Thursday, 24 February 2011

Social media strategies: #musthaves or #mya**e?

There is, at least in legal social media land, only one real legal issue of the day worthy of attention and debate.  Forget the Jackson reforms, access to justice, prisoner's voting rights, libel reform or whether it is right to require divorcing couples to mediate before they litigate.  These issues are but the froth on the top of any Tweeting lawyer's cappuccino.

The real issue du jour is this: should law firms have social media strategies (SMSs)?  Are they, in Twitter speak: #musthaves or #mya**e?

It matters not of the relevance of this issue to the man sitting on the good old Clapham omnibus.  What we, the legal Twitterati are concerned with, is what is on the mind of the Rainmaker sitting on his or her antique but refurbished sofa (think Cath Kidson meets Emma Bridgewater but with a bespoke limited edition Johnnie Boden twist) in the comfort of their Georgian Clapham townhouse (detached - natch).  Clearly, the issues dominating the thoughts of said rainmaker are not trifling ones such as leveraging PEP, improving associate retention, offering a better work-life balance, assisting on pro bono matters, ensuring lateral hires stay with the firm, to stay domestic or bet international or even about how to make that US takeover, sorry merger, work - these issues are, frankly, for the birds.

Any decent rainmaker on top of his or her Law 2.0 is a man or woman of focus.  Shut out the noise and consider only the following: should my Twitter avatar be photo or logo; what shall I call my blog; how often should I post; how many times can I Tweet the same link; which Tweeps offer the best return on investment in #ff and RT terms; and, the question of all questions: what is the firm's social media strategy.  Crack that one and forget the Magic Circle, it becomes a one firm club.

Thankfully we have as a reference point a historical work that has been described in almost reverential terms as the social media equivalent of the Chilcot Inquiry (well, someone made a wry comment along those lines over a drink after #LawBlogs).

I refer of course to Brian Inkster's Time Blawg.  If any reader can stomach yet another mention of Twitteratigate (cue shameless plug for my own blog post on Twitter use in the UK legal sector,  “just in case you missed it" as they say),  Brian's excellent and comprehensive summary of Twitteratigate certainly caught the imagination of the legal Twitterati.  Contained in the comments of Brian's blog are detailed snippets of various legal social media strategies used by Brian and the blog's commenter’s.  Phrases are used such as "Tweeting in convoy", "the destroyer and the battleships", “segmented streams and sub-brands”, “giving and sharing” and detailed analysis is given to the pros and cons of personal vs corporate logo usage within Twitter.  For any true believer in SMSs, this is comment stream nirvana.

But I must report that not everyone holds these views.  At #LawBlogs the well-known lawyer and New Statesman writer David Allen Green was asked for his also well-known views on social media strategies.  David's response was consistent with his previously Tweeted views on the topic: in summary, that they are misconceived.  Also at #LawBlogs, in response to a question I was asked, I used the phrase "brand ambassadors".  David made his feelings clear on that phraseology the next day in this Tweet using the hashtag that inspired the headline for this post:

David Allen Green (@DavidAllenGreen)
18/02/2011 15:19
There were 29 reliable witnesses last night to @legalbrat using the term "brand ambassador". #MyArse #LawBlogs


David does I think sit in the #myarse camp in the answer to the question posed by this post’s headline.

Such views might almost be considered blasphemy by other Tweeps I follow such as Julian Summerhayes.   According to Julian's website, Julian is a non-practising solicitor with a passion for excellence in professional practice and who regularly starts his day by Tweeting something along the following lines: "Good morning.  Read today's blog post on why lawyers cannot write very clearly, are not very good at social media and need to get better at it.”   A tongue-in-cheek summary, but Julian regularly articulates a strong belief in the need for law firms to prioritise social media by adopting a coherent strategy and approach to their use of it.  Julian is firmly in the #musthave camp.

So what do I think?  SMSs: #musthaves or, ahem, #myarse?  Hard though I know it is, forget temporarily the following concepts: the law, law firms and social media.  Put to the front of your mind: business, resource and profits.

