Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The talking rolodex

If you had asked me a year ago whether I would have considered using Twitter or any social media platform as a medium for hiring a law firm I would have dismissed the idea as ill thought out.

So why have I just used Twitter to find a law firm to provide a junior lawyer on secondment to the FT?

The facts: FT lawyer about to go on maternity leave; recruitment process for maternity cover slightly behind where we'd like it to be; fairly urgent need for lawyer to step-into the gap between mat leave and mat cover; and inherent unwillingness to use recruitment agencies.

Obvious solution: speak to key relationship firms to arrange a short-term secondment.  Tried that, no dice for a straight secondment (that's not a criticism by the way, just a fact).

What next: well, I fancied the idea of a bit of an experiment.  I've been fortunate to build a good network on Twitter and for the most part it's made up of lawyers or other professionals working in or with some connection to the legal community.  Tweet goes out: "do any law firms want a chat about a secondment".

Results: good.  6 or so initial chats/DMs/emails exchanged.  3 subsequent Tweet-ups. One firm engaged.

Analysis: those following Twitteratigate (incidental links, read The Time Blawg for the whole story, read in_house_lawyer for the succinct sea change analysis) might think that the above results are surprising.  After all law firms don't engage via social media do they? On the other hand, I'm lucky enough to work for a brand and product that is a bit of a draw, so I guessed there would be some interest.  But even applying a "discount" for the FT-brand factor, I think the exercise proves that engagement is there, to a degree.  Thank you again to those of you that did.

Risks: although "instructing via Twitter" might sound unusual to the uninitiated, there are no risks in terms of who we have engaged that would not be there if we had found the firm via a law firm directory (bad example, I never would) through a contact or similar.  We spoke to the firm we engaged on the 'phone twice, met, chatted, asked questions, liked them.  And in any case, it's a well known firm, with a good reputation who I've been aware of for years, but never worked with.  But, nevertheless throughout this process I have been conscious there are optical risks finding a firm in this way, primarily for me.

Traditionalists (or even non-traditionalists) might wonder why the GC of the FT needs to find law firms via Twitter.  Surely I'm better networked than that?  Is it appropriate for big blue chips to find professional advisors in this way?  And in public so to speak?  Isn't it just a bit of a new fad gimmick?  I can see why people might think that and I asked those questions of myself.  Yes, I certainly could have got on the 'phone for an hour or two or three and worked through some contacts, found recommendations, rung them etc.  Maybe I could have tried harder with the relationship firms who initially said no.  Or talked to other laywers I've met in the past and not worked with who would probably like to work with us.  But frankly I didn't have time.  And I wanted to work with someone who was both interested in doing this and who could resource it.  And yes, a small part of me wanted to work with someone who "gets it" (you know what I mean if you found this through a Tweet).

Twitter is many different things and in this instance it has been a huge talking rolodex.  Ask a question, people see it whether directly or through helpful RTs, and those that are interested can talk, those that are not can ignore, and it means I have not bothered them and wasted their time, nor wasted my own time in doing so.  Efficiency personified.

Caveats: our secondment requirement was non-confidential, non-strategic and with no real sector specialism requirements.  I would not use social media in this way for an engagement with any of these criteria.  Indeed, I would rightly expect questions asked of me internally if I did so.  Those are projects where you most likely already know the person you want to work with, or if you don't, you carry out more forensic due diligence and in confidence.  To use Twitter or any other social media platform for an engagement of that nature would arguably be unprofessional, bad judgement and demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the legal sector (although I suppose each case would depend on its facts).

But, for a requirement such as our secondment, it's been perfect and I would certainly do it again.  Thanks Twitter for facilitating the subject of Twitteratigate, namely engagement.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

It's client care, but not as we know it

This is a copy of a letter I have not yet received and nor am I sure if it has been drafted yet:

“Dear legalbrat
In recognition of the excellent relationship Big Law LLP has with the Financial Times, and Big Law’s recognition of how important the FT is as a client, we have decided to provide the FT with access to a dedicated Account Manager.  We anticipate, with your permission of course, that your Account Manager will spend up to 90 days a year working directly on site with you and your team at the FT, will continually monitor legal developments that affect your industry and filter them to you in an appropriate manner that works for you, and will ensure that all advice delivered by our firm to you is provided in a manner that makes it instantly usable by you within the business.  We anticipate that you will also have your own ideas about how you might wish to work with your Account Manager.  Prior to joining Big Law LLP your Account Manager spent 5 years leading the in-house team at Big Client Limited.  We are delighted to offer this new service to our key clients such as the Financial Times free-of-charge.
Love from Big Law LLP"

First of all, what this is not.  This is not an in-house bleat about what outhouse should do better (don't worry, there will be plenty of those in the future).  This is an in-house proposal about what outhouse could do differently and how in-house needs to help outhouse get away from the joint obsession with the concept of the "client relationship partner".

I think a lot about the relationship between in-house counsel and our external advisors.  It is a critical relationship and the onus is as much on in-house counsel to make it work as it is with external counsel.  And whilst it is easy (and of course unequivocally correct) for us in-housers to bleat on about the iniquity of the hourly rate and such, it is also incumbent on us to make constructive suggestions for improvement to the way in which in-house and outhouse work together.  This is a firm belief of mine. 

So here’s a suggestion and here is the elevator pitch: law firms need professional account managers in non-fee earning/account management roles dedicated to key clients.  And what's more, ex-inhousers would be ideally suited to those roles.

Why?  Okay, here is the conundrum.

Clients want: our outside lawyers to understand our business and indeed our industry (but we’re not going to pay to help them get that understanding coz we’re tight like that); one or two consistent points of contact at partner level who are readily available often at unsociable hours; a move away from the hourly rate; undefined “better value” from our law firms; and to have our cake and eat it which eventually will lead to indigestion.

Partners want: to understand their clients’ business and indeed their industry; their clients to believe that they understand their business and industry far more than they really can be reasonably expected to do; to service many different clients; for each client to believe they are “special” to that partner; the associates in their teams to help them achieve all of this; the associates in their teams to like them, or at least not to hate them; and probably to leave the office from time to time.

Managing Partners want: what clients want; what partners want; oh yes, and higher profits and happier staff, but not at the expense of what clients want and what partners want taking a hit.

It doesn’t add up, does it?  This is an equation that doesn’t balance.  It is not easy for partners to draft, advise, strategise, make small talk, do the corporate entertainments stuff, be available day and night, understand multiple industries, understand multiple clients, write client newsletters, Tweet (let's not go there again), bill their hours, prepare the invoices, negotiate the invoices (sorry guys), prepare the invoices again, do the law firm politics, win new business, manage staff, keep existing business and keep up to date with the law.

So here’s a question for clients.  Why do we expect our main contact at our relationship firms being a partner or other fee earner?

And here’s a question for law firms.  Why do partners have to be the sales team, the account managers and the implementation experts?

Is there a role in large City law firms for a lawyer who has no billing targets but whose role is to act effectively as an account manager for a small number of major clients?  I think there is.  But this would only work if it is a real role, it cannot be farmed out to business development or marketing.  To succeed from a client perspective it has to be a role undertaken by a lawyer.  And to succeed from a law firm perspective it has to be undertaken by someone who is not burdened with hourly targets and all of the other rigmarole that I’ve referred to above.  This person’s JD is to “make the firm’s clients happier”.

So on the plus side of the balance sheet, this is why I think this idea is a flyer:

These are the most difficult aspects of my job: prioritising; managing workflow amongst our legal team; not knowing what question I might be asked tomorrow; managing client expectations; keeping our team happy; keeping our internal clients happy; predicting the issues that need to concern us; fighting the fires whilst keeping the BAU flowing.  No outside law firm knows how I deal with these issues.  It's very hard for law firms to understand the process flow in an in-house legal team: by this, I mean how we receive our “instructions”; the expectation from our clients in the delivery of our advice, both in method and timing; the business issues in the background; the personalities involved; the decisions we as in-house legal are often expected to take, quickly.  

