Category Archives: Law Firm Business

How To Promote Connectedness Among Your Remote Working Team

How To Promote Connectedness Among Your Remote Working TeamThere are undoubted benefits to having the team working remotely. As a business, it’s been the best decision to move everyone to remote working, so it’s unsurprising that there are so many companies out there that thrive on remote working. Just a few examples include:

  • Basecamp: I’ve already highlighted Remote: Office Not Required by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried who detail how Basecamp’s project management tool was created by a team spread out across 26 different cities around the world. Their head office is in Chicago, but everyone at Basecamp is free to live and work wherever they want.
  • FlexJobs: An online company for job seekers. FlexJobs’ Director of Client Services, Jeremy Anderson, explains why working from home is so great: “I would sum it up in one word: freedom. Freedom from a commute and from office politics. The freedom to get work done without the typical office distractions.”
  • Woolley & Co Solicitors is an example of the virtual law firm model which is well established in the UK now, and pioneered by Andrew Woolley who initially operated a business law firm rather than the niche family law firm they now are. Most such firms need to invest in good technology rather than expensive offices, and some have no offices, while others combine remote working with some office premises. So, we are not completely virtual as we still have office premises.

The virtual law firm model works because where and when you work is entirely up to the lawyers and their clients.

I’m sure it will be challenging to continue to maintain our identity as a law firm, and avoid just becoming a network of self-employed lawyers, which is what the typical virtual law firm model comprises.

So, despite the successes of many companies using the remote working model to enable people to work from home or at clients’ offices so they can better coordinate work and personal commitments, there are undoubted challenges to navigate if you dispense with regular physical presence in an office environment.  If you want to maintain your identity as a law firm rather than just become a shell within which independent solicitors work, you need to make a conscious attempt to build culture and a brand.

Regular meetings and inductions?

Best practice seems to point to bringing the team together at regular intervals for meetings if you’re to thrive and create a sense of community despite using a remote working team.  What we at Azrights have to work out, is how frequently to have meetings, and to understand how to build community virtually too, given that we are scattered all over the world.

Certainly, meetings would address one of the challenges I’ve found with inducting new team members. While we have a lot of information on our wiki explaining how we do things, including many video instructions, clearly not everyone is equally at ease with taking in new information in this way. So, we will be introducing a range of induction plans for different team roles combined with onsite training days.

As Entrepreneur.com points out, collaborative software, video-conferencing and web-based tools help. Some obvious Apps and tools we’ll be exploring are:

  • Trello – project management tool
  • Microsoft 365, SharePoint which we use for online file storage and wiki. We’ll explore Teams too soon.
  • Join Me or Go to Meeting for online meetings.
  • Slack for communication

Successfully transitioning to remote working

While I’m sure the pros far outweigh the cons of remote working, I’m still finding my footing in this new domain and want to reduce the learning curve in the meantime. My research so far indicates that these are areas to focus on

  • Setting clear standards of communications.
  • Paying attention to what is happening within the teams, not just the output of work.
  • Holding people accountable.
  • Choosing the right individuals for the job.

So, far, apart from the challenge of inducting new team members, the main thing I’ve discovered is the importance of setting boundaries around the hours of work so everyone can be responsive in desired timescales.

During the 4 months since we’ve been working remotely, some of us have kept to our normal set hours of work, to coincide with our office opening hours while others have enjoyed complete flexibility as to when they work. Many of these are freelancers doing 5-10 hours a week of work on non-core business projects like web development, CRM, or software development, although a couple of our lawyers work in this way too.

Hours of work

I haven’t laid down explicit rules about hours of work for non employees because I wanted to experience our needs first and then take it from there. In principle, I don’t much care when the work gets done provided it gets done within desired timescales. This flexible arrangement works well enough, and one benefit of not setting any rules initially was that often the turn-around was astonishingly speedy. For example, I’d send a job over on a Friday afternoon, and have it back by Monday morning.

The completely flexible nature of our approach has to change though because even if there is no intrinsic urgency for a given task to get done, if input is needed from other team members it’s important to facilitate prompt communications. Otherwise, it can be quite discouraging and demotivating to have to wait for days to get a reply, by which time you might have forgotten what you needed to know. So, we do need some overall rules about checking in at regular, predictable times.

So, I would say it’s essential to introduce some core times or days during which team members will commit to showing up and doing some work, or at least reading their emails and sending a quick answer indicating when they will progress the work in substance. That should enable others to plan their timetable accordingly.

If you have ideas on how to lead a remote team do leave a comment below.

The Value Of Working Remotely

With all the hype surrounding remote working and the number of technological tools available to enable collaborative working, it would appear remote working is still a controversial and complicated topic, with a lot of people keen to list the cons first.

I outlined our experience of remote working at Azrights in my last blog, and want to explore this topic more here. With companies like IBM and Yahoo, both big tech companies (and it seems that a lot of tech companies love working remotely) reversing their positions on employees doing just that, what message does that spread to the rest of the business world, with regards this form of working?

As you’re probably aware, I am a huge advocate of working remotely. It has not only allowed me to fall in love with my business once again, but it has given me the gift of time and the freedom to get on with the task of running the business, rather than simply managing the office.

But does this time and freedom come at a detrimental cost to my business? I wanted to know why these large corporations had changed their minds on a practice that they once couldn’t get enough of.

 

Case study: IBM vs Dell

At the same time as IBM made its reversal announcement, Dell released a statement saying that they were wholeheartedly embracing remote working. Dell stated that they understood the value in having their employees save time by not commuting daily, and that the company itself would make tangible savings, to the tune of $12 million per year, by not having to pay to accommodate these workers during the working day. Dell has a goal to have 50% of their workforce work remotely by 2020.

For IBM however, who at one point had 40% of its workforce work remotely, the fact that employees were no longer in the same room, was deemed to be negatively affecting the company’s creative output.

IBM believe that having their employees back in the office, will lead to better collaboration and faster output. Which is surprising, considering the recent advancements in technology to enable remote working.

So for IBM, technological advancements may be incredible, but nothing compares to having actual human relationships, contact and discussions in person.

