation in organizations composed of large numbers of professionals who do not know and cannot trust each other. For mid-size firms though, partnership can still animate culture. Partnership still looks like the natural structure for professional services colleagues in non-hierarchical organizations that are bound by ties of personal loyalty. But continuing and increasing attention to nurturing connections among members is critical; and capital is more and more an issue, even for smaller firms.

10. Equity management.  Equity management encompasses: remuneration, risk management, right-sizing, binding members to the firm, and the possibility of building capital values for partners and perhaps outside investors. These are issues for mid-size firms as well as the great big ones, albeit in different ways.

This is a good set of law firm management issues to target. Dr. Beaton’s observations about their applications to large law firms are posted at his blog together with links to other materials, issue by issue.