Edge International

Remote Work and Firm Culture: More Than Just Foosball Tables and Kegs!

Mike White

The biggest chokepoint in firms these days is the inability to align most lawyers- particularly younger lawyers- around behaviors that keep their firm most healthy. I’m often asked, “this remote/hybrid work model is shielding our people from the collective ambition and shared expectations that are the mother’s milk of firm success. How do we motivate our lawyers to really extend themselves for our firm, and what should those contributions look like?”

Falling short here reveals itself in a number of ways. Remote/hybrid work models can drive collaboration through the floor and weaken firm connective tissue. Younger lawyers at many firms know they are smart enough to contribute just enough- and no more- to keep their jobs, and they behave accordingly. The relationship between law firm and associate can be mercenary-like- “what can you pay me today? . . . ” and “what work can you produce today? . . . ” appear to be animating requirements. Also, beyond accessing shared administrative services, lawyers can have a hard time seeing how their output is enhanced by being part of a particular firm. In short, the compact between “law firm” and “lawyer” is flagging, and high performing culture suffers. In response, foosball tables and kegs suddenly appear in firm reception areas (a la Silicon Valley startups)- but doesn’t an enabling law firm culture deserve a more serious response than that?

Let’s step back here and look more generally at law firm culture. Firms that celebrate their “culture” occupy extremes on the culture continuum. Firms that are most proud of their culture often speak in terms of autonomy and entrepreneurialism (“we leave you alone”). Occupying the other end of the culture spectrum are firms that aren’t bashful about applying a slew of processes to help lawyers and practice groups support the collective health of the firm; these firms believe that selective top-down management can outfit their lawyers with tools that will help them be more successful.

So how can firms recover their mojo and motivate their lawyers to overperform and overcontribute? Well, step #1 might be to expunge any reference to wanting a “high performance culture” and rather speak in terms of building a “high commitment culture.” “Performance” implies a narrow outcome, often expressed in financial terms. “Commitment” is a broader concept that speaks to efforts, behaviors, and process- not just outcomes. “Commitment” is less threatening to lawyers and more in their control. We’re talking about trying to effect significant behavior change at scale with white collar professionals- non-heavy “carrots” tend to work better than do threatening “sticks.”

Supporting, motivating and activating remote professionals address a symptom of something larger. Step #2 in enabling overcontribution requires a holistic response. In my work, I encourage firms to:

  • Assess current culture and the implicit expectations implied by it
  • Reframe lawyer thinking from “current compensation today” to “qualitative career success tomorrow
  • Map long term career success to long term career control in very specific terms
  • View leadership and mentorship as “gotta have” active disciplines that are taught rather than “like to have” skills that are learned at best passively
  • Use the most innovative technology to fully optimize the remote experience and create true virtual physical presence
  • Define selective and thoughtful expectations for physical office presence that are purpose driven (e.g., supportive of the highest form of mentoring, collaborative service delivery, espirit de corps)
  • Set lawyers up for long term commercial success with structured skills building and enablement (“the happiest lawyers have the most clients- we will get you there . . . “).
  • Nurture their professional identity with “lawyer’s lawyer” clinical trainings and matter involvements (e.g., trial academy, M&A pilot programs, required outreach to and training with non-law firm business providers to understand fully the business issues that give rise to legal “symptoms”)
  • Make life easier for committed professionals with practical yet deep guidance around life issues – e.g., school choices, parenting, housing transitions, sabbaticals, etc.
  • Be both honest about and supportive of how lawyers would like to ascend “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” as they progress in their career; provide practical answers to lawyers’ desire to make an impact over time
  • Most importantly: document all features in a unitary written asset- a “playbook”- so there is no confusion about “the xyz Firm Way”

Most firms sound bite this problem as “what are we going to do about remote working?” but the implications go deeper and wider. Firms can create real distance from their peers if they marshal an integrated response- not a rules-based response for when you should or should not be in the office. Be serious and holistic, and you may find that foosball tables and kegs need not do all of the heavy lifting!

Recruitment & Retention: Deliver a “Signature” Career Experience!

Mike White

So what am I hearing these days from firm leaders? It’s something along the lines of “. . . we have no trouble finding demand for our services- all practice groups are maxed out and then some! We are having trouble attracting, recruiting and retaining the right lawyers we need to do the client work. Over time of course we know the inverse will be true, but how do we deal with the here and now?” Recruited lawyers are responding to the inducement of money today because few law firms give them confidence about the prospects for career success tomorrow. Younger lawyers are eager to hear from their law firm, “We want each lawyer who walks through that door for the first time to become a partner, and we will do whatever it takes to help you build the competencies needed to contribute to our firm- your firm- as a partner-in-waiting . . . “ Younger lawyers however are hearing something different- “ . . . We are going to pay you a lot of money today; what tomorrow holds- who knows? . . .” How can law firms break the cycle of cynicism and mercenary transactionalism that now defines the relationship between law firm and recruited associate? Answer #1: Define, develop, promote and deliver a “signature” experience to your younger lawyers across their entire career at your firm- their firm. Answer #2: Document your signature career experience in a signature career experience “playbook” (“SCE Playbook”). Answer #3: Start building a credible history today of implementing SCE Playbook plays.