IBM’s reasoning echoed that of ex-Yahoo chief, Marissa Mayer. She firmly believed that employees working side by side was critical for the company moving forward. That impromptu meetings and hallway chats were what drove a company towards greatness, that they created opportunities for speed and quality, something that couldn’t be done when working remotely.

For IBM and Yahoo, having someone breathing over your shoulder would seem to drive productivity. This can’t be right.

The value of working remotely

But what about employee happiness?

Of course working remotely allows the company to save money on office rent, but can you seriously put a price on someone’s happiness and the value it adds? Forbes reported that workers were happier, felt more valued and were more productive when allowed to work remotely.

The secret they said was maintaining good communication and ensuring that employees have complete clarity as to what is expected from them.

So maybe for vast organisations like IBM and Yahoo, it proved too difficult to drive the sort of culture change that is needed for successful remote working to be effective. Reading David Heinermeler Hansson’s book Remote provides invaluable insights for anyone leading a smaller team who wants to create a successful culture of remote workers which actually enhances the business.  I’ll be applying many of these ideas as we expand the team to include more remote workers.

Should You Be Ignoring Business Advice And Creating Your Own Strategy For Success?

It comes as no great surprise to me that a recent report by the Office for National Statistics showed 4.7 million self-employed people in the UK in the first quarter of 2016. With the freedom and benefit that breaking free from traditional working chains affords, there is no doubt that number will continue to rise.

The original driver behind my business

Before I set up my business back in 2004/5 I had tried doing ad hoc freelance projects. However, I decided to take a job part-time in an international law firm because freelancing was time consuming and erratic.  Marketing wasn’t a skill I had developed. All I wanted was a regular income working flexibly. I thought a part-time job would give me the desired flexibility to manage my work/life balance. I was wrong. The hours I worked for this firm may have been part-time, but the flexibility was non-existent. And flexibility was key to making my life work as I had young children to pick up from school, and look after.

Setting up my business seemed the obvious way to get the balance I was searching for, albeit, I sensed it would be time consuming to get the business off the ground. Entrepreneurship worked for me because I was willing to put in the long hours to achieve my objective of having  the freedom to pick and choose when to work. For example, I wanted to break up my day by taking a few hours off in the afternoons, and work later in the evening instead, once my daughters had gone to bed.

The business slowly got off the ground. My learning curve was extremely steep. Gradually,   business began to come in thanks to a networking circle I joined, my website, and also due to repeat business from existing clients.

The new dilemma

Fast forward twelve years and I found myself once again facing another work/life dilemma. I had originally set up my business to allow me to work on my own terms, which is what I needed all those years ago. Now I was feeling more and more like a slave to this monster that I had created: my ambitions for the business had me renting a big office and recruiting a large team to fill it.

I realised that what I had worked so hard to achieve was no longer working for me. The life I was living was not the one I had envisaged when I started along this path – the flexibility I had once craved was no longer there. While I don’t have young children to look after now, I still crave the freedom to work flexibly, and not to be chained to an office. Yet I had to come into the office every day because that is where my team was. I dreamed of working from home, getting out and about meeting interesting people, popping into the office only when required. If only I could grow the team to a size where it would be feasible to pay a highly experienced manager to run the office.

Growing the Business

I needed to bring about change again. Only this time I didn’t need to create something new, I just needed to readjust my thinking on what it means to run a successful business. I had to stop listening to all the business advice out there which had led me to believe that there was a particular way to grow a business. I had to listen to my own needs and find a way to achieve my ambitions on my own terms.

While I still firmly believe you need the right team around you, and that they are crucial to a business’ success, what I’ve subsequently learned is that they don’t need to physically be around you, and nor do they need to be permanent full-time employees.

And so earlier this year I made the call to downsize the office space and have a team that works remotely – coming together at the office only when necessary, such as for meetings.

Despite the huge changes…

So far it has proven to be the best thing I could have done for myself and the business hasn’t suffered even though the transition has coincided with huge changes within the business. For example, we were moving to using new systems to replace our legal case management solution with Microsoft Dynamics.  That had been on the agenda for more than a year. Moving to the  new platform we use, not just for CRM, but also for managing our cases and files, has entailed a new accounting system, time recording system, new processes in the business for taking on clients, and countless other changes. Doing all this at a time when we moved to remote working has been doubly difficult. We lost a few team members along the way too.

Nevertheless. all this change has been worthwhile because I had fallen out of love with the business, and now I’m enthused again.

Everything I’ve learnt about entrepreneurship tells me that the mindset and attitude of the business owner is crucial to success. So, I knew that I had to look after my own needs first, just as in an emergency on a plane you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. I now know how vital it is to find your own way of doing things in business. You have to be happy and engaged in your business if you’re to succeed. So, don’t put your needs on hold, like I did with mine for all those years.

Now, four months on, I am really loving my business again. Working remotely allows me to attract a wider pool of quality talent from far and wide. Some are freelancers who work on occasional projects, while others are more regularly involved in the business.

I’m outsourcing the maintenance of our CRM database, and development of business processes to a specialist who has done this sort work many times before. Instead of giving such tasks to paralegals, I now use experts to deal with everything I want to delegate.

The general advice about growing a business had me retaining a team of paralegals in order to be ready to deal with the increased work once it came in.  As they were not fully occupied in the meantime, I had spare capacity to use up.  So, I would assign tasks like writing web pages, brochures, researching blog posts and the like to the team of paralegals. The goal was to grow fast in order to engage a manager to run the office so I could be free to work from home.

It seems ridiculous in retrospect. The approach of increasing capacity with the aim of growing proved expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful as team members were not particularly interested in doing work outside their area of desired expertise. Even though it’s important for lawyers to learn how to sell legal services, few of them actively want to learn the skills that go with it.

Outsourcing such work to freelancers with the right expertise is proving revolutionary because it saves so much of my own time. Instead of virtually having to rewrite everything, I often just make a few tweaks, and the job’s done. And by not having to go into an office every day my time has been freed me up, so I can now focus on what really matters.