And here are the reasons why as an idea this could seriously crash and burn:

First and foremost, selling the concept of a non-fee earning lawyer to a partnership of fee earning lawyers is not exactly an easy sell, because additional non fee-earning staff = potential for decreased PEP.  Yes, I know things are more liberal (in a North London Islington-sense of the word) out there in Big Law these days.  For example PSLs are taken seriously and not regarded as the couldn’t hack-its they once (unfairly) were and it has even radically become acceptable for lawyers to admit they don't want to be partners (they even get special job titles like Director so the others know who to smile at sympathetically).  Couple this with the fact that many client relationship partners will be reluctant to let another member of the firm too close to their prestige client (aka eat what you kill), and we have a serious barrier to entry.  Thirdly, measuring the return on investment would be difficult and (rightly) law firms are all about ROI.

I am not naively arguing that this new Account Management role should necessarily sit within the equity level of partnership, particularly in remuneration terms. But, equally importantly, for this to work any partnership would need to embrace the new generation of Account Managers as welcome additions to the firm who had clout, influence and something to offer, and not as unwelcome cost centres who are somehow inferior to the fee-earning engine room of the firm.

Whilst I truly believe in the benefits that the role I am outlining might bring, part of me feels my own scepticism as I type this post as to whether it could really work. But those of us interested in influencing the manner and method in which legal services are delivered in the future - and I am - need to take risks.  If you don’t buy a ticket, and all that.  And why couldn’t it work if delivered in the right way?  Wouldn’t any sensible equity partner welcome the idea of an ex in-houser “riding shotgun” with them and frankly taking some of the intolerable pressure off their shoulders and educating them how particular clients like their legal services to be delivered?  And at the same time educating clients who enjoy the benefit of the Account Management service on how to get the best out of their firms, which as in-house counsel we always like to say we know how to do, but maybe don’t always get right.  And do you know what?  If anyone tries it and it doesn’t work out, so what.  It leaves a few people older and wiser and not much worse off.

Why am I advocating that only in-house alumni should enjoy these new roles within law firms?  Well, like anything else, I’m sure the situation shouldn’t be that binary.  I will always recognise the technical excellence of law firms and their ability to deep dive into almost any vertical subject matter and emerge with the right legal answer.  That said, however technically excellent an outhouser is, until they have worked in an open-plan environment, with no office door, where the CEO and most junior salesperson have equal and immediate access, and where you have to decide what cannot be done on any given day against what must be done, then there remains a gap between the skills of delivering legal advice and implementing legal advice.

Still need convincing?  Think about it in this context then.  Much has been made of the fact that the Legal Services Act will permit third party investment in law firms.  Imagine that the private equity guys want a piece of the action (and one board level director at a silver circle firm tells me he is convinced that they will).  Will the p/e boys want to see their sweatiest assets (not literally of course) doing as much of the non-chargeable work as is currently expected of the rainmakers?  Nope.  Ignoring professional services, look at most other industries - IT, construction, financial services, publishing, professional education - do we expect the salesforce to implement the product or service that has been sold; or the account manager to sell; or the implementation expert to account manage?  Of course not, that would be totally inefficient.  Take the most successful IT companies: sell, implememt, manage account - 3 separate workstreams, 3 separate skillsets.

There has been plenty of blogging lately making clear that firms have to do something different to stand out.  But as clients we have to help,which in this case means not freaking out if the client partner says "meet your new account manager".  So as lawyers, whether we're clients or law firms, let's work together to see if this off-the-wall idea just might have some legs, and let's prove that there is such a thing as innovative lawyers.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Twitter use in the UK legal sector