Delivering a signature career experience is not about slogans, tag lines and breezy conclusions (“Unlike other law firms, we really, really, really, really insist on excellence . . . “ or “ . . . we really, really, really, really partner with our clients . . . “). Rather, it is expressed through the firm managerial “plumbing” (processes, incentives, etc.) designed to help firm lawyers experience extraordinary career long success. These managerial inputs should be defined and documented in the SCE Playbook, an asset that explains the concrete evidence that undergirds the delivery of differentiated, intentional career-long support. 

Many firms of course impressively develop their lawyers as great legal technicians over the course of their career at their firm; e.g., trial academies, structured mentoring, etc.- and these features certainly should be part of an SCE Playbook. However, many of these firms’ career experiences are not as “signature” as they otherwise could be because they speak little about supporting career long commercial success and delivering to their lawyers control over their careers. 

So what kinds of things comprise your firm’s SCE Playbook? Just a few examples are descriptions of how your firm helps its lawyers to:

  • Appreciate that prospect cultivation is a free-standing expertise that should be taught, learned and applied in a formal way so that your firm’s lawyers can be expected to build a practice rapidly- and that their firm delivers those competencies to them.
  • Speak the language of business vs. “legalese,” thereby making it easier for lawyers to establish dialogue with business managers who serve as great entry points into new clients.
  • Credibly deliver a unique relationship brokerage/mapping process new clients will experience from your firm so that you can make high value business introductions to new clients as soon as you begin working on their first matter. 
  • Serve as an outsourced legal tech innovation arm of client law departments by introducing them to new software applications that support the emerging legal operations function.

Note how the above examples are removed from “good lawyering” in and of itself, yet represent issues that give lawyers a differentiated leg up in the marketplace. Younger lawyers will give your firm credit today for helping them position themselves intelligently in the market as a “different-in-kind” legal resource instead of as a symbol of undifferentiated “me-tooism.” When fully built out, the SCE Playbook serves as an operational asset on which younger lawyers will rely to guide their careers. It will include descriptions and case study examples of all “plays” the firm will help each lawyer run at every stage of development.  

Finally, for the “stuff” of signature career experience to be playbook worthy, you should ask, “Is the play or firm feature . . .”:

  • Defined?
  • Documented?
  • Planned?
  • Incentivized?
  • Supported with process?
  • Managed/monitored/measured?
  • Taught?
  • Aligned – with your firm? 
  • Promoted – internally?
  • Promoted – externally?
  • Credible?

As you can see from the above checklist, breezy, undifferentiated “branding conclusions” won’t pass muster as Playbook elements; rather SCE Playbook features must include the specific business evidence that ensures the signature experience you deliver to all of your long-term lawyers is never an accident.

Now is the time to move the goalposts away from short-term compensation inducements and develop the plays lawyers will use to be successful over their entire career at your firm to become a partner-in-waiting; more specifically, develop and give them an SCE Playbook!

Why is Law Firm Strategy So Hard?

Mike White

The title of this article poses an obvious question with which many forward-looking, high-performing firms wrestle. In their native state, law firms are not inclined to “manage,” and to the extent leadership mobilizes firms around shared priorities they tend to be at best only the “here and now” priorities. Law firms are not good at seeing around corners. There’s been no need to as law firms have operated in a pretty static market – it’s only been recently that the legal market could be described as fluid and dynamic.

So what is happening now? The artistry of law is being fused with the science of business processes and technology. Unlike many “real businesses,” law is still primarily a bespoke art. Law firms themselves can’t adopt all of the great process and technology advances with which businesses have lived for some time; in short, law firms will have to pick their spots.

How can law firms pick the right spots? How can they transform their business model and service delivery in intelligent ways without getting out over their skis? What can law firms do to get a better handle on the changes in their market they themselves are not going to see in the normal course? Below are a few recommendations that may help firms wrestling with these issues.