Embracing Change

My point is this: to run a successful business doesn’t involve following a linear path that others take or advise. This book by John Lamerton Big Ideas… For Small Businesses perfectly captures my philosophy about business. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Forge your own path. Do what works for you, and for your customers. Be very wary of following advice out of context. It may not work for you personally. Instead assess what it is you really desire for your life. Then be true to your own needs, and you will find a way to develop your own roadmap to business success.

In a future blog, I’ll discuss why our new approach of remote working now runs through every aspect of the Azrights brand. It provides us with engaged, motivated team members, who are attracted to working with us because of the flexibility on offer. The benefit to clients is that we can provide an extremely high quality of expertise at affordable prices. So, ultimately, remote working better caters to our clients’ needs too.

 

Transforming the Law – 15 years on from publication of Richard Susskind’s book

Transforming the Law - 15 years on from publication of Richard Susskind's book In his book, Transforming the Law, Richard Susskind highlights how in the past, lawyers used to advise on general business matters, whereas they have increasingly assumed a more restricted role, and have tended not to stray from the purely legal. He contrasts accountants who have greatly broadened their scope of services, such that auditing and accounting is not just “one of a large number of business lines offered by these large professional firms.

Susskind’s observation is spot on. He made these comments many years ago, and yet the trend towards specialisation and a purely legal focus by the legal profession has increased if anything since then. Susskind’s observations are even truer today. You just have to look at a typical networking group like BNI, which has a policy of one member per profession to realise that lawyers are pigeon holing themselves more and more. In the BNI group I was in, there were several lawyers – an employment lawyer, a shipping lawyer, and myself an intellectual property lawyer. What’s more, that particular BNI group were seeking more lawyers, such as specialists in probate, conveyancing and family law. Yet there was just the one accountant who spoke about a large number of subjects including tax, and business growth.

Arrival of ABS

Perhaps the arrival of the ABS structure will mark a change. Certainly the chairman of the Legal Services Board discussing the ABS structure, explains why it is suitable for innovation. According to David Edmonds, we are now seeing “diversity and innovation in the provision of legal services, the like of which was unthinkable even three years ago”. “It shows us a glimpse at the future of what legal services provision will be,” he said in a speech to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum last month. “[ABS] is a strong spur to find cost-effective and innovative ways of working. Change, diversity and innovation will happen.”

Diverse offering

While, many large City law firms have yet to become ABSs, they are increasingly tending to offer wider services than just law through separate businesses. A research carried out for Allen & Overy confirms that overall demand for non-traditional legal services is expected to rise steeply over the next five years. For example, Kemp Little offers support to businesses in the development of their online and digital commerce activities through its consultancy division. And Bird & Bird provide the full range of advice on Software and Services matters as well as on the strategic and operational aspects of a client’s business. And following Axiom’s success in offering project lawyers to in house departments, there have been a number of similar initiatives such as Lawyers on Demand, from Berwin Leighton Paisner and Eversheds Agile.

When the ABS was first being introduced, I was thinking about how we would broaden our own services. For example, some related areas of activity might be branding, and web design. However, I rejected this possibility as it didn’t seem suitable territory for lawyers to veer towards. For a law firm to enter the branding field seemed misguided because naming is just an aspect of branding. Most of the other skills required involve creative design, marketing, communications and the like which lawyers are not necessarily naturally suited to offering.

New Opportunities

The fact is the legal industry is increasingly competitive and over lawyered, and it does make sense to look to providing wider services. The increased competition creates opportunities for innovation in pricing service offerings according to Byrne.

However, what is clear is that the choice of wider services needs to be carefully considered to maximise on the unique perspective you can bring to bear in a non law business. Many of the areas these larger firms are moving into, such as IT consultancy, and recruitment are already fiercely competitive.

Possibly we, as an IP firm, would do better to focus on commercialisation services for inventors, or IP valuation services, or business advice on the intersection between IP/IT and business. I strongly believe that we should not leave the supporting of businesses to start up and grow to accountants simply because they understand numbers. There is a lot more to business than numbers. Lawyers understand a host of commercial issues which positions them to help SMEs in ways where their knowledge adds real value.

If you are a lawyer looking to support your clients more widely than with legal issues, the important thing to ask yourself is how you can add value to your clients. For lawyers who have founded a business successfully, it’s likely they will have good business skills to supplement their commercial law ones, so that business advice, is an obvious area to explore as a separate business offering. Similarly, training services is another possibility law firms might consider.

If you are a lawyer interested in this topic, then I’d be happy to engage in discussions with you. Just leave a comment below or contact me by phone or email.

UK Blawg Roundup #9 – Legal Services Act and Alternative Business Structures

When I initially agreed to host the 9th UK Blawg Roundup, which I’m delighted to be doing, it all seemed fairly straightforward and sufficiently in the distance to seem quite manageable timewise. I anticipated receiving a long list of blogs to review which I’d pull together in a blog post.

However, the reality has been quite different.  My book project has taken longer than initially anticipated, and it became obvious as the deadline for blog submissions approached, that none were going to be submitted!  Time was at a premium.  So, I enlisted the help of my trainee Stefano Debolini, to hunt for material to include in this Blawg review and to generally lend me a hand with this post.

Stefano sought out blogs talking about Multi-Disciplinary Practices, Alternative Business Structures, the Legal Services Act,  Tesco Law, among other subjects, and has learnt a great deal about legal business in the process.  This can only stand him in good stead for the future as it’s his generation that is going to experience the full effects of these market changes, long after us baby boomers have ceased to practice law.

At around this time I received Brian Inkster’s Christmas hat, and heard  about Michelle Hynes’s sad health news.  Michelle is a former marketer who is retraining to be a lawyer.  She is very on the ball and maintains a popular blog at legaleaglemhm.wordpress.com, where she has posted news of her tremendous ordeal and recent heart surgery.  I hope you will join me in wishing her well and a speedy recovery.  There will always be a place in the new world of legal services for people like Michelle who have had exposure to other disciplines.  They are the kind of lawyers who will be in demand in the legal industry of the future.  Lawyers able to understand technology, the internet, social media, marketing, sales, customer service, and business will thrive.

