Lawyers Leadership

Too Much Style ~ Too Little Substance

It is hard to escape the winds of change blowing through the legal profession.

  • ABS
  • Outcomes Focused Regulation
  • On-line legal services
  • A lack of work in certain areas necessitating a root and branch review of the business

Many partners will wonder:

(a) why they went into law; and

(b) why such an esteemed profession could find itself in such a precarious (falling like a stone) position.

But look under the bonnet and you will see a legacy of under-investment, short-sightedness in the planning cycle and an ardent desire to avoid change.

No one likes change.

Change is hard.

It rarely comes at the right time: either you are riding on the crest of a wave; or you have sunk to the depths of despair. But for most other businesses (sorry that word just slipped out …), change is an inevitable consequence of running a business.

As the late Sir John Harvey-Jones said in his excellent memoir Making it Happen, Reflections on Leadership:

“Management is about change, and maintaining a high rate of change.”

Before you scoff at the rapidity of change, let’s not forget his track record and the climate in which he operated.

Of courses, it is easy to deride and criticize those in a position to effect change, but the truth of the matter is that for the majority of partners they have no legacy of working through DRAMATIC change. The change has been micro-incremental in its scope. Is it any wonder then that when it comes to understanding the ‘fundamentals’, the rear view mirror approach offers very little in the way of assistance?

Previously I have gone through a list of fundamentals:

  1. Innovation in service delivery (pay us what you think we are worth);
  2. Addressing the business needs of staff rather than bending the business to fit around your stars/rainmakers/prima donnas;
  3. Spending more time understanding the buyer’s needs – a survey via Google forms or Survey Monkey is hardly revolutionary (this would sure beat all those spammy emails that you keep sending);
  4. Spending time working on the business and not in it. Not “doing it, doing  it, doing it” to paraphrase Michael E Gerber;
  5. Working on the Why rather than focusing on the What (and sometimes the How – but yet you still haven’t figured out your USP);
  6. Adopting compliance strap-lines but without walking the talk;
  7. And perhaps most hapless of all, not taking the long view in anything that you do.

Even if you are willing to admit to knowingness about some or all of these issues, the implementation process is mired in a committee mindset that is the scourge of most partnerships. And some contrary types will throw a spanner in the works just to be awkward or have their say. There then exists a mental seizure: “Shall we… shall we …?” Who the bloody hell knows!

I am often asked – more likely pinned down – to provide some pithy observation or words of advice as to what would be the best thing to do. I am often tempted to admit defeat at that point, knowing full well that my Blue Sky mindset will just frighten the living day lights out of most folk, leaving with me with a (hopeless) sense of “Why ask in the first place.” My answer is invariably the same: ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’. Some may think this churlish but the point that I am trying to get across is that it is better to try, and fail, than never to have tried, meaningfully or at all. Or if that dictum seems too flippant, then just pick a direction – but something bold – and execute around it as if your life depended on the outcome. In other words if you want to be known for your fantastic service, then you have to quantitatively make that a priority. Your diary has to reflect that you are spending more time on that issue than anything else – and that includes fee earning.

And please avoid labelling things. In these transparent times people are expected to look around your website to make sure your lauded expressions of excellence actually match up in practice. You don’t want to be accused of falling short or trying to punch above your weight. Substance over form is far more impressive than any amount of slick branding, a quixotic view of the firm from those in charge and a whole host of gizmos that don’t work.

If you are inspired to act – and not just the prospect of making more money for yourself – then start thinking of yourself as a change fanatic. Be prepared to give everything up that you have held as sacred, drop the pretence that change is bad and stasis is good. You can bet your bottom dollar that very few other emerging nations or institutions who have their beady eye on slicing off a bit of the profession will be as precious as you.

Julian Summerhayes

Note: This blog post is available to view in Google docs and Scribd.