  • Build relationships with strategy consultants who build new capabilities in response to new corporate needs all the time. These new capabilities by definition represent strategic issues for the large corporate clients of these strategy consulting firms. New strategy offerings usually spin off all sorts of structuring, regulatory, and risk management issues tailor-made for law firms.
  • Build relationships with Wall Street capital markets firms that research industry sectors. The trends about which you learn from these particular industry experts will spin off industry driven new legal demand.
  • Understand legal operations twice as well as do your clients. Learn from your clients how they think the management and delivery of legal work are going to change in five years, not just next year.
  • Follow the most innovative IT consulting firms that focus on the legal industry and serve only the AmLaw 100. Technology is usually an exemplar of non-technological innovation that occurs at a process, operational and “manual” (i.e., non-technological) level.
  • Survey the associates. Associates are very invested in informal benchmarking. Based on their anecdotally informed perceptions they will have a view on the strategic priorities you embrace. If you take the time to understand what the associates are “hearing” from their peers at other firms you’ll likely stumble upon at least one multi-year priority that- left to your own devices- would not have made your list.
  • Driving adoption and establishing new behaviors in support of any long-term strategic initiative are strategic in and of themselves. “Get a body on” creating buy-in, thereby sensitizing your lawyers to the worthwhile nature of the discomfort they may be required to take on. For example, if you’re going to ask lawyers to use new client facing technology in the delivery of legal work, give them billable hour credit for the hours they may save by using the technology.
  • Predictive analytics should be deployed wherever relevant. Clients are true believers of data sciences and they will love seeing their law firm relying on it to project matter costs, or business risks associated with certain decisions. Develop a capability in this area and you will have a leg up on your competition.

Transforming the strategy, operating model and service delivery features of a law firm is a daunting ambition. Firms can make some transformational advances without taking on too much if they keep the above ideas in mind and pick the right spots; in so doing, process and technology can work hand-in-hand with the bespoke art of law to create a better product.

How Can You Reach and Recruit Diverse Lawyers?

Mike White

I’ve been gobsmacked by how many managing partners and firm practice group leaders tell me, “Mike, we’re having trouble recruiting a homogenous, non-diverse stable of lawyers; we want to grow our numbers but we can’t seem to break the cycle of onboarding lawyers who all look very different from each other and represent different life experiences, ethnicities, geographies and genders. Can you help us address this human capital challenge?” Alright . . . so I’m not hearing that! As you might assume, I’m hearing quite the opposite. Outpacing all other law firm laments- by a wide margin- is the frustration firms express about not being able to recruit successfully enough diverse and minority lawyers.

Why can’t firms win more than their fair share of recruiting battles for diverse lawyers, and why is this important? For one thing, culture matters to all lawyers- both diverse and non-diverse lawyers. Lawyers want to work in eclectic, stimulating environments. Non-diverse lawyers are a flight risk if they are denied the affirming experience of working with colleagues who represent true diversity. Moreover of course, corporate law departments for some of the same reasons want to work with a more diverse stable of providers and advisers.

The legal business is a human capital business. With GDP growth at 6x-7x normal rates reducing to “only” 3x-4x normal rates as the economy recovers, demand for commercial legal services will remain brisk for a long time. The challenge law firms face in recruiting diverse lawyers is in some respects a more acute form of the challenge they face in recruiting all lawyers. What diverse lawyers want to see in a firm to which they commit their career in many respects is what all lawyers want to see in a firm worthy of career commitment. Compensation of course is important, but what else should firms support to more reliably attract the most desirable lawyers to their firm?

Career Long Commercial Success

Make an explicit and detailed commitment to helping your diverse lawyers be successful commercially. Many firms view the path-to-partnership as a 10-year fraternity hazing experience- “we want autodidacts who can figure out success on their own- that’s our partnership readiness KPI.” What if you were simply better than your peers at teaching your diverse stable of layers the functions and vocabulary of business so they will have an easier time engaging with client prospects? What if you taught them from inception how to cultivate relationships, convert opportunities into paying engagements, and cause third parties to become introduction generators for their pipeline? I encourage my clients to demonstrate with concrete, tangible and packaged deliverables what their competency building experience at their firms would look like in these areas- you must show that you are as intentional and serious about building in them these skills as you are about building in them technical legal skills.

Help Them with Life

Committing to a law firm career = committing to an imbalanced life. Help your diverse lawyers- particularly if they’re new to the community-  build their supportive personal scaffolding so they can be even more effective at building their career. Get to know them and help them manage some of the non-work dimensions of their life that are rendered more complicated because of work. Do they want to send their kids to private school? If so, put them in touch with other partners who know something about that process. In what activities outside of work do they and their spouses/partners like to engage? Put them in touch with others who engage in those activities. How are they trying to build out their personal and professional network? Put them in touch with other firm lawyers who know people who would be interesting to them. Listen and learn, and then be helpful- pretty simple, huh? You should document what the firm does in these areas, and package it up (promote, educate others, and document) so that diverse recruits see that it is part of the firm DNA.