Scots

So, my attention turned to the Scots.  Scotland has its own Legal Services Act but the considerations are similar.  In his TheTimeBlawg Round up of 2011 Brian says he will write on Alternative Business Structures in 2012.  I look forward to reading this because Brian leaves no stone unturned when he focuses on a topic.  Brian  alerted me to the @HighlandLawyer blog which focuses on the law in Scotland along with coverage of ‘the use of IT, particularly but not exclusively in lawyer’s offices; or possibly even in programming; or if you are just hoping for some puns, sarcasm, or other low level intellectual humour’ – highlandlawyer.wordpress.com. IT has huge disruptive potential, as Richard Susskind has indicated, so I look forward to reading this blog for any comments on emerging technologies.

Paul McConville over in Scotland recounts parallels between the deregulation of the legal profession, and developments which led to the financial crisis in his article The Coming Bonfire – Lessons from Guy Fawkes for the Scottish Legal Profession?

While Gav Ward does not write about the Legal Services Act, he does write about Social Media.  This is a topic to watch out for if you’re trying to work out what impact the Legal Services Act might have on the legal profession.  Gav was quick to comment on the recent Law Society social media policy.  If you agree with me that social media is going to have a disruptive effect on the legal services industry (as it is already having on many other industries), then you’ll want to read Gav’s blog as it will doubtless cover developments of interest to the legal community.

2012

So here we are in the year 2012, it could be our last according to some (though not to others), but it’s definitely going to be interesting whether or not we’re here at the end of it, and if you are reading this then the subject I’ve been looking at has probably been on your mind for some time.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has now begun to accept applications for Alternative Business Structure, some 3 months later than initially planned.  Barbara Cookson over on Solo IP blog believes it’s unlikely that many sole practitioners will be transforming themselves into ABS.  While I can see a number of benefits if my own firm Azrights became an ABS (such as the possibility of entering into joint ventures with non lawyers, which is a way in which the rest of the business community grows and expands) I would certainly not want to be an early adopter.  It’s an expensive process, and unless one has a business plan that depends on having ABS status (such as if you need angel investment) I suspect it’s possible to achieve partnership like arrangements by relying on the separate business rules, rather than becoming an ABS.

Nicola Proudlock a former in house lawyer who has set up her own practice New Leaf Law says Starting up a legal services business has required me to think and behave in ways I never have done before. I’ve been reworking my business model as I plan for growth. I know that the structural and economic model has to be radically different from traditional offerings to be truly customer-led, and to build for future success. I also know how hard it is to move away from those deeply ingrained beliefs about what legal services should look like. Beliefs that first took root 20-odd years ago in private practice. At each iterative step of my strategic development, I am having to challenge myself about such long-held assumptions and what can, actually, be achieved. Instinctively, I know what has to be done – but that doesn’t make the process of getting there any easier.

I look forward to hearing more from Nicola and seeing more writing on this topic by bloggers.  In the meantime, will wait and see how  the ABS pans out and whether it attracts smaller players.  One insightful writer I will be watching closely is @bhamiltonbruce who wrote an excellent piece on referral fees recently.  Unfortunately I could not find a link to her blog but if you follow her on Twitter you will catch sight of her posts.

Such a sweeping change in the way legal services can be offered up to the public has undeniably left the gate open for misinformation and confusion.  People far and wide have been asking what does this mean for me? How can I take advantage of the changes? Where do I sign up? Google to the rescue! The web is chock full of discussion on the subject and a quick search will throw up more information than you can shake a stick at, but finding the wood among the trees is a pain.  Luckily for us, blawgers of every discipline have stepped in to lend a hand.

Bob wasn't so keen on the firm's introduction of multiple additional disciplinary practices

For those contemplating competitive conveyancing Karen Hain offers some direction over at Bottomline Online.  For accountancy practices interested in bringing a multidisciplinary flavour to their business Freiderike Heine has some good news for you at LegalWeek.  For links to relevant practioner blawgs – few and far between at the moment, though becoming less so – I am indebted to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Legal Services Act at TroubleAhead.co.uk which I mention again below and would recommend to anyone interested enough to read this review.

Mark Smith (@Intchallenge) offered up both a retrospective and forward-looking piece at his blog IntelligentChallenge.com with links, comment and discussion on the ever changing landscape of the legal profession, suggesting that over the last two years ‘much of the innovation and drive that has been missing from so many parts of the profession for decades has suddenly been discovered and injected into its flabby buttocks’: The end of the beginning.

Like to Listen?

Before continuing, if you feel partial to kicking back, opening a bottle of Rioja and absorbing more comment on the LSA without the unpleasant left-right-left-right-left-right regimented eye movements that accompany this reading debacle, you might like to hear some of the lawcasts publicised over at charonqc.wordpress.com where he discusses the changes with Neil Rose, and Chrissie Lightfoot the Naked Lawyer among others.  In early 2011 the Rioja afficionado spoke with Jeremy Hopkins, Practice Manager, 3 Verulam Buildings.

“Of course, sets must continue to focus on the Bar’s areas of strength – high quality specialist service at highly competitive cost – and combine this with good communication to the marketplace. A very strange kind of big bang would have to happen to create a market where these fundamentals are no longer a recipe for success.” – read more

As for the effect of the changes on the Bar Jeremy Hopkins’ at Clerkingwell, projects a positive future for the Bar.  He recently wondered whether the increased buying power of a new breed of law firm will mean barristers’ clients having ‘little time for what we regard as traditionally accepted practices’: The Legal Services Act – what now for Chambers?

Tesco Law?

For firms large or small, the mythical Tesco Law has been the monster lurking in the closet ready to pounce as soon as darkness falls and the ABSs arrive.  How do traditional High Street law firms compete with these giants of business and branding?

The points made by Jon Bloor and Michael Scutt, are particularly insightful here: ‘Could it be that lawyers have been worrying too much about Tesco and not enough about Google?’, [will it be] the web that will fundamentally alter the way we practise law, not the Legal Services Act?’.  In fact Michael’s blog has a wealth of comment and information on the deregulation of legal services.  If you are struggling to find blawgs on the LSA by practitioners, as he was, TroubleAhead.co.uk is where you should start.  Another great dedicated resource and a site whose name leaves little to the imagination, run by solicitor and consultant Catherine Baker, is The New Playing Field for Legal Services.

