Edge International

Partner Teams – the benefits, the challenges and why some partners don’t like them! (Part Two)

Sean Larkan

In Part One of this article I set out, in bullet-point form for the purposes of brevity, what I saw as the:

  1. Benefits of teams and why partners like them;

In this Part Two I look at:

  1. The disadvantages of not having them;
  2. Potential challenges and disadvantages of a team structure;
  3. Why some partners, in our experience, do not like them!

Remember that in Part One I said that by partner teams we mean a partner with tiers of lawyers by seniority or experience who report to her or him and for whom such partner is principally responsible.

PART TWO:

PARTNER TEAMS

  1. The disadvantages of not having them;

LAWYERS & FEE EARNERS:

  • There is a clear responsibility for lawyers within a team. There is nowhere to hide, from partners or peers, within a team;
  • Capability to ‘run a team’ becomes a pre-requisite before a senior associate is considered for or elevated to partner status – this should be a sine qua non!
  • Senior lawyers, like senior associates, learn leadership and management on the job – a great preparation for partnership, some would say, the only true preparation;
  • Training & coaching takes place where it should, on the job, within the team & organically;
  • It is the best way of getting the best out of people & ensuring that no-one ‘falls through the cracks’. A team becomes a supportive, challenging learning environment for lawyers but ideally, a trusting and respectful one. There is always someone to ask questions of or provide support or advice;
  • A partner team contributes to ensure a genuine interest is taken in individual lawyers and support staff within the team. This is a foundational element of the Responsible Partner system we have developed and implemented in many jurisdictions. It also builds lawyer engagement (will a person ‘say’, ‘stay’ and go the extra mile);
  • This structure facilitates teaching and developing specialist industry sector or practice area skills within the team. We have often seen new practice areas or industry sector specialties spring from this interaction and evolution;
  • If something e.g. financial practices, should be done in a particular way, new team members very quickly come up to speed and learn from others in the team ‘how things work’;
  • Work products and volumes are properly managed within the team; workloads, types of work and necessary training can be done ‘on the job’, in-house, within the team; and
  • The only way to ensure every staff member, legal or otherwise, has a fair chance to reach their full potential. These are expensive resources in time and dollars; it is as well to do all you can to get a good return on the investment.

FINANCIAL:

  • Budgets can be set on a team basis (the partner will have an excellent grasp of capability and potential within a team) and attainment is managed by the partner concerned;
  • Financial management within the team creates consistency, ensures compliance and application, and the teaching/learning of relevant skills;
  • The financial outcomes argument is unassailable, particularly where partners employ qualitative gearing or leverage within their team with high calibre, committed team players who work on quality assignments for good quality clients. Firms who have these tiered partner teams reap substantial financial rewards; and
  • There is plenty of empirical evidence industry-wide to support this.

GENERAL:

  • Employment Brand and engagement levels, critical success factors, are supported by teams. A firm’s employment brand is what others think and feel of the firm as an employer. This is directly impacted by all the factors mentioned above and in Part One of this article; and
  • A well led team operates as a well-oiled team and is more powerful than the sum of the individual parts.

PARTNER TEAMS

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES AND DISADVANTAGES:

  • There is potential for work to be held within the team (partners ‘clutching it to their chests’) thereby creating a silo effect;
  • There is also potential for lawyers in other areas of the practice to not be used by the team, or lawyers within the team not being exposed to other partners, areas of practice or specialties;
  • A team structure creates pressure on the team partner to find work and manage work and the financials within the team;
  • Sometimes partners, particularly in larger firms, have been inclined to “over lawyer” (but this is not limited to firms that have a team structure); and
  • Note that the issues outlined in the first four bullet points, above, are easily managed by having the partner team system in place as part of the fabric of the firm and having it monitored by leadership and management through various systems that have can be put in place to support it. We have evolved a Responsible Partner system and philosophy, Development Discussion system to support it and Contribution Criteria for partners to ensure they undertake their roles appropriately.

PARTNER TEAMS

DISADVANTAGES OF NOT HAVING TEAMS:

  • Unless the firm, work type, type of market and individual partners are uniquely qualified, firms will never reach their potential financial outcomes;
  • Most of the advantages outlined above are not possible to achieve;
  • Partners get away with making much lesser contributions to the firm and partnership than is required in most successful law firms today;
  • Too often, partners with specialties do not train successors in that area of work, do not introduce their clients to team lawyers in an organised, structured way and when they retire the ‘cupboard is often bare’ i.e. no real succession has been provided for in regard to skills transfer, personnel or key clients;
  • Legal staff are left in a melting pot of uncertainty as to workflow, quality of work, coaching, feedback and whether an interest will be taken in them or their work and progression in the firm. This results in lowered self-esteem, potential is not realised and lower productivity and sometimes departure results; and
  • Firms with an ostensibly good brand, good clients, good workflow, good infrastructure, good lawyers and good leadership/management remain mystified why they are not making more money or doing better.