Educate Them with Expectations and Possible Roles

Many firms offer multiple paths and have cracked the code on how each flavor of lawyer can generate firm profits. Very few younger lawyers have a granular view of success over time at a law firm. We all know law firms can support thoughtful long term tracks for non-equity partners, fractional lawyers, and lawyers moving into business roles. Success in a law firm career is less binary and more complicated now. Firms expect to generate profits from all lawyers, no matter what title they have. All lawyers- including diverse recruits- need to understand what those roles look like and how they could be successful in each one.

Stop Being Cryptic

Many firms aren’t very open about what life will be like at a firm as a senior partner, or even as a young partner. AmLaw rankings may provide transparency into the financial benefits, but even those numbers don’t tell the whole financial story; e.g., amount of capital contributions, spread between highest and lowest compensated partners, what are the “doing my part” expectations at each stage. Also, be open about what people earn and why. You have much a better chance of convincing a desirable recruit to defer near term compensation gratification if they see a pathway to great financial security and reward down the road- but you must be specific and transparent here!


Most lawyers care very deeply about blunting the imbalanced nature of law firm lawyering over a career by seeking control over what they are doing. “If I’m going to have to work this hard, I want to be able to do it on my terms . . . “ At bottom this means they need to see how they will build a client base of their own. How else could your firm help diverse lawyers establish control over their career- both long term and day to day?

If your firm is like 90% of the AmLaw 200 law firm that can’t throw more money at diverse recruits than your competition, then you have to be more thoughtful and holistic, if for no other reason than because your most desirable minority and diverse recruits bring their own thoughtful and holistic lens to these issues. Meet your human capital where they are, and give their long term career aspirations an intellectual bear hug- then you will begin winning more of these talent battles.

Move the Goalposts and Make Prospect Risk Aversion Your Friend

Mike White

During a recent client call I sat in on, one of the partners mentioned an opportunity to begin doing work for a global 1000 business (“Company A”). My client happened to be one of the few non-law firms with which I work- a strategy consulting firm that works with global corporates. My strategy consulting client had done a good job of setting the table and matching needs with capabilities, but their dialogue was plateauing. The below bullets reflect how I helped them find a decision catalyst to implement the relationship. One of the challenges was the perception that other strategy consulting firms competing against my client were specifically familiar with Company A’s industry and products; i.e., they had the benefit of reusable knowledge. Below are some comments I offered about how my client could “move the goalposts” and cause Company A to view retaining my client as being a less risky choice.

Make “Risk Sensitivity” Your Friend

► A decision by Company A to work with any of the other more technically oriented consulting firms likely will be a hat tip to risk aversion. Businesses derive comfort from reusable (technical) knowledge; reusable knowledge = no wheel spinning = less time and $ to generate insights = higher probability ROI.

►How can you inject “risk” into Company A’s decision to go with cheaper consultants who bring with them reusable technical knowledge?

► Reframe Company A’s problem from being a technical problem that is a creature of the relevant industry sector to being i) a growth problem, ii) a change management problem, iii) a creativity problem, a iv) it is a . . . . problem, but it is not a technical problem.

► High impact recommendations coming out of this process will require Company A to put in motion multiple work streams that look little like their legacy business; this will be hard. They will need an expert in how to manage de novo, unfamiliar work streams– i.e., the cadence, the carburetion, monitoring and course correcting, etc. A consultant who knows how to build Company A’s technical product is not an expert in unfamiliar, de novo work streams. Getting organizations to do something new for the first time is hard- and it is a discipline in and of itself. The real risk to Company A is in not finding a resource with THIS expertise.

► Technical industry experts with presumed reusable knowledge are more likely to bring with them parochial, insular “me too” prescriptions. How can you convince Company A that it is critical they make a real breakthrough here? That requires thinking (i.e., creativity) unconstrained by the narrow lens of “technical literacy and deep industry knowledge.” Amazon did not go to a retail consultant to go into the web services business, etc . . .

How to Deal with The Price Objection

► Company A is going to need to see what kind of prescription my client could author that is different in kind and capable of generating geometrically more value than another conventional technically oriented consultancy. Can you paint this picture during the sales stage before you have yet to do the work?

► Stories – the best way to move people in big ways to another place is with penetrating individual stories. Is there a case study you could cite where you were chosen at a much higher cost and your client experienced home run impact that clearly would not have been delivered by another “usual suspect” competitor?

Whether you’re a strategy consulting firm or a law firm, “difference in kind” persuasion requires big “goalpost moving”- you’re going to need to get prospects to look at their problem and the opportunity fundamentally different from the way they are likely looking at it when they present it to you. If you “move the goalposts” you win; if you allow them to lazily accept the framing they brought with them before talking to consultants you likely won’t win.