Jon Busby (@legaltwo) casts doubt on the likelihood of Tesco Law, and poses the question: Does anyone know what Tesco Law actually means? answers on a postcard.

Louise Restell’s BlogTo infinity and beyond: Google Law prepares for blast off. says ‘whether the Law Society and the firms it represents like it or not, we are approaching the age of Google Law and nothing will ever be the same again’.

Nick Lindsay envisages ‘the likes of Jones Lang LaSalle negotiating leases [and] Adecco providing employment advice’, noting that ‘In reality, a lot of these firms already do some of this work but with caveats that lawyers should check it so the transition to providing full legal advice will be surprisingly easy’ – find out whether ABS means Death by a thousand cuts for a law firm.

The freelance journalist Polly Botsford notes the OFT hypothesis that ‘Markets generally work best for consumers when there is unrestricted competition between existing suppliers, and unrestricted potential competition from new suppliers and from new forms of supply.’, and wonders what will be the creative impact of alternative business structures on law?  Among many insghtful predictions, one that caught my eye was the potential opportunity for in-house legal teams to begin delivering legal services directly to other businesses.  If this happened, not only are firms likely to face increasing pressure internally to improve efficiency, and new rivalry from Tesco Law, but they might soon be competing with their own clients!

Further Reading from In-House Lawyers and Thought Leaders

However, reading the blogs of 4 tweeting in-house lawyers @legalbrat, @kilroyt, @in_house_lawyer and @legalbizzle I don’t get the impression  they’re likely to set up as ABSs.  Though it is clear from the thoughts they communicate in some of their blog posts, that law firms need to transform themselves, consider alternatives to hourly rate charging, and focus on delivering value.  So, the Legal Services Act doesn’t just present a threat to High Street law firms.  We’re likely to see a huge shake up in the legal market, even if this doesn’t happen straight away.  There is no room for complacency even among the Magic Circle law firms.

I am also going to keep an eye out for what thought leaders in this area @RichardMoorhead , @StephenMayson, @johnflood who offer thought provoking information and comment at Lawyer Watch, StephenMason.com  and John Flood have to say.

By contrast to these innovative thinkers, many law firms may be taking the advice of a well known accountant in one of the big accountancy practices who advises the legal profession on how to run successful practices.  Strikiingly, his advice, at least a few years ago, was that law firms should make sure they charge all the time they spend on a client’s matter.  If you’re in the shower or travelling home, or otherwise away from your desk when you think about a client’s matter, then you should make a note of the time it takes in order to charge your time.  You would be solving a problem of the clients mentally, and so should properly charge for that time.  Is the world still like that for any lawyers I wonder?

Andy's business was certainly alternative, but client meetings were often a little tense

Alternative Business Structures: Who’s Doing It?

So who can we expect to see leading the charge in the new legal landscape? Who will test the water, and how?

Many commentators are waiting with baited breath to see how firms take advantage of new opportunities to attract investment, by sharing ownership with non-lawyers.

Neil Hodge at the International Bar Association suggests that larger City firms don’t see the value in outside investment, citing Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance, Wragge & Co, and Allen & Overy as having spoken out against surrendering equity to raise capital.  Instead, in his article Top Uk law firms react to first Alternative Business Structure flotation Neil identifies mid-tier firms as those most likely to take advantage of the changes, with Everyman Legal and Irwin Mitchell having commited to a structural review by the time he went to print in October.  For a more recent list of ‘first movers’, see The Lawyer’s: 2011 Round-up – Alternative business structures: Street legal.

Legal Futures‘ article in October also delivered news of private investment into the soon-to-be-a-household-name QualitySolicitors, the vision of the business being create the “Specsavers of the legal world”. Find out more here: QualitySolicitors hits the big time as PE investor buys majority stake.

In the meantime, the Law Society Gazette recently reported that the Co-op, and Irwin Mitchell have applied to be ABSs.

Other interesting posts from the Blawgosphere

Finally, I’ve noticed the blog of the Legal Awareness Society founded by Dr Shibley Rahman discuss his difficulties in securing a training contract.  I suspect as the market opens up and new career opportunities present themselves the current plight of law students seeking training contracts will be a distant memory.  More varied careers will open up in the legal market.

Next time on the UK Blawg Circuit

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief trawl through the blawgosphere, and that you will join the Blawg Roundup next time for the 10th instalment hosted by Charon QC at charonqc.wordpress.com.   Before tailing off I also wanted to mention past hosts of the UK Blawg Roundup in whose footsteps we tread where they have not been linked to above: Tessa Shepperson at The Solicitors Online Blog; Paul Hajek at Clutton Cox; and Victoria Moffatt.  For news of future Roundups keep your eyes on UKBlawgRoundup.co.uk.

UK Blawg Roundup #9 – Final Call For Submissions

I am delighted to be hosting the 9th UK Blawg Roundup here at ShireenSmith.com, following in the footsteps of Victoria Moffat, whose September instalment was the 8th in the series, and is available here.  I’ll be taking a look at what the Blawgosphere has had to say about the Legal Services Act in the last 3 months.  I’ll be particularly focusing on Alternative Business Structures, which the SRA is set to begin authorising from January. For earlier Blawg Roundups, pay a visit to www.ukblawgroundup.co.uk.

If you’ve been scribbling and have blog posts to submit for consideration, please get them to me here by December 23rd, so that I’ve got something to keep me busy over the holidays – we’ll be publishing the roundup by January 13th in the New Year.

In the meantime, wishing you all Happy Holidays!

Should lawyers give free advice to attract clients?

free-adviceAre lawyers getting it right giving free advice to prospective clients to impress them with their lawyering skills?

I made friends with an entrepreneur recently who had looked into trade marking her business name. She has not yet proceeded with any of the firms she contacted. So I was curious to find out who she had approached and how much my competitors were charging. But none of this information turned out to be particularly surprising or interesting. What was noteworthy though was just how much free advice lawyers are giving.