@lawyercatrin got the attention of many Tweagles yesterday by drawing our attention to a report published by intendance entitled “Focus on Twitter: An overview of Twitter use in the UK legal sector”You can read The Lawyer’s synopsis of the report here.
The gist of the report is that: law firms are not very good at using Twitter; unless they are Allen & Overy apparently; Norton Rose are tenth in the law firm Twitter charts even though no Tweets have ever been Tweeted from twitter.com/NortonRoseGroup; and there’s some unnamed guy from Charles Russell (who we must assume is @TMT_Lawyer) who Tweets a lot.
The intendance report does not make any points that anyone half conversant with Twitter (and as a recentish convert I certainly do not make myself out to be an expert or anything approaching) could not work out for themselves.  But.....if the results of the research are accurate (and I have not sought to verify them), then that suggests the law firms (meaning entities, not necessarily the lawyers within them) the subject of the research are indeed not half conversant with Twitter so should find it useful.
At this point it is traditional to start putting the boot into law firm partners: they don’t get it, the world is changing, blah blah blah.
But if I were a law firm partner, then I would be putting the boot into my business development and marketing teams.
I’ve just checked the Norton Rose and Allen & Overy Twitter accounts.  If I worked in NortonRose comms, I’d have made sure I’d Tweeted something by now about why I hadn’t Tweeted before.  And if I worked in Allen & Overy comms, I’d probably be Tweeting something self-congratulatory about the intendance research.  Twitter silence however in both courts some 8 hours after @lawyercatrin Tweeted the story.
The Lawyer published a related article in December about PR agencies urging lawyers to wake up to social media.  This generated a lot of fairly polarised comment from users, but one of the themes running through the posts is that law firms don’t “get” social media.
Now I know from my own experience Tweeting at legal conferences or seminars, that many lawyers don’t “get” Tweeting and give you a kind of small sympathetic what-a-loser-you-must-be smile when you explain what you are doing.  But over time they will get it (and then those of us who like to think we had first mover advantage will complain that Twitter has become mainstream and staid and look for the next new thing.  Quora anyone?).  But the people in law firms who should definitely “get” Twitter *now* are their marketing and biz dev teams.
All of the law firms surveyed by intendance will have created a lot of valuable content over the last 12 months.  Some of that content will be published in the nice glossy pamphlets that still sit in law firm lobbies (another note to law firm marketeers: kill the pamphlets, save the trees, and stick 10 iPads in reception with your client briefings pre-installed as PDFs.  Gimmicky but catchy).  A lot more of it will have been pushed out by email and deleted by in-house counsel that signed-up to email updates long ago with best intentions but tend to kill what they don’t need in their inbox.
Simple question to law firm biz dev folk: why aren’t you pushing that content out on Twitter? 
Generic firm Twitter feeds are not enough.  By way of example: twitter.com/dla_piper_news, bubbling under at number two in the intendance charts.  DLA’s most recent Tweets relate to Dutch employment law, US bankruptcy law, UK environmental law and how the tax team held a seminar on the Tax Code of Ukraine.  Now, unless there are many US companies facing bankruptcy and wondering what impact that might have on their Dutch-national but Ukranian-based employees’ tax status, that strikes me as a tad generalist as a Twitter feed.
Law firms: repackage your content please so that Twitter updates are sector specific, find users who you think will follow and who have decent followings, and deliver the content your lawyers have already created in a format that a heavily engaged audience will really appreciate and most likely use.
This request for tailored legal updates is not intended to negate or replace what I know is the real value of Twitter: engagement, community, interaction, conversation, debate and networking.  This is where “the lawyers” within their firms do have a role to play and there are many outhousers out there leading the way (see aforementioned @TMT_Lawyer as one example).
But, looking at the intendance research, it looks to me like it’s the law firm marketing teams who need to raise their Twitter game, fast.  And if I were a law firm partner then I’d be having a conversation with my marketing team soon about good old fashioned ROI in the context of good new fashioned social media.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

How CEOs assess the performance of their lawyers; or Why it's good to say thanks for the coffee