This is a truism: most businesses have finite resource and exist to maximise profits.  In order to maximise profits, business must work out how best to deploy that finite resource to research, develop and sell its products and services.  Doing so requires a variety of strategies: research strategy; development strategy; marketing strategy; sales strategy; customer service strategy; and so on.

Company resource should not be able to approach any of those disciplines in anything other than a co-ordinated fashion.  Otherwise that finite resource is not being deployed effectively or efficiently.  Any business which does not formalise how it approaches each of these strategies is likely to #fail (or at least be less successful than it might otherwise be).  Why should social media be treated any differently?  In fact why should SMSs not just be a small part of a company's marketing strategy (apologies to any social media consultants charging a bundle for advice on this stuff)?

Back to the law and consider any law firm - what are the client-related issues facing it: how to win new clients; how to maintain existing clients; how to win more work off existing clients; how to improve brand presence in certain sectors; how to meet new people; how to build a qualitative network of contacts; how to demonstrate expertise in subject areas; how to look good compared to the competition.  The same issues of course face the individual partners and fee earners working in the firm.

Certainly, sensible use of social media will help individual partners or fee earners achieve any of these aims.  By way of example, two partners from media law practices are now Tweeting useful content regularly who were not so visible on Twitter a few months ago: Mark Owen at Harbottles and Rob Bratby at Olswang.  I've not asked Mark or Rob if Twitter is helping them achieve their aims in some small way, but my bet is that it is, which of course is a good thing for their firms too.  And the impact for any firm will be increased for the better if there is a co-ordinated approach of sorts between different fee earners.  If *speaking quietly* the firm has a social media strategy.

I’m not a SMS evangelist and disagree with Julian’s assertion in a recent blog post that social media should be the number one priority for all law firms.  Any managing partner who has social media at the top of their priority tree is either (a) running the most successful law firm in the world that has solved all of the other pressing issues identified by Julian in his post or (b) in serious need of a rethink about his or her firm’s priorities.  But nor am I a SMS cynic.

The right answer for most firms in my mind lies somewhere in-between these two extremes.  Social media strategy is another form of sales strategy.  If law firms remember this, focus on what they are trying to achieve through their use of social media, ensure that fee earners act in a more or less co-ordinated manner and with the same aims in mind, then their use of social media is far more likely to benefit their business – and their clients - than if they don’t.

So yes, I’m in the #musthave a SMS camp.  But law firms don’t need to engage McKinsey’s finest to write a forty page methodology on this with interactive charting to boot.  Clear and simple guiding principles should do the job equally nicely too.

I hope, for the sake of the UK legal sector and indeed the greater good of the economy in these difficult times, to have shone a light on the answer to what must be one of the most vexing legal issues of modern times.  Whilst some might say that this issue is treated too seriously and with no sense of irony, there is no place for such complacency.  Law firms: it's time to step-up and sort out your SMSs.  Remember, no firm ever survived on expertise, a decent client base, market leading work and a sound business plan.  It's time that SMS ROI replaced PEP as any firm's key metric of success.  You heard it here first.  Next stop, The Time Blawg. Thank you and goodnight.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

DLA and the minimum spend: an investigation (sort of)

So this is an interesting one for any client.  Legal Week reports that DLA Piper are going to introduce minimum billing requirements which new clients must agree to before DLA will agree to act for them.

On the face of it, extraordinary and a bit of a client care own goal.  And if that's the approach DLA are taking with new clients, how long before a similar rule is introduced for existing clients?  There's a touch of the supermodel "won't get out of bed for less than" mentality about it.

I found this particularly interesting since I instruct DLA.   Not in a big way, generally for help where required on lowish level dispute work and we don't have much of that.  Not enough to move any of their internal financial needles one way or another.  Certainly not enough to feature for quite some time on their occasional nice lunch how is your business doing list.  So where might this strategy leave the FT?  Needing to go elsewhere at some point?  I hope not, because they help me out when I need it.

I also have friends and ex-colleagues in the firm, since the department I used to work in at Denton Hall back in the day all upped shop en masse to DLA in 2004.

So for these reasons, I wanted to tread carefully when writing this post.  Because, let's be honest, it would be easy to blast off a quick blog about an outhouse client care fail.  You can read a couple of blogs like that here and here.