Partners: Escape Velocity Begins Now!

Mike White

Well thankfully, it’s a new year! As you do all that you can to reach “escape velocity” and set the table for great things in Q3 and Q4, I caution my clients to make a psychological commitment to put things in motion now to create a rich set of opportunities later in the year.

I spend time with many of my clients during this time of year to encourage them to initiate many “January-February meetings.” My recommendation takes two steps: i) between now and the end of January, send out emails to suspects, prospects, or target-rich existing clients inviting them to join with you on a 20-30 minute call; and, ii) between February 1 and February 28 have your “January-February meetings” with those who responded to your invitation.

What are “January-February meetings?” January-February is a time of year when your CSuite contacts are: i) no longer hassled by year-end 2020 issues; ii) thinking about 2021 priorities that they can point to with specificity and clarity; iii) not yet consumed by this day/this week 2021 urgencies; iv) most open to engaging in high value “thought partnering” discussions with smart people like you; and, v) most forthcoming in sharing with you all of their gaps/exposures, as well as their hopes and dreams for the coming year.

Executing on this strategy requires you to have a sense of urgency. Many of you are managing a number of well qualified, well developed discussions with mature prospects. In other words, between handling your existing client work and advancing your mature opportunities, you have plenty to say grace over. However, I encourage you to resist the urge to blow off current efforts to set up your “January-February meetings.” You have an unusual luxury now to put leverage to work for you that will soon evaporate.

Leverage? What leverage? The leverage you can and should make use of now is the single email template you can send out (with minor recipient-specific tweaking) to get many people to consider your request for a “January-February meeting.” A single email form sent out to many recipients- now that is leverage! In business-speak we call this “doing something at scale.”

So, what does this “email” look like? Subject to recipient-specific customization, your email could look like the below:


This time of year, I try to schedule time in January and February with select companies to learn more about what the year ahead is going to look like. Given what we do, I’m always particularly interested in the ‘experiments’ companies are planning to run beyond ‘keep the trains running’ and normal course priorities.  At this time, businesses are coming out of their planning cycle and isolating areas, gaps, and opportunities deserving of unusual attention. While these discussions on occasion reveal to us ‘engageable’ subject matter, more typically our listening tour helps us learn unconventional insights about company types/sectors on which we focus. In short, it helps us be smarter about you, and other companies like you.

Push me out as far as you need to but if you’d be game to get together this month or next, I’d welcome the opportunity to set up a call or schedule a virtual coffee . .  .”

Get going- now is the time to strike!

Integrating Merged Law Firms: How to Create Truly Disruptive Value

Mike White

The legal industry enjoys a long history of bolting together two newly combined law firms, or practice groups from two newly merged firms; best practices here are well established at least as it relates to the basics (e.g., identify redundant processes, mesh together technology platforms, create instances for intentional “mingling” to break down barriers, have leadership sell the benefits of the new normal loudly and often, get the marketing dept to come up with a coherent brand, define an existing client x-selling process, etc.). But what more can be done beyond the basics to really make a law firm combination “sing”? Is it possible to create a combined law firm experience from which lawyers simply do not want to leave . . . ever? Can a combined firm deliver disruptive value that clients would never expect to consume from law firms?

I encourage firms to use “signature experience” methods to create the secret sauce here. Derived  from “client experience innovation” approaches, “signature experience” methods can transform a successfully integrated firm into a firm that delivers a special experience to its internal lawyers and team members, and as a result of such, confers unique and disruptive value on clients. In this regard, McKinsey is “different” from AT Kearney (not to pick on AT Kearney!), and Goldman Sachs is “different” from Credit Suisse (not to pick on Credit Suisse!).

In previous writings on “signature experience” I’ve exemplified what “signature experience” transformations can look like. However, I’ve purposely avoided walking through the structure of what a “signature experience” integration project would look like as those mechanics tend to be less intellectually interesting and less foundational. Merged firms that are successfully integrated have a rich portfolio of processes to support the “1+1=3” work streams, and the “signature experience” integration project structure below is a great example of such.