Let's ignore the irony that this post about assessment of lawyers' performance is written by a lawyer shall we? Yes?  Good.
Last week I attended the Pinsent Masons Atlas Retreat (#pmar).  The Chatham House rule prevents me from sourcing the origin of this post, who was an ex-lawyer, ex-chair of board, ex-company director, ex-superhero etc.  Let's call him in a pedantic lawyer defined term kind of way, "the Speaker".  The Speaker was here, so we thought, to talk about how CEOs assess the performance of their lawyers.
However, he started thus: "Most boards of directors have extreme difficulty understanding whether they are getting good legal advice."
This statement is a discussion point in itself and open to challenge (certainly I don't think it is true of the board at our shop, but you might think I would say that wouldn't I, hi all if you have tuned in).  But for the purposes of this post, let's assume the statement is true.
The purpose behind the Speaker's comment was not to make the point that directors are unintelligent.  It was to make the point that for lawyers to stand out, to differentiate themselves, it is not enough to articulate the law because many clients (whether CEOs or not) may not know whether or not what we tell them is accurate. 
Hold that thought about differentiation and picture this scene (a real life anecdote that our Speaker bestowed on us): the CEO of an airline is flying back from a business trip on one of the company's aeroplanes.  A stewardess on the flight falls sick and is unable to carry out her duties.  The CEO offers his services to the rest of the cabin crew, to do what he can to help, even if it is just to clear up the rubbish.  Imagine the effect this small gesture had on the perception of the CEO the cabin crew held.  And of the staff those cabin crew told the story to.  And of the staff those staff told the story to.  Etcetera.
And picture this scene (another real life anecdote a GC told me last week): the office of a well known magazine publisher.  A Christmas charity raffle for staff.   Bing's "White Christmas" playing in the background as the snow falls against the windows of the office (okay, I made that bit up for colour). The raffle prizes are all sourced from the gifts received by the CEO during the year from suppliers, business partners etc.
Go back to the thought I asked you to hold earlier about differentiation.  The point of these anecdotes?  The actions taken by the CEOs heavily influenced the perception of them by their staff.
It's the age old cliché.  That actions speak louder than words.  Which was the Speaker's point - a lawyer's ability to influence the perception their clients hold of them extends well beyond their ability to articulate the law.
As lawyers, of course we know that our value is not measured simply in terms of our ability to articulate the law.  We tend to seek to differentiate ourselves by our espousing our ability to apply the law in context, by our ability to "be commercial" or pragmatic.  But the differentiator the Speaker focused on, and which I am trying to encourage us to think about, is more subtle than that.
This is about the small things.  How do we interact with people?
How do you interact with the post room at work?  Do you say thank you to the person in the canteen who sells you coffee?  Or hello to the cleaner who empties the office bins each evening?  Simple things, but things that may influence what people think of us, and therefore what clients think of us as people and also as lawyers.  Frankly, are we normal human beings or are we sitting in an ivory tower practising law in cloud cuckoo city?
The Speaker argued that lawyers are still regarded by many as insulated from the real world.  Hence the need for us to find subtler and more refined signals to which clients are receptive.  Now, maybe the post/coffee/bin examples above are a bit ham fisted, overly "right-on" and even patronising.  But as caricatured examples they make a point.
The Speaker drew our attention to the website of Axiom Legal, a kind of virtual law-firm, pointing out how the Axiom website includes video profiles of some of their lawyers which include a short voxpop on their legal background but also their real-life background.  Message: we're lawyers, but we're human too, you might like working with us.  I just checked it out now, and the homepage strapline is “Lawyers you like”.
One of my key principles practising law and one that is instilled in the FT's legal team is  ‘Approachability’.  Everyone in the team should be approachable by everyone in the business.  It's a hell of a business development tool.  And how do we make ourselves approachable?  Walk the floors.  Meet our non-legal colleagues where they sit, not where the lawyers sit.  Water cooler advice.  Open plan environment.  Attitude (no high and mighty).  Smiley happy lawyers (usually).  Yes, approachability can go too far like the client who tried to drag one of the team out of the toilet just before Christmas to provide some advice, but I digress.
There's not much rocket science in here is there?  And if I was reading this I might even be tempted to nod knowingly and think "yep, I already do that", move on, thanks for teaching egg sucking, Unfollow, do not pass go.  But it's always worth a sanity check, isn't it?
So a bit like the session at #pmac, this blog post has not done exactly what it said it would do on the tin.  It hasn't told you exactly how CEOs measure the performance of lawyers.  But I hope that it has reminded you, as the Speaker did me, how the perception of clients, whether it is the CEO or someone else, can be influenced by the smallest things.  In today's competitive environment, whether practising in-house or out-house, the smallest things can bring us the defining margins.
Small editorial disclaimer: those of you who take the trouble to click-through to the Axiom website may note that their homepage makes mention of a recent FT award that Axiom won.  I’m not involved in the award-giving gig, just in case the combination of my mentioning Axiom and the FT award looks a little too cosy for comfort.