Instead, I decided to become a "proper journalist" and emailed a couple of DLA partners some questions about the new guidelines, but explicitly in my capacity as a blogger, not a client.  I must be doing an okay job as a would-be journalist because said lawyers put me in touch with the firm's PRs (or maybe on second thoughts I'm doing a bad job as a fourth estater if I'm being palmed off to the PRs) who very helpfully set-up a call with me and even answered my questions, in detail, by email. 

So, what's the skinny?  Yes, partners have been issued with guidelines to consider about client spend when taking on new clients.  Yes, this issue featured heavily at a partner's conference held in London last Friday.  Yes, it is possible that similar guidelines could be applied to existing clients.  Yes, some partners won't like it but that's life.  And the guidelines suggest levels of between €25-€100k in fees for the first 12 months of any new relationship.  But these are guidelines, not rules.

Well, that's admirably honest and they were not off the record.

So, what's the rationale behind the skinny?  Well, more honesty here too.  Partners are being "encouraged" to consider the strategic direction of the firm when taking on new clients, rather than their individual practice areas.  The guidelines are there to assist them.  A key reason behind this is to avoid picking up clients which might cast large "conflict shadows" (nice term) and prevent the firm from winning future high profit work.  Another reason is the reality that all clients cost a certain amount of money to administer and that in certain cases it might not be worth the cost of the administration. That it's about treating the best clients in the best way, and that best will not necessarily mean biggest fee generators, for example the firm recognises the importance of clients with growth potential or (and maybe they had to say this because it was me on the phone) brand value.

Underlying it all is a stated desire to increasingly focus the majority of the firm's efforts on cross-border work for its global clients, rather than mess around too much in, say, the Sheffields or Istanbuls doing local work for local clients.  That, as the PR put it, it's about finding a balance between evolution and revolution.  Or as Sir Nige might put it, about finding a balance between that old small office near city hall on the Leeds Headrow and Wall Street domination.

So what to make of all the above?  I'd say it demonstrates great business judgement by the management at DLA.  Any non-lawyers or in-housers reading this, consider it from the perspective of your own business.  It makes sense in any business to focus your efforts on your key customers, to dedicate the resource there rather than allow that resource to get distracted by noise elsewhere.  Bluntly, to maximise profits.  And as law firms and their clients increasingly globalise, the risk of conflict shadows must increase, necessitating decisions like the one that has been made at DLA.  I mentioned this story to a west coast partner from a US firm I had lunch with this week.  He said that in the US it is quite the norm to "sack" clients who make no money and cause conflict issues (and even claimed to have "sacked" Apple and eBay from his firm's client roster because they spent next to nowt and conflicted out other work.  Brave man, if true).

Say what you like about DLA (and many commentators often do), they haven't got where they are today by pussy footing around.  I guess if you choose to work there, you know the culture and either embrace it or leave.  It's not for everyone, but it obviously works.  From a client perspective, they are by far the most (chooses word carefully) assertive firm I work with at billing on time every month and reminding you quite, erm, let's say regularly, if the bill has not been paid on time.  But from a business perspective, I bet their cash conversion rates are towards the top of the legal tree.

One of the biggest things I take from this is engagement.  I placed the firm in a potentially tricky position asking some hard questions as a client but with my blogging hat on.  And they responded, frankly and on-the-record.  I like that.  I think their only real mistake in this whole business has not been to assume that the minimum billing guidelines would get leaked and to have been on the back-foot PR wise from the get-go.

Looking after your best clients?  Hard to argue with that.  Trying to avoid a situation where earning £10k from Client X prevents you from earning £50k from Client Y?  Hard to argue with that too.

In case anyone thinks I've gone a bit native with ex-colleagues from my old shop in writing this piece, I haven't, in fact I rarely see many of them.  It's an effort to look at the strategy objectively.  And my general approval of the strategy (not, by the way, that I think anyone at DLA remotely cares what I think about this) is subject to the following caveat: the in-house community (including me) and many legal commentators like to talk about how law firms need to change, to get better at client care, to be more innovative on billing, to get better at adding value and all the rest.  And they do need to get better at that stuff.  But in order to do that, something has to give, the firm needs to maintain profitabiliy whilst enabling the change that the market demands.

