Giving up, Giving in ~ Why Law Firms Fail to Win Work

Lawyer bashing is never in short supply and, whilst I have tried to temper my frustration with the profession, you are almost guaranteed to hit the Target at every try: service, training, people development, financial performance and moribund practices.

Giving up

The genesis of a business development idea comes from doing work for a client, and you think there is a seam of gold worth mining. You either go the vertical route – a specialist sector – or horizontal – acting for a number of clients in your locality, across multiple sectors.

But then the work/billing doesn’t happen as quickly as the firm require.

You keep making reassuring noises, but you start to doubt your intuition.

Sooner (much sooner in the current market) or later you have to face the stark reality that your idea is not washing its face.

You have been putting in long hours, have created lots of material but the ROI doesn’t stack up. There is no point talking about chargeable time: you simply can’t record any green time and the non-chargeable time that you have recorded makes you look stupid.

Before you lose any more sleep, you hang up your ‘idea’ and go back to your tools (doing it, doing it, doing it) so that you can pay your way.

Giving in

Your idea is brilliant but you get pushed back with the immortal line: “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

You are stubborn to the point of upsetting everyone but you just can’t get buy in. As a last resort you go underground and do your own thing.

But, of course, if you are committed to your idea you know that you won’t scale the heights of growth that is needed to make partner (ÂŁ500k +) unless you co-opt others.

You go home and talk it over with your partner or you may speak to a close colleague. They encourage you to persevere but life becomes harder, much harder. You also find that you are being forced into doing your day job.

On reflexion, you think it is dumb idea and give in to the inevitable death of your idea.

And then there is the issue of not even wanting to start. You have seen so many ideas not get off the ground because no one is bothered.


Both of these scenarios are common place in legal practice.

So many things get talked about but so few of them either see the light of day or are provided with the oxygen to breathe and develop.

Law firms are risk averse, and the streams of work that support most of them distort the need to look for new and more exciting work. Why would you go looking for work in a crowded market where dozens of other firms circulate when you know your market inside and out?

Looking at something new is attractive but without sufficient support – financial or otherwise – it really is just a lot of hot air.

If firms want to develop new streams of work they need to be much more systematic in their modus operandi.

Just imagine that you were being asked to pitch your idea to The Dragons. I would wager that a lot of the embryonic ideas would not get past first base. But, even allowing for the rigour of the process, you need to be much more realistic about the time it takes to make a success of things. Most businesses don’t make a profit for 2/3 years and some take longer but, in a law firm, most partners are expecting you to be up and running and billing upwards of ÂŁ2k within three months.

The other worrying issue is that firms should have, by now, worked out what they are and what they want to become. This will, to a large extent, dictate the areas of work they wish to sustain, areas they want to off load and areas that they want to focus on for new business. I have lost count of the number of times where some bright spark pops up and says “We should be doing [XYZ] work” and the firm practically falls over its size 11’s because it can see the potential. But in truth they lack the insight to know if it will be successful and their decision is informed by what other firms are doing.

Whether you agree with my observations, the issue remains that firms don’t properly deal with business development (in the broadest sense). Their processes are too informal, not rigorous enough and individuals have too little or too much say in the process.


Lawyers being fighters don’t like to give up or give in. They focus on the work and not the financials. But the firm needs to have a process worked out for any or all new ideas that are generated.

Any ‘new business’ idea needs to be routed through a systematic planning and stress-test process, and a long term view taken.

If the pitch would not pass muster with The Dragons then don’t be afraid to kill it off sooner rather than later.

But if you feel that it is so brilliant, then you may decide to throw out the handbook, paddle your own canoe and go an make Art (i.e. the very best work that you can produce).

~ Julian Summerhayes ~

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