She had found the firms online, yet rarely did the firms ask how she had come to contact them. One firm had even given her an hour’s free meeting and specific advice and guidance, which was then followed up with some valuable free searches.

Trade mark searches and opinions are possibly one of the most skilled aspect of trade mark registration work, and the one most likely to lead to negligence claims if a firm gets it wrong. I would not offer our valuable time and expertise giving a free search. There are plenty of online tools available which could be provided instead of a manual free search. An opinion on what is or is not registrable, is part of the lawyer’s skill. Personally, I’ve learnt from experience that it’s best not to comment about the nature of the mark someone wants to register until they are on board as a client. There is plenty of help I can offer once they are a client, if there is a problem with the mark they have chosen – for example, if it is descriptive of the product or service. What good is served by my alerting them to this possible problem? It would just drag me into giving more and more free advice, and the client is unlikely to be pleased either, because of people’s tendency to blame the messenger.

As it happens my friend has decided not to trade mark her name because she doesn’t want to go to the expense of registering a trade mark while she is unsure whether her business concept will succeed. If it comes to it she is willing to rebrand, as and if the business proves viable. Therefore, all these firms have completely wasted their time in giving her so much free advice! What’s more, I imagine as I am now good friends and a potential collaborator she’s likely to turn to us eventually when she’s ready to register a trade mark. Even if not, she may have long forgotten which firms gave her so much free advice by the time she is ready to proceed with the work.

From the book Influence – The psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini it’s clear that the giving of free advice could be a great sales technique. People tend to feel duty bound to reciprocate, and so may be manipulated into becoming a client by the gift of free advice. But as all lawyers seem to be using this approach is it really a good idea to give away so much for free – especially when the amount of work at stake is of such low value?

When you are prominent in the search engines you get all sorts of people approaching you. There will be some excellent potential clients, and there will also be a few people who have no intention of buying a legal service. They are just looking for free advice. So, it’s important to have a sales process that protects your time, while progressing the enquiries in a way that might convert prospects into clients. The fact that so many law firms seem not to really know what they are doing makes me think they need advice about how to convert clients without giving away the family silver, so to speak.

The freemium model works online, and I echo Mike Masnick in The Grand Unified Theory On The Economics Of Free that in advocating the giving of something for free “we’re never suggesting people just give away content and then hope and pray that some secondary market will grant them money. Giving stuff away for free needs to be part of a complete business model that recognises the economic realities.”

In my view, lawyers need to adapt their approach, and realise that the way they may chase work worth thousands of pounds may not be at all appropriate for capturing work from online enquiries. In any event, it would be interesting to know what in house lawyers think about lawyers giving free advice. Does it sway them to use a lawyer? Are they more likely to be impressed by the lawyer’s ability to do the job?

Whether online enquiries are for small pieces of work like trade mark registration, or are potentially for greater work, lawyers should beware of giving free advice in order to attract the work because it simply devalues legal work. It also encourages people who ring lots of firms to pick their brains to continue to do so. The more you give for free, the more it will be expected that all firms should offer free advice as standard. Ultimately it results in a drop in the prices that lawyers can charge.

In my view, lawyers are letting themselves be taken advantage of. It just doesn’t pay to give up valuable fee earner time trying to convert enquiries by giving free advice. They don’t need to show off their legal knowledge to attract the client, and there are plenty of sound reasons not to give free advice, such as the fact that you don’t have a complete view of the prospective client’s situation, and your insurers would probably not want you to go round giving free advice which could turn out to have been misleading had you known the client’s full circumstances.

If I know the location of a treasure trove that information could be worth millions to you. It may only take me a few minutes to give you the information and it may be very easy for me to give it. But the information has a value. It is worth far more than the time it takes to give it. Would I be clever to just give it away?

 

Are multiple sites SEO spam?

spamRobert Ambrogi recently wrote that having multiple sites for a single law firm is ‘SEO spam’.

As the owner of a law firm which has more than one site, Azrights and  Azrights Trade Marks, I was immediately interested.

In Ambrogi’s opinion multiple sites are ‘confusing and misleading to customers‘.

I disagree and would suggest Ambrogi reconsider this question.  There are several advantages in having different websites both from the perspective of the business owner and that of the user.   By using the term ‘spam’, and suggesting multiple sites are only for the search engines rather than for users, Ambrogi overlooks some key benefits to users.

First let’s be clear what we mean by ‘spam’.  Tim Mayer, Director of Product Management for Yahoo Search defined spam as ‘pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant or poor quality search results’.

In arguing that law firms with multiple sites are spamming, Ambrogi is effectively saying that these sites are not helpful or useful to potential clients.  I agree that businesses that have multiple websites providing customers with the same content and information are spamming, and are purely designed to increase SEO rankings.

However, to back up his point, Ambrogi cites, M. Stephen Cho, a law firm that has a total of nine websites none of which provide the same content.  Each site provides its audience with a completely different set of information.

The Cho firm has one main site, and the other eight websites are focused on different areas of the law, such as divorce law, criminal defense and bankruptcy.

For example, the Cho firm site for divorce law is specifically designed so that it is relevant for anyone who is looking for legal advice on issues surrounding divorce.  The site has a blog news section, which specifically focuses on issues surrounding this area of the law and a section for case results reviewing previous divorce and custody cases.

A useful reason for having different websites is that they can be targeted at different groups of clients looking for particular products and services. The advantage of having a specialized site for a particular service means potential clients will be able to find exactly what they are looking for straight away and only see information relevant to their particular problem or query.  By having different websites for each particular service area, the Cho firm ensures that the information at hand for its clients is completely relevant for the service they are seeking.

None of the sites of the Cho firm has duplicate content, so I fail to see how they could be said to be spamming.  As long as the content on each site is different, and is relevant and useful to different searchers, all that the firm is doing by having multiple sites is helping clients find what they want more easily. It is a type of signposting similar to putting signs on a motorway to indicate that there is a hotel or restaurant within one mile.

By having specific sites that hone in on different areas of the law, this enables full service law firms or those that have more than one niche area, to create sites with niche focus.

Rather than users having to navigate a main site to find the exact product or service they want, separate sites makes it easier for them to quickly find what they are searching for.