I break down a “signature experience” integration project into five phases:

Focus & Mobilize

  • Review strategy, practice development, marketing materials, as well as any client research; conduct individual interviews with leaders
  • Create a working team to dedicate 1/4+ time to the project (2-3 people) over about four months; create a steering team to participate in key workshops
  • Deliverable(s): Document a project plan

Outcomes Model

  • Conduct additional concentrated intake in areas of special focus (e.g., shoring up a flagging industry sector effort that represents substantial long term opportunity)
  • Hold working sessions to clarify desired outcomes and prioritize client behaviors
  • Translate the outcomes into specific revenue/profit growth objectives, and build alignment on the outcomes
  • Deliverable(s): Description of business outcomes

Truth About Today

  • Review client-facing processes, services, and other exposures; conduct client and employee interviews
  • Identify gaps and opportunities associated with desired outcomes; identify “low hanging fruit” quick wins
  • Deliverable(s): i) Truth About Today summary and implications; ii) Summary of top client interviews

Vision & Design

  • Define end-to-end experience vision aligned with desired outcomes
  • Develop description of initial experience enhancements and service improvements
  • Describe process, structure, employee experience and technology implications
  • Deliverable(s): Document the above


  • Develop roadmap for acting on initial experience innovations, as well as the iterative design, refinement, testing, and creation of new experiences
  • Deliverable(s): i) Roadmap of initial experience innovations, and process to support development of new experience innovations; ii) Playbook

The above framing does not reflect a lot of project detail, or descriptions of all of the working team sessions, steering team sessions, and other standing meetings along the way. What I hope the above does accomplish is provide you with a concrete sense of what a journey would look like to build a unitary firm using “signature experience” methods!

Reducing Law Firm Real Estate Spend While Retaining Culture

Mike White

The Opportunity

Remote working has revealed a new adaptability and capacity in firms, and many firms have landed on the following two insights: i) lawyers can be very productive without having to be physically proximate to their firm colleagues; and, ii) remote working has broken down significant cultural barriers associated with being attached to commonly shared physical space.

Over the past months, I’ve had many clients tell me, “Mike, even the most resistant, old-school dinosaurs at our firm, who often are the most senior and influential partners, have gotten comfortable with not being tethered to the office…” The connective tissue of most law firms has been disrupted and even the more hidebound firms are seeing needle-moving opportunity to increase distributable profits by reducing real estate spend.

It’s Complicated

“Ok, so let’s just ditch the office space as fast as possible; easy peasy!” Not so fast. There’s a reason real estate has always been one of the two biggest spend items for firms. For years, law firms have built and reinforced their culture, their values, their professional development and mentoring, and their way of working through immersive physical exposure to their colleagues. Firms are now asking these questions:

  • How can the osmosis necessary for imparting learnings occur without regular physical proximity?
  • How can we build and maintain institutional connective tissue without being around each other?
  • If we don’t come up with a good answer, how do we avoid becoming the proverbial “hotel for lawyers” (a mercenary environment bound together by the economics and nothing else)?
  • What are the lawyer retention implications to all of this?

“Despite the clear pathway to greater profits, this seems really risky, Mike. After all, pre-Covid, our firm’s most important catalyst of communal bonding were the foosball table and keg we placed in the large conference room. There’s no way for our people to enjoy that setup virtually!”

Addressing this complex opportunity while maintaining strong connective tissue requires balanced attention at two levels: the strategic, “Big Wheels,” that create strategic magnets for coherence, and the tactical, “Little Wheels,” that reinforce connectivity in the short term.

The “Big Wheels”: Signature Client and Team Member Experience

Physical exposure is not a primary enabler of strong connectivity. In the absence of strategic clarity of purpose, it is, at best, a contributing factor. The activities that build shared values, processes, motivations, standard operating procedures, and proprietary firm “IP” can be supported quite ably without experiencing shared office space. The same methods that I often use with firms to create a unitary firm within the context of merger integration are applicable equally to the remote working challenge. These methods begin with keeping the client at the center and inform the multi-year “Big Wheel” initiatives that drive cohesiveness, identity, differentiation, and a deep sense of “why we’re better and confer more value than our peers.” They are designed to help firms define and deliver “signature experiences” in the following ways:

  • Define/deliver a signature, external client experience
    • What are the sources of value conferring technical legal expertise (good lawyering) that make our firm/practice different and better? What are the sources of value conferring non-legal external client value and differentiation for which clients are capable of giving us credit?
    • What can we create in addition to the above to support “signature experiences”?
  • Define/deliver a signature, internal team member experience
    • How can we develop, be mentored, and collaborate in a way that supports our firm’s signature external client experience?
    • How can we build the right systemic support (processes, incentives, alignments) to deliver our signature internal team member experience?
  • Use “team of teams,” ad hoc venturing and other collaboration principles to integrate and link the signature internal team member experience of your lawyers and staff with the signature external client experience you want to deliver to your clients (and prospects)
  • Once defined, document it.
  • Once documented, teach it.
  • Once taught, monitor and measure it.

Structure of The Signature Experience Project Journey

So how do we go about building the “signature experience” scaffolding to create the durable institutional bonds we desire?