If the FT was a big DLA client, I would therefore be hoping, if not expecting, this focussed approach on working with the best clients to result in something for my business, something tangible for those best clients, and not just increased PEP for the partners who find themselves "encouraged" to follow the new guidelines.  Let's see.  What next for me and DLA?  Business-as-usual I expect, although maybe we'll have that lunch now. Unless, of course, they take me off the client roster first :-)

A small disclaimer: it's a difficult one writing about a firm you do business with where there are rightfully expectations of confidentiality on both sides.  Apart from my comments about billing frequency and lunch (which I don't regard as confidential info), the views in this blog are based on my on-the-record chat with DLA about the subject of this post and my general industry knowledge, and are not based on confidential information I may have learnt as a client which I would not comment on in a blog post.  I've also made it clear to DLA that they are very welcome to post a response in the comments section, notwithstanding the client relationship issue.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Why it can be okay for lawyers to just say no

Whenever we hire an outhouse lawyer into our in-house team, I watch for about 3 months whilst the new hire tries to accomplish everything on their to do list day after day, despite good natured warnings from me and the rest of the team that it is neither necessary nor possible to do.  Eventually, within that period of time, the tidal forces of the email inbox prove too powerful and the new in-houser will come and talk to me to say they have more work to do than they can actually manage.

Herein lies a fundamental difference between in-house and outhouse: the ability to “just say no” to a client, or to put it less controversially, the need to prioritise between different clients’ workstreams and communicate to clients where they stand in the prioritisation queue compared to other clients.  Whilst for outhousers the idea of being able to tell clients where they sit in the queue might sound like an attraction, getting  this right and communicating it in the right way remains one of the hardest skills an in-house lawyer has to develop and master.

Over ten years on, I recall a meeting in my last few months of private practice.  'Twas me, my supervising partner and the GC of a large bluechip.  We met, talked about the dog's breakfast of a contract structure and documentation the client was using, agreed to rewrite them, and then came the question that every junior lawyer fears being asked of their supervising partner.  "When do you think you can reissue the drafts."  At that point all meetings go into super slow-motion, the partner turns his or her head slowly to the junior, smiles in a fairly unpleasant manner (think Jack Nicholson in The Shining), then turns his head slowly back to the client and this time gives a winning white-teeth Hollywood smile (think Cameron Diaz or George Clooney) before saying "I'd say tomorrow or the next day latest.  Would that be okay?”   Meanwhile a silent but migraine-inducing "Noooooooooooooooooooo" sounds in the associate's head as they calculate all else that needs doing within the same 48 hour period.

Now, there is much that is critical to be said from an outhouse perspective about the above - inadequate associate resourcing, unnecessarily ambitious promises to clients, making unilateral decisions that affect others without pre-discussion, I could go on.  However, that is not for now.

But there is also one very, very positive takeaway from this scenario.  Private practice associates get used to promising and meeting tight deadlines, which is an excellent and indeed necessary discipline for any lawyer.

Let's get back to our recenty escaped outhouser, now installed in the emotionally fulfilling, utopian environment that is the in-house team.  And explore why the deadline discipline they learnt outhouse, whist laudable and still an admirable goal, is not always achievable in-house.  On occasion, it becomes necessary to simply “just say no”.

There are a few types of bucket of work in-house and which I have designated in approximate priority order:

1. Fires.  Can arise at any time, especially on Fridays, and need fighting fast.
2. Business critical or strategically important.  Such as an acquisition, something supporting a key element of the business model, or a risk that has materialized which needs closing down.
3. Other work that has an immoveable deadline for a good business reason.  Such as a response in litigation, the launch date of a new product, or a need to switch key suppliers on a particular date.
4. Work that is urgent simply because it will either make or save the company a reasonable amount of money if done "on time".  Such as supplier driven quarter-end contract renewals or extensions.
5. Business as usual workflow. 
6. Work that is not urgent to the company as a whole, but the instructing business client thinks it is (perhaps because their personal objectives are measured against them delivering a particular project).
7. Work that is not urgent, and even the instructing business client agrees with that assessment (aka work that will never be done).