The nature of the Internet and Google means that people are increasingly impatient to find what they want without much effort.  Few people linger on sites for long, and if they have to spend too long working out how to navigate a site to get the information they need, they are likely to be off in search of websites with greater clarity where less effort is needed to find what is wanted.

Yes, multiple sites are a way to increase SEO, but what is wrong with trying to advertise your business and ensure customers can find your page easier?

Innovation as Differentiation?

lightbulbProfessional service firms looking to differentiate themselves generally do so based on client service.

Client service, as I now realise, is shorthand for discovering what your clients, or segments of your clients want and need, and then providing it.  So one way an accountant may differentiate her practice is by using the annual audit as an opportunity to extend her remit to cover tax planning and profitability advice.  These are services many clients will be receptive to being offered.  Yet so many accountants miss the opportunity to identify their clients’ needs in order to provide the additional services they may well be happy to pay for.

If your firm can position itself as a trusted business adviser such as by offering related services that matter to your clients, you will be able to command higher prices, and avoid commoditisation.  Otherwise, clients will have no other criteria on which to select your firm than price.

Yet, it’s important to appreciate that no matter how essential it is to differentiate, the reality is that it’s increasingly difficult to do so in a meaningful or enduring way, given the oversupply of providers.

The legal industry is by no means alone in having too many firms chasing the same work.  Supply exceeds demand in many other industries too, making it generally more difficult to have a differentiating proposition.

The more similar brands become, the more likely people are to select on price, resulting in a downward impact on the prices you can charge.  This trend is very evident to those of us in practice currently as clients haggle over price, and sometimes manage to find alternative firms to do quite specialized work at astonishingly low rates.

The reason for the oversupply in many industries is that information on products and prices is now instantly and globally available.  So niche markets disappear, and as global competition intensifies, supply increases. As this oversupply is not accompanied by an increase in demand worldwide it results in commoditization of products and services, price wars and shrinking profit margins.

So, in overcrowded markets, differentiating brands becomes harder, which is in essence why law firms find it difficult to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Even product brands are becoming more similar as people increasingly select on price.  People won’t necessarily stick to Colgate when Crest is on special offer and vice versa (unless they are subject to the well know ‘pester power’ of their children who tend to be very brand aware).

Deregulation

With deregulation coming into effect in October, many firms will sensibly look to innovation as a way of  differentiating themselves.  They will experiment with innovations which they perceive the  market wants or needs.

Here it’s important to first establish that the innovations are really wanted by clients.  Apart from doing market research, it could help if there were a way of knowing which ideas to run with and which to put on hold.  This would avoid spending unnecessary time and money on projects.

One useful tool for evaluating ideas for new products or services is given in the book Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim & Mauborgne.The book is not a light read, which may explain why I had not read it from beginning to end until recently despite having bought it in 2006.

As the book provides a practical framework and analytics for the systematic pursuit and capture of “blue oceans” it’s well worth taking the time to wade through it if you have an idea and want to assess whether it is a ground breaking one or not.

Blue Ocean Strategies

The book’s message is that the best way to break out of the vicious competitive landscape – represented by the red (bloody) oceans of competition – is to offer the market something completely different – something which makes the competition irrelevant, because there will be none.That is the definition of a blue ocean.

Examples of blue ocean industries unknown 30 years ago include mobile phones, biotechnology, express package delivery, coffee bars, and home videos.  How many unknown industries will exist if we put the clock forward 10-20 years?

Cirque du Soleil

Among the many examples of a blue ocean concept the book discusses is Cirque du Soleil which was born out of a dying industry, that of the circus.  Cirque du Soleil didn’t win by taking customers from the already shrinking circus industry, which traditionally catered to children.

It created new market space that made the competition irrelevant. In a crowded market the prospects for profits and growth are reduced. Cut throat competition turns the red ocean bloody whereas blue oceans are untapped market space, where demand is created, as well as potentially high profitable growth.  Most blue oceans are created from within red oceans by expanding industry boundaries.

“The only way to beat the competition is to stop trying to beat the competition. In red oceans, the industry boundaries are defined and accepted, and the competitive rules of the game are known. In blue oceans, competition is irrelevant because the rules of the game are waiting to be set. …The companies caught in the red ocean followed a conventional approach, racing to beat the competition by building a defensible position within the existing industry order. The creators of blue oceans, surprisingly, didn’t use the competition as their benchmark. …Instead of focusing on beating the competition, they focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space. …Value innovation is based on the view that market boundaries and industry structure are not given’ and can be reconstructed by the actions and beliefs of industry players.

History shows that industries continuously evolve, and are being created and expanded over time.Industry conditions and boundaries are not given.  For example, what Cirque de Soleil did was to look across market boundaries to alternatives to the circus. It ended up being part circus and part theatre.

Rather than focus on the market boundaries, they focused on the job the customer was hiring for — in this case, it was adults looking for sophisticated entertainment. Another key thing they did was to not target the existing market (that is, children), rather they targeted non-consuming adults.

Creating and capturing new demand

innovation

Blue ocean strategy is all about creating and capturing net new demand by ignoring boundaries defined by traditional competitors.

Strategy is what creates blue oceans, and value innovation is the cornerstone of blue ocean strategy.  This is to be contrasted to value creation – something that improves value but isn’t sufficient to make you stand out in the marketplace.  Innovation without value tends to be technology driven, market pioneering or futuristic, often shooting beyond what buyers are ready to accept and pay for.

Value innovation occurs only when companies align innovation with utility, price and cost positions.  Value innovation isn’t grounded in value-cost trade off.  The conventional belief is that companies can either create greater value at a higher cost or reasonable value at a lower cost – that is strategy is seen as making a choice between differentiation and low cost. However, blue oceans pursue differentiation and low cost simultaneously.  They involve redefining the problem rather than providing solutions to existing problems.

So value innovation is more than innovation.  It requires companies to orient the whole system toward achieving a leap in value for both buyers and themselves.  The aim is to create new best practice rules by breaking the existing value/cost trade off and thereby creating a blue ocean.