PARTNER TEAMS

WHY DO SOME PARTNERS NOT LIKE TEAMS?

  • A team structure makes it clear where responsibility and accountability lie, amongst other things, for what happens within the team and in regard to the quality of work, workflow and financial and overall performance of individual lawyers. Partners won’t admit this, but this often lies at the heart of objections to team structures;
  • Team partners have to coach and train;
  • Partners sometimes argue they want to be able to hand their work out around the office in a random manner based on the ‘best person for the job’ (the team structure still provides for this);
  • Partners quickly realise they will be measured for how well they run and grow their team;
  • Unfortunately, the reality is that many partners do not like this spotlight beamed on them.

PARTNER TEAMS

CASE STUDIES

  • A leading senior tax partner and in due course Chairman of the firm, charging at the highest rates in NZ, was practising with no gearing, that is, no team. Following establishment of a team structure, which he enthusiastically embraced, he was over five years able to build a team including two fellow partners and half a dozen lawyers one of whom developed a leading GST specialty, another a highly successful Customs and Excise specialty;
  • A senior high-profile matrimonial partner in his mid-60s doing celebrity divorces and settlements practised with no team. Even at that stage of his career he took on the challenge of developing a team and through that built succession and client comfort in dealing with lawyers at different levels of seniority. He achieved these goals within about five years; and
  • A chairman of his firm in Australia and leading church law and charities practitioner ten years ago had no succession plan and shared one lawyer with another partner. He retired this year (2020) as chairman and partner leaving a successful partner leading the team together with a third partner as well as special Counsel appointed this year and a group of seven lawyers/fee owners supporting them, all fully trained in his practice and well-known to his clients.

NOTE: in each of the above illustrative examples, the partner-team structure was supported by the Responsible Partner and Development Discussion philosophies and programs.

Partner Teams – the benefits, the challenges and why some partners don’t like them! (Part One)

Sean Larkan

Over the years I have often been asked by clients to clarify what the benefits or otherwise are of partner teams. This is because they have heard that it may be beneficial to establish such a structure or where there is such a structure in place, there has sometimes been push-back from some partners.

By partner teams we mean a partner with tiers of lawyers by seniority or experience who report directly to her or him and for whom such partner is principally responsible.

I will say upfront that I strongly favour the formation of partner teams. This comes from my experience and the results achieved, financial and otherwise, as a partner in practice, as a managing partner or CEO of large corporate law firms over twenty years in three jurisdictions, and consulting to firms internationally over the past twelve years.

In my experience, the benefits unquestionably far outweigh any perceived disadvantages that may arise (which can, in most cases, be easily managed), so much so that I believe it is a ‘no-brainer’. It does take good management, good leadership, some discipline and follow-up and also some structural changes, but nothing drastic and they also contribute various benefits to the outcomes. Let me try to expand on this and put you in a position to make a decision for your own firm.

Here in Part One, I have set out, in bullet-point form for the purposes of brevity, what I see as the benefits of teams and why partners like them.  At the end of this article, I describe what you can expect to find in Part Two.

Benefits of teams and why partners like them

CLIENTS:

  • Different lawyer skill levels can be offered to clients for relevant categories and degrees of complexity of work. Within a team context, the lawyers will often know the client very well, and vice versa, and will have necessary skills and knowledge in relation to the practice or industry sector;
  • Getting clients comfortable with someone other than the partner doing all the work. Clients quickly learn to trust that their work is safe in the hands of the lawyer concerned and does not need direct partner involvement (often at much higher charge-out rates);
  • Different price points (charge-out rates) within a team can be offered to clients for different categories or types of work, which tells clients you are thinking of them, not gouging them; and
  • Working with a team of lawyers who all know the client and its work and needs creates consistency in lawyer/client interactions and communication and is very comforting to a client.