A critical skill for the in-houser, and particularly for any GC, is working out which bucket each new instruction falls into and ensuring that the work can be flipped between buckets as circumstances change and time passes.  The GC has to ensure in particular that the business as usual work in bucket number 5 continues to be churned, even when buckets 1 to 4 are pretty full.  The GC needs to have a pretty good idea what buckets each of the in-house team is carrying at any one time and how full they are.  And each member of the in-house team needs to do the same for their own individual workloads.

Most difficult of all, the GC has to decide - brace yourselves - what work may actually take a period of weeks to get to and, on occasion, what work will not be done at all.

This is a controversial and uncomfortable subject for any lawyer or indeed any professional service provider since we are generally a conscientious bunch who realise, in one way or another, that we exist in business to provide a service.  To admit that at times the service is slow or may not be forthcoming is difficult and does not sit easily with our general ethos.

But I take the view that  to ignore the reality that there is more work to do than can reasonably be done, is bad business practice.  I have to recognise this reality in order to prioritise workloads, resource accordingly and to ensure that the businesses’ legal spend on the in-house team is achieving the best possible return on investment for the company.  Whilst the work in the lowest priority buckets could be done quicker if, for example I outsourced it, offshored it or hired another lawyer to do it, the value of that work to the business does not warrant the extra cost – it's all about return on investment.

The situation is of course different outhouse.  Outhousers do not have the luxury of telling their clients that the work might take a few weeks to be done.  If the client says Wednesday, generally the work will be done by Wednesday.  Hence when outhousers move in-house, it takes them a while to learn how to tackle the in-house prioritising connundrum.

So how does one prioritise work in-house?  I hope the bucket analogy will be helpful, but generally I think there are four major factors that should influence where work sits in the priority queue.  Revenue, Savings, Risk and Strategy.  Will the legal work required result in increased revenue to the company?  Or a significant cost saving?  Does it mitigate an unacceptably high level of risk that has arisen for some reason?  Or will it support a strategic aim of the company?

When I became head of legal at the FT I drew up something rather pompously called the "risk wall" which I intended the team to use as a prioritisation tool.  It never really took off, with either me or them, as it was overly formulaic and ignored the realities of the pace of the business day.   But at its essence was a weighting score for each of the above factors.  For example, if a piece of work would save the company a significant amount of money (e.g. switching from one supplier to another) then it would achieve a high cost saving weighting, and if that supply relationship was also strategic in nature (for example, in our business, an important print-centre), then it would also achieve a high strategy weighting.  Two strong weightings would, my theory went, push that work towards the front of the priority queue and help the in-house team justify what work they were doing in what order.

I've long since learned that quickly applying experience negates the need for a formal "risk wall" assessment, but I believe the four factors I've identified to be critical in making the prioritisation decision.

Of course, there is a risk of the tail seen to be wagging the dog here and as ever, it is all about communication.  When I’m involved in managing a client’s expectations in this way, I will try to ensure that the internal client is clear as to why I’m making the prioritisation decision I am, and I also make it clear that I will take no offence if they wish to challenge my decision by escalating it within the business to someone at the same or a higher seniority level than me.  As I see it, it is their right to do so and they should feel free to do so, without in some way feeling they have circumvented my decision or offended me.  And I also see it as my job, if I’m asking a member of the in-house team to manage a client’s expectations in this way, to make it clear to my lawyer that I’ll take the flak from any decision on their behalf, since ultimately I am responsible for prioritizing the work that the legal team does.

Limited resource + more work than the resource can cope with = work that cannot be done in a timely fashion.  Whilst deadlines are as important in-house as they are outhouse, to ignore and fail to deal with this reality is a far bigger dereliction of duty for any in-house lawyer, particularly the GC, than to be honest enough to tell a client that, in business terms, their work is low priority and cannot be done within the timescale that they would ideally like.  But remember, whilst it can be okay to “just say no”, managing expectations and communicating effectively is key, as of course is making sure that you have put the work into the right buckets in the first place.