Reading this book closely, has helped me avoid spending time and energy on ideas to tackle problems that currently exist – such as the lack of access to legal services by the latent market (see my earlier blog post on the subject of latent markets) Reading the book might also help you to avoid experimenting with ideas that could prove to be distractions.

Differentiate or Die – Survival in Era of Alternative Business Structures

This is the last of 3 blog posts (see previous posts here, and here) on law firm differentiation that I’ve written on the important task of differentiating law firms.

scale11This headline is inspired by the title of Jack Trout’s book Differentiate or Die which explains why survival in our era of ‘Killer Competition’ makes it imperative to distinguish our firms from those of competitors.  This is important as we approach the final stages of deregulation in October 2011.

Legal Services Act and the Alternative Business Structure (ABS)

While some lawyers believe the introduction of ABSs (whereby non-lawyers will be able to hold a stake in law firms) will only impact on high street firms, it’s difficult to see how the possibility of providing a comprehensive range of services incorporating traditional areas of legal practice alongside related commercial solutions, is NOT going to lead to a significant change in the market for legal services for all types of law firm.

At a recent Law Management section talk Nick Jarrett-Kerr expressed the view that the actual impact of deregulation in October 2011 will depend on how much external interest there is in the legal sector, and whether the economy is flat or expanding by then.  If the economy is doing well and there is little external interest, people are likely to say  ‘What was the Fuss About?’ while if there is huge external interest and a flat economy, the legal ‘Big Bang’ will mean Doomsday for many firms.  So, his advice was to assume the worst and plan for it.

In my view being clear about what you offer and how you differ from competitors (not just law firms) is how you can stand out in your chosen area of practice, and survive and thrive.  So, the search for a differentiating strategy has to begin by studying your business, and the markets you serve, in order to identify ways to better meet your target market’s needs.

Service and relationships

I was disappointed that the Law Management conference emphasised quality, standards, and excellent customer service as the way to differentiate law firms.  This same message is often reflected in discussions on LinkedIn and blogs.

Why is everyone telling law firms to focus on customer service, which can rarely be a successful differentiator as Jack Trout explains in Differentiate or Die?

I can only assume it’s a reaction to the poor quality service that some law firms have given in the past.  Some firms have been poor at communicating with clients and keeping them informed, and failed to return phone calls promptly enough.  But surely the fact that some or even many firms need to improve in these basic ways and learn how to run their businesses properly to survive does not justify this emphasis on quality, standards and service by the Law Management section and others?

Pursuing service (exceeding client expectations) and relationships as differentiators is in danger of becoming the new non differentiators.

Size

There is a widespread belief that law firms are going to have to get much bigger to survive.  But I have yet to hear of a large firm that has managed to benefit from economies of scale so as to reduce its hourly charge out rates.  Indeed, the very opposite seems to happen – the larger the firm, the higher its charge out rates. Clearly the knowledge business is not the same as supermarkets.  Tesco’s size does enable it to lower its prices, and that’s achieved through Tesco’s increased buying power.

In the law, size introduces bureaucracy and inefficiencies, as well as allowing the law firm to have fantastic premises and facilities.   The larger firms also have the necessary resources and reach to service the needs of big global businesses.

However, just as the investment management industry has ended up with both very large firms and small niche hedge funds which focus and specialise in particular ways, so in law there is a place for small niche firms to exist alongside the large firms.

There are benefits to being small.  Niche firms can scale up using outsourcing, and collaboration with other firms both locally and internationally, and are well placed to meet certain market needs.  Generally,  small firms are the ones that charge lower rates – possibly because they do not have the layers of bureaucracy.  They also  tend not to retain a team of expensive specialist staff who may not be fully utilised.

If we are to see the emergence of large law firms along the lines of the banks, focused on meeting the needs of consumers and small businesses I hope they will not be emphasising service and relationships.  This is precisely what banks do today, and look at them.

The banks

Banks are all so alike as to make it difficult to choose between them.  If you are dissatisfied with one, will you end up with more of the same by moving to another?

It certainly seems that way in the absence of any differentiators between them.  They all pay lip service to service and relationships.

When I moved our account to HSBC a relationship manager was assigned to me.  I was impressed to be given her mobile number.  Only there was never a reply from that phone.  The reality is that I talk to a succession of call centre operators who work to scripts that are robot like.  Even where they are ringing me in response to a letter I’ve sent, they start by asking a security question – my date of birth.  This infuriates me because it’s always the same question, and I am sometimes in an open plan office where people are listening.  Yet I have never managed to persuade any of the operators to forego the question, or to ask a different question or to ask the question in a more imaginative way, such as what’s the first digit, the sixth digit etc.  I now dread the need to communicate with HSBC as they won’t use a more secure way of asking their security questions.

My banking experience highlights how difficult it is for the consumer when there is no differentiation in an industry – which there isn’t when they all use the same rhetoric to position themselves.

For law firms, service is a given.  Indeed no business survives long term without giving an effective and competent service.  Differentiating on service shouldn’t just be a gimmick.  Giving extraordinary service takes time, and costs money.  So in a climate where law firms are under pressure to reduce their prices it’s inappropriate and contradictory to advise them to differentiate on service and quality standards.  They can’t both reduce prices and increase service in any real and meaningful way.

Much better to differentiate in ways which will meet a market need that isn’t currently being addressed by competitors.  For example, opening at weekends for meetings and telephone enquiries would be a way to stand out, and would be of real value to a client base consisting of workers who are in full time employment.

Conclusion

In the new deregulated climate many law firms should be looking to differentiate themselves and to innovate.  To arrive at a successful differentiating strategy it is important to understand your own business and your target market’s needs.  Avoid trying to be all things to all clients.  Delegating the task of differentiation to a marketing company is not necessarily going to prove successful unless the owners of the firm understand the issues I’ve touched on in these 3 blog posts.

It’s likely the Legal Services Act will see many new offerings in the market.  For law firms to compete effectively it’s going to be important to know which ideas to run with and which to put on hold.  Otherwise, there is potential to lose a lot of time and money on the wrong projects.  My next post will reveal a useful tool for evaluating new product or service ideas.