  1. Outcome: begin with the end in mind, and work backwards; what are the business benefits and objectives you want to achieve for your law firm?
  2. Intake & Present State: survey and interview representative clients; survey and interview representative lawyers and staff; review relevant writings; inventory existing firm practices and behaviors that support differentiated experiences.
  3. Analysis: what are the unique external client and internal team member experiences your firm wants to deliver to different sets of external clients and internal team members? How do we need to work individually and together to link our desired internal team member experiences with our desired external client experiences? What best practices from the market and other firms can inform our analysis?
  4. Roadmap: create a plan to achieve the recommendations generated by the analysis. Are there any “unwritten rules” and cultural barriers that could prevent us from executing the plan?

A great example of what we’re referring to is Goldman Sachs, whose professionals arguably enjoy and benefit from the strongest set of cultural bonds of any professional services firm. Goldman Sachs bankers learn from day #1 why they are different and arguably better than other investment banking firms. The “Goldman Sachs Way” (“GS Way”) is defined, specific, and articulable by each Goldman Sachs investment banker. The GS Way does not consist of conventional platitudes and bromides alluding to “excellence;” rather, it is made up of inputs and evidence associated with a way of doing business that put prospects and clients in a position to conclude (to infer) that the institution and its professionals deliver excellence. Each banker can explain how each element of the GS Way is designed to confer value on the firm’s external client. In short, prospects, clients and internal team members believe Goldman Sachs delivers a “signature experience.” Moreover, the common language (processes, incentives, trainings, differentiated market positioning, etc.) the bankers adopt is imparted independent of the physical office space they may or may not share.

The” Little Wheels”: Maintaining Connectivity in the Short Term

When a law firm decides to commit to a “signature experience” project, by definition it is doing something very strategic. The benefits are too big (removing the risk from re-capturing big margin that has gone out the door on real estate spend) and too durable (multi-year impact) to be viewed otherwise. “Big Wheel” engagement, efforts, and commitment across the firm are aligned and activated to effect transformational change (see “The ‘Big Wheels’: Signature Client and Team Member Experience” above) from which the firm will benefit for many years. However, firms that embark on a “signature experience” journey have to experience – and need to see – “Little Wheels” making immediate impact.

What do the “Little Wheels” look like? These are the low hanging fruit, near term opportunities to build and strengthen identity, differentiation, connective tissue and culture. They are easy to implement immediately and support. They also tend to create in team members a visceral sense of connectedness to each other and to the enterprise. They express inward empathy for the firm’s internal team members (employees, lawyers). The “Little Wheels” recognize that maintaining connectivity in the short term can no longer be addressed simply by rolling out the foosball table and keg. Across industries, particularly professional services, organizations are evolving best practices for maintaining connectivity at a distance. This includes launching virtual water cooler collaboration spaces, lunch and learns, pop up brainstorming sessions, and other deliberate community building and social networking approaches in addition to physical gatherings outside of the traditional office setting. The “Little Wheels” are not window dressing efforts but rather are purpose-driven, substantive experiences.


Reducing your firm’s commitment to expensive shared office space is a generational opportunity to increase dramatically the pool of firm distributable profits. “Signature experience” projects, which can last from one to six months, are non-disruptive to your current work streams and processes. ” Per Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast!” A well- designed “signature experience” effort, deployed through a detailed roadmap, is your firm’s insurance policy against the erosion of bonds that can turn your firm into a “hotel for lawyers.”

Get Retained Before You Get Retained

Mike White

Cultivating both relationships and opportunities is a game of quantity and quality. I encourage my law firm business development clients to focus on establishing many discussion threads with prospects, or at least suspected prospects. It’s hard to assume you’ve got a new engagement coming in the door when you have three or four active discussion threads; it’s a lot easier to be confident when you’ve got 12-15 active discussion threads. Active dialogue puts you in a position to be specific and link what you’re proposing to do for the prospect to a particular priority they have that falls outside of the job they might want you to do. “Let’s plan to have us work on the next deal that looks like xyz, and in the meantime I can help you put together a post-acquisition integration checklist along with your outside  management consultant that is helping you absorb the businesses you acquire….”

Common challenges reliably emerge with lawyers who actually engage in a lot of relationship cultivating outreach, namely:

  1. They have difficulty establishing a sufficient number of early stage discussion threads. Ideally you should feel pretty overwhelmed with the number of early stage “first” or “second” meeting discussions you are getting calendared – if you’re not feeling overwhelmed with inbound front-of-the-funnel activity, then you’re probably not spending enough time populating your funnel. I give my clients credit for engaging in outreach to force multiplying “connectors” as well as suspected prospects – connectors lead to prospects!
  2. Many well developed discussion threads plateau and it’s not clear how to implement a “buying decision.”