PARTNERS:

  • Running a successful team is extremely rewarding and personally satisfying for a partner;
  • Partners start to take more of an interest in hiring only high calibre, committed team players for their own teams and take a load off or actively assist HR in doing so;
  • Partners are forced to plan for future needs, and it encourages long-term thinking, usually in short supply in a law firm;
  • This structure becomes a key element in partner Contribution Criteria and performance i.e. how well does the partner or potential partner lead and grow a team? This is one of the support systems and disciplines that must be in place to support this structure and act as a reminder to everyone that ‘this is the way things are done around here’.
  • Partners can hand-pick lawyers within the team to develop sub-specialties within the team’s practice or industry sector focus;
  • Experience has shown that even senior partners long in practice, or partners with no prior experience of running a team, or aptitude for such a style of practice, can adapt and do it very successfully, provided they have the necessary urging and insistence by leadership as well as necessary guidance and coaching;
  • Partners learn leadership and management skills on the ground within the team. These skills are too often in short supply in a law firm and cannot be learned on a course or by reading a book. The best way is to run a team and then a department and maybe one day, the firm;
  • A firm comprising high performing partner teams is a much more resilient, powerful force, and more profitable in most instances than a firm comprising a group of partners handing out work randomly into a pool of lawyers;
  • What is decided at firm or firm leadership level can be delegated to partners in the knowledge and with confidence it will be disseminated & actioned within the teams. In this way partners become active facilitators of leadership and management decisions as well as firm strategy;
  • Succession; a partner-team structure is the only realistic way to ensure succession is managed organically and on an ongoing basis, a critical long-term outcome for all firms. When I think back on firms I ran or firms I have consulted to over thirty or more years, it is hard to recall many partner teams where succession was not catered for in this way; this is because it simply becomes the way the practice functions and new partners or lateral hires fall in line. While not always perfect in every instance, the building blocks were there in every team;
  • If a team is not functioning or performing well, it makes it easier for leadership or management to identify issues and hone in on them to rectify them;
  • Partner teams are an indispensable foundation for the unique Responsible Partner®️ & Development Discussion programs – discussed in earlier EIC articles and they are mutually dependent for optimum outcomes; and
  • There is clear responsibility and accountability of a partner at team level – most activities, coaching and management take place at team level and take the pressure off senior leadership and support service management e.g. HR.

In Part Two I will deal with points 2, 3 and 4, (bolded)

  1. Benefits of teams and why partners like them;
  2. The disadvantages of not having them;
  3. Potential challenges and disadvantages of a team structure;
  4. Why some partners, in our experience, do not like them!

I welcome your questions and or comments by email to me at sean@edge-international.com.

A Simple Governance Framework for Small to Mid-Sized Law Firms

Sean Larkan

I am quite frequently asked for advice on what the ‘ideal structure’ is for the typical governance set-up in a small to mid-sized firm. By “governance set-up”, we mean the leadership, management and decision-making structure of the firm; who or which body is responsible, is accountable and has the authority to do and decide on various matters.

Some initial research and discussion with existing leadership will determine how one should tackle this in a particular firm:

  • What is the existing leadership, management and decision-making structure, and how is that viewed as functioning? For instance, is there a managing partner or general manager in place? Is there a board and/or some form of executive or management committee? Are managers or partners in charge of client-service and support-service areas?
  • What are present expectations around contributions by partners – e.g., covering items such as financial performance, financial management of own practice and teams, business building and marketing, client-relationship management, brand building, building the firm’s capital fabric, or people management, to name a few?
  • How hands-on or hands-off are the partners presently in relation to management and decision-making? What level of communication do they feel they need? What is their thinking in this regard?
  • What is the present positioning of the firm in its market, and does it have a clear vision and strategy? Is it in a strong position, facing big challenges or wanting to grow, and so on?
  • What is the culture of the firm and what are the engagement levels of staff and partners?

I have found from personal experience running mid-size to large firms for twenty years, and consulting to such firms for the past decade, that:

  • It is more helpful to think in terms of having a flexible governance framework than a governance structure as such. One can use the framework to deal with the needs of a large majority of firms, each with a slightly different make-up and priorities;
  • Given the large number of diverse challenges and the important types of contributions expected of partners to succeed in practice today, one should ideally wean them off being involved in all decisions and firm management, especially those matters relating to day-to-day management.

With the above in mind, I have found the following framework and simple set of guiding principles worthy of consideration:

  1. Start by reserving a limited number of strategically important topics (e.g., exiting a partner) for decision-making by the owners/equity partners;
  2. If necessary, reserve some items to be signed off by the partnership as a whole, but only once the board (see below) has already signed off on them, such as firm-wide strategy, annual income and expense budget, a new lease, and the like. Instead have partner meetings focus on practice-group and industry-sector strategies and business-building initiatives, in each case under the direction of the practice group or industry sector leader. Partner meetings should also be a forum for communication by the managing partner, senior managers, practice and industry sector heads, and so on;
  3. Reserve a small number of items (so-called “strategic matters”) for board or management committee attention/decisions. If it is decided to have a management committee or board, preferably have just a board (and keep it as small as you can get away with, and elected), not both a board and a management committee; otherwise, confusion invariably reigns and this will lead to frustration for a managing partner or CEO;
  4. On the support-services side (IT, human resources, marketing and brand, finance and information management) when a firm can justify it, I suggest dedicated, highly capable managers be appointed for each area, reporting to the managing partner. As the firm grows, consideration can be given to appointing a general/practice manager who would then take on oversight of other support-service managers. A variation on this theme, which I don’t encourage, but which has worked for some of my clients, is to have an interested/qualified partner in charge of each area;
  5. Below that, if a managing partner or CEO is the right person, they should be responsible/accountable for the rest, with a communication/consulting/delegation-upwards role vis à vis the board.

This makes for quite a simple, short governance structure with built-in flexibility. The benefit is that the structure is clear to everyone, and everyone knows where the buck stops: where responsibility lies, and who is accountable. I have seen this work very well, in slightly varying forms, in three firms I ran and also many to which I have consulted. It can be tweaked from year to year on review to suit changing needs or circumstances.

This simple solution avoids the need for drafting lengthy and detailed governance documentation covering all aspects of decision-making at different levels of authority and so on; in reality, these documents usually get settled after countless meetings and hours of discussion, sometimes involving the whole partnership, only to gather dust in some filing cabinet and seldom be consulted. Obviously, some firms might need or want to have more detail determined upfront about some areas of the above framework; one such example is the powers and duties of a management committee. These should be the exception rather than the rule.

For some, such frameworks take some getting used to as they keep partners from getting involved in day-to-day management and interfering in a lot of things! However, as noted above, there is so much for partners to get on top of nowadays they shouldn’t have time to get into this anyway.

The Benefits of Paying Creditors Promptly

Sean Larkan

When I started off in law firm leadership and management some thirty years ago, I wondered at the time what the general approach should be to paying the firm’s creditors – on invoice, after 30 days, or even after 60 days or more?

After talking to my colleagues in other firms, I realised most firms tended to delay payment – some for many months – but still seemed to expect good service from their providers. I was in South Africa at the time, and our country was subject to sanctions, very high interest rates, high inflation rates and a tough exchange rate, so it was a very challenging environment in which to practice. Probably unsurprisingly, everyone in business and professional practice seemed keen to delay payments, including clients. The approach seemed to be ‘Let the other guys be our interest-free bankers’.

Ever since, and to this day, I come across firms that adopt this approach, or a variation of it. Instinctively I was always uncomfortable with it, but initially I also went along with it.

One of the first things we did in our firm in those early days was to tighten up all our financial management systems, policies and practices. Partners became responsible and accountable for individual and team fee budgets, debtors, and attending to queries on invoices promptly. All commonplace today, but back then this was rather unique as most firms and partners seemed to have the luxury of adopting an almost laissez-faire approach to billing and collecting fees.

The results of our efforts were phenomenal; very soon (within a few years) our productivity, cash flow and profitability doubled, trebled, then quadrupled, while our debtors shrank, simply by getting virtually everyone in the firm ‘doing the right things’ in regard to financial management. Following this, partner incomes rose significantly, and it was clear that we could well afford to pay creditors in a timely manner, if we wanted to.

By this time, I knew most of our major suppliers quite well and talked to them from time to time. It became clear that one of their biggest bugbears was how long their law firm clients continued to delay paying their bills. It was also obvious that they were not being treated with respect by the firms concerned.

Differentiation

Early on in my management life I had realised how difficult it was for law firms competing in the same areas of practice or industry sectors to differentiate their firms from one another. I came to the view that everyone was delaying payment and not treating their suppliers very well, so we could differentiate simply by not following the herd. Soon after, I advised our finance manager that in future, I wanted incoming invoices from suppliers to be paid on receipt. He was surprised and shocked and naturally queried the decision, which I explained to him. I said to him we would in future use this new policy as motivation to ensure our own finances were in order, particularly cash flow and debtor management.

Initially, this new policy caused us some grief, as it exacerbated cash-flow challenges, but slowly but surely, we got it right – and felt a lot better for it. The most noticeable thing though was seeing the reaction from creditors; there was improved responsiveness, turnaround and quality of service from them. They wanted our work and started recommending other non-competitor top-notch suppliers they knew with whom they felt we may wish to do business. Dealing with suppliers became a pleasurable experience for our staff.

Ethical considerations

Aside from differentiation, there is also the ethical aspect to this. It just seems fair, reasonable, and good human and business practice that when someone has committed resources to doing something for one’s firm, and done a good job of it, they should be paid promptly – ideally, right away.

Implications for brand

In the early 2000s, I started taking an interest in the concept of ‘brand’, and read as much as I could about it. Fortunately I came across Marty Neumeier’s Brand Gap, which provided just the framework I was after; it was succinct, made sense, and would work in the professional-services realm. The key principle he enunciated was that your brand is the aggregate of the thoughts and feelings (‘gut feelings’) that other individuals have about your organisation.

I realised that suppliers would fit this definition and obviously had strong thoughts and feelings about the law firms they dealt with. They talked amongst themselves and serviced many other law firms as well. They also provided services to many of our clients. It became very clear to me that they were an important and influential group in relation to perceptions of our brand, and should continue to be treated with the respect they obviously deserved and to be paid promptly. Here was another strong reason for our approach to this issue.

I have advised many clients over the past decade or more to consider adopting this practice, and many have done so – not always, it has to be said, with immediate success, but over time most have come to realise the benefits and fairness of this approach. I strongly recommend it.

Simplicity

Sean Larkan

There is one thing I have learned over many years helping run large law firms and since then consulting to professional service firms: keeping things simple and as brief as possible is the essence of achieving success. That means ‘easy to understand and to apply’.

The reasons are simple too. Professionals, in particular those in ownership or senior roles, simply don’t have the time, motivation or gas-power to take on yet more complex, lengthy systems or processes to get things done, especially when it is outside their comfort, practice or client-zones.

I have spent most of my time figuring out how to deal with relatively complex issues and challenges, but in a way that is easy for busy professionals to understand and apply. Put another way, I learned early on not to put anything on the table that was too complex or time-consuming. People simply switch off or don’t give it the attention it deserves. Also, philosophies, concepts or approaches have to be simple enough to able to ‘walk around in peoples’ heads’. Then they don’t need to consult a lengthy document or manual to remember the essence, or need a new dose of discipline to get these things done.

One rider to this; simple approaches and ways of doing things take a lot of thought, dedication and effort to identify, work out, test and prove in the field. This is sometimes not so simple! So, this is one of those things that is easy to talk about, but tricky to achieve in practice.

Let’s take a brief look at a few areas where these principles can be applied in practice to good effect. Coincidentally, they happen to be the areas where I do and enjoy most of my work.

Strategy

Strategy is one. This principle applies equally to strategy for the whole of the firm or for a department or individual: only include the essentials, use a practical, proven framework that gets results, and which can be summarised in six to ten pages or less. Break the exercise down into pre-strategy essentials that need to be settled, actual strategy formulation and then post-strategy implementation and stress-testing. Be able to summarise the key aspects on one ‘strategy snapshot’ page – ideal to hand out to new recruits or even existing and potential clients so that they know what you are about.

Finances

We can never move too far away from the finances when discussing anything to do with firm practice in professional services. In this area, after dealing with many firms internationally, it has struck me how often partners and staff are drowned in reams of lengthy financial reports and analyses. It soon becomes clear that very little of this material gets absorbed and truly serves any purpose.

All of the excess material might keep a certain type of management happy – those who like to think, ‘At least they can’t say they didn’t have the information’. But that of course is not the point. The point should be to help everyone get results.

In this area, I have found a key is to produce a monthly (or on-demand) one- or two-page financial snapshot or dashboard report that is colour-coded, and summarises partner, partner-team, department and firm standards for performance and actual performance on key financial variables. If one needs to dig deeper in relation to a key variable – e.g., total lock-up days – one can always request that detail from the finance or accounts team.

Following the earlier point, it took us about three years of formulation and testing until we got this right, and working to our complete satisfaction. Then it was a case of refining it each year.

People

I long ago came to the conclusion that the key to results in the management of people is ensuring a truly genuine interest is taken in anyone for whom one is responsible. We developed a new philosophy, system and approach to ensure this took place throughout a firm – the Responsible Partner and Development Discussion system. With this system, most people at every level reached something like their full potential, they were happy, partners attracted good staff who stayed longer, and our employment brand and engagement levels grew stronger.

Again, this was kept as simple as possible. That is a key reason why it works.

Succession Planning

The system we developed for the management of people has a number of off-shoot benefits. One is addressing the hardy annual issue of succession planning. So many firms struggle with this. Some introduce quite complex monitoring and management systems to address it, but with limited results.

As in other areas, succession planning can be kept quite simple. If something like the Responsible Partner philosophy mentioned above is adopted and