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A pile of wasted talent

Blog by Julian Summerhayes. 1401 words

I have spent the last year on a mission: to challenge all lawyers to answer the fundamental question:

“Are you the most of anything?”

I don’t just mean, are you making progress up the slippery slope to partnership? No, I mean making the most of your ability.

But, in truth, where I really want to aim this question is at the people (supposedly) in charge.

The question, of course, has to be reframed: “Are you making the most of the talent within your midst?” But it is posited on the same foundation.

I almost refuse to use the word ‘management’ because, in large part, they couldn’t manage their way beyond chasing a narrow compass of: “How much do you intend to bill this month?” In my view, partners need to care more. If they did, then it is my belief that firms would not be wrestling with so many issues right now. It is the saddest indictment of the profession: the accretions of wasted talent, and how, each year, that seems to grow.

It is a truism of all professional practice: those in charge want to keep the barriers steadfastly erected. That inward-looking, resistant to change at any cost approach may be fine when any change is dictated by the competition (who swivel on the same axis), but it doesn’t cut the mustard when legislation or market forces deserve more radical, dare I say break it before you fix it, attention.

Professional practice (partnership if that floats your boat) should be the apogee of your working life. You didn’t give up your life for another Ho Hum, average as hell, job. In my case, I wanted to do good and make a discernible difference. You can scoff all you like but I didn’t think about law in the context of a six figure salary. Indeed, if I thought the money was the sine qua non, then I would have run for the hills and started my own business. Frankly, if you are hanging in there for the money then you are deluding yourself. I don’t care that in the top echelons there are people who earn £1M+. It may be the most worn out, hackneyed expression but money does not buy happiness – personally or professionally. This is not to express lack consciousness – hell I want to earn lots of money to make the sacrifice worthwhile – but it is the striving to my do my very best, being forced out of my comfort zone and allowing my curiosity to roam freely that I get the most satisfaction from, and not when the cheque drops through the letterbox (Mrs Summerhayes may have a different view!).

Am I off my head?


If you have climbed into dead man’s shoes just for the sake of some putative purple patch of opportunity, then all I would say is: “The very, very best of luck”. My grist to the mill is to better myself, not to sit on my hands for 12-15 years with the uncertain possibility that I might just get the sideways stare/nod and earn my promotion to partnership.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not in the slightest bit bitter or remorseful that I decided to take my foot of the partnership gas when I left my penultimate firm. The driver for me leaving was to prove to myself that I could set up my own thing, and didn’t have to shelter behind a strong legal brand. Indeed if I look at the cohort of partners who got the nod or were in situ at the time of my departure, more than a handful have either moved firms or left the profession.

All that effort building up something for what – a line on your CV?

I have blogged, Tweeted, mingled, networked and generally put myself about to raise this issue. There have been a few exchanges but in the main the profession is keeping its head down. My strong sense is that most partners see the whole liberalisation issue as a conspiracy of the first order save that they are not quite sure who to blame (“Damn the lot of them!”). As to putting people first, that is probably at the bottom(ish) of the pile of issues they are grappling with right now.

You can shout back for all your worth, and criticise me for turning on my kind, but the truth is that the profession is bereft of people who are prepared to try something new. I would love to come across some genuine weirdoes or contrarians but I fear I am deluding myself. Indeed, if you have been making a living out adopting a technicians mind set, why the hell would you want to listen to some upstart like me?

But look around you?

The market is shot to pieces. If it’s not the threat of Tesco law then it is the impending regulatory bar which has risen to ridiculous heights to protect the client. I don’t know about you but looking from the inside, is the client so poorly served that they need another gazillion layers of regulation?

Perhaps you shouldn’t answer that one particularly as I don’t allow anonymous comments.

To date you have managed to trade off of your reputation, but have you given any time to considering how you stand to compete with a recognised retail brand or a powerful legal brand who has decided to stick a big fat toe in the market?

I am convinced that the firms who will emerge as victors will be those that have a human streak. And I could go on but this blog already contains enough of my rants. Right now I don’t feel like repeating myself. If anything, it is time to move the agenda on; namely a What is the Next Action?

My thing is people.

Put the people more first than the client, give them a reason to bring the real deal to work and stop treating the practice of law as different from every other business and you will see measurable change. If there was a reliable test for measuring happiness, my instinct tells me that you would be hard pressed to find many happy lawyers. Belittle this notion all you like but we do our best work when we are emotionally, physically and spiritually connected. We don’t tend to do so well when we are moody, negative or scared.

How about this as a starter for ten:

  • Each partner in each department in the firm take 3 of your people out for lunch every week and ask the simple question: “How are you” and don’t interrupt for the next 5 mins (at least). And make it clear that you want the truth in true Tom Cruise style (you remember the film, surely).

Strategic listening, as opposed to the plain old type, is a skill in short supply (Doctors are some of the worst at this – they love to talk down to you), but I am quite serious when I ask you not to say anything. Don’t be tempted to fill the silences. As I was taught as part of my sales training “The first person to speak, loses”.

I recall a similar version of this with a newly appointed Managing Partner. He went on a listening exercise. He listened (I think) but I don’t recall anything thereafter.

Returning to the theme of this post, you need to provide an environment where success at every level is rewarded. That doesn’t have to be the client win. That can be a simple thing like getting paid on time and generating a new piece of work for the firm. It means making people valued, appreciated and cared for. It means taking time to understand what people are interested in. How do they truly see their careers developing?

The question “Am I the most of anything” should stand head and shoulders above everything else. If everyone is being challenged each and every day, then they will feel that what they are doing has value.

Even if you don’t care about this agenda (you have done well to read this far), that won’t stop me from keeping the flame alive so that one day I will walk into a firm and will sense from the moment I enter its doors that something WOW is afoot.

As someone once remarked “If it’s not WOW it’s not worth a damn”.