Relative to item #2 above:

  • The key to conversion with a reluctant prospect is getting the company to begin consuming some law firm service or insight before they want to “buy” a legal service. The timing here is important- by getting a prospect to consume anything of value from you at this stage means you have to be helping the prospect deal with a current “job to be done;” so… make sure you understand fully all of the “jobs to be done” (credit to Clay Christensen, the father of “disruptive innovation” methods) within the portfolio of your prospect. Examples: creating an after-action review process of litigation of a certain type to guide litigation-avoidance business operations training; developing a matter-specific legal project management worksheet to manage matters; building out a library of forms and templates – with companion training – to make the law department more self-sufficient and less reliant on outside lawyers.
  • You need to understand the pain points and facts on the ground well enough to propose helping them at the earliest stage – if you’re going to persuade a suspect to begin consuming your legal services or insights before they are ready, you’d better be proffering an intensely bespoke/customized/personalized proposition reflecting their particulars. Once you learn about all of their “jobs to be done,” you are in a position to be helpful. PEOPLE BUY FROM PEOPLE!
  • Getting prospects to consume any of your work product before a prospect actually wants to “buy” anything also requires you to make this initial experience very risk free. Of course, providing them with value-add “freeware” in hopes they will ultimately start paying can be a useful tactic but it doesn’t establish your pricing power. Alternatively, get them to validate the value you are conferring by requiring them to pay; give them “off-ramps” to stop consuming (and therefore stop paying) and keep them in control of the way they want to consume your wisdom/work product- prospects need to feel in control.
  • Prospects will also bite if the “idea” you propose moves forward a clear near-term priority.

So, think about conversion and decision-implementation in the above terms – combining the back-end conversion strategies with the front-end discussion-thread creation strategies, and you will have a healthy funnel!

Differentiation: The Whole Product

Mike White

Either in the course of my “client experience innovation” work, or in helping groups of partners do a better job finding new clients, I hear the following frustration, “We’re a great law firm! However, as great as we are, we’re no different from other great lawyers at other great law firms who do what we do. Frankly, I find this reality to be really discouraging . . . “.

I largely agree with this lament . . . but only as far as it goes. No doubt it is challenging for a firm and its partners to differentiate themselves in a market at a purely technical level (i.e., based on good lawyering alone); however, corporate consumers of legal work are not just buying “good lawyering” per se – they are often buying much, much more. It is in relation to the “more” that law firms can in fact differentiate themselves.

Commercial legal-services consumers (corporations, in-house lawyers at corporations, business managers who engage outside law firms directly) buy a “whole product” rather than just raw lawyering. For example, they buy a non-technical sensibility that when curveballs emerge during the course of a legal matter, the lawyer-client decisioning about the surprise will be really effective. Or, for example, they often buy benchmarking information you provide about how other clients might assess certain risks and be guided by those insights. They are buying a lot of things outside of “lawyering” that make up the whole product.

An emerging procurement feature in what law firm clients are buying relates to cross-disciplinary integration. Companies want to see all of their providers (lawyer, strategy consultant, business insurance risk consultant, capital markets adviser/investment banker, CPA, etc.) link their insights with other providers outside of their discipline in ways that make sense. For example, litigation lawyers should have a seat at the table when the risk-management consultant quarterbacks the corporate risk-assessment process. Transactional lawyers should play a role in the post-acquisition business-integration process being managed by outside management consultants. Learn who are the other non-law firm advisers to your clients and try to partner with them in this way with “hybrid” insights and solutions.

Certain client types really appreciate the role a law firm can play outside of “lawyering” in helping them do what they do as a business. For example, private equity funds are most challenged by their low-quality (and quantity) deal flow; today they have a hard time finding well priced companies in their focused sector in which to invest. Any law firm that can directly – or indirectly (through the law firm’s clients and other relationships) – enhance a private equity fund’s deal flow will transcend the noise and position itself to be retained.

Law firm clients give law firms credit for being “better” just by being “different”; despite this, law firms do a really bad job of differentiating themselves. Law firms that do try to differentiate do so at a purely technical level (“. . . No. Honest! We’re really, really, really, really . . . technically smarter and better than your existing law firm you’ve used blissfully for the past 25 years . . . “). Clients aren’t generally in the business of generating legal work; rather, they have “jobs to be done” that throw off “legal symptoms.” Learn about all of a prospect’s “jobs to be done” that drag “legal symptoms” along with them, and try to make those jobs easier.

Finally, ask your lawyers the following: Are you a better lawyer by virtue of your being part of our firm than you otherwise would be at a peer firm? If the answer is yes, create an inventory of all of the reasons why such is the case. In so doing, you’ll begin to build an inventory of firm differentiation that your lawyers can use during their outreach with prospects and others in the market.

So, don’t be constrained by the limits imposed by conventional differentiation. Learn about your prospects’ “jobs to be done,” and sell your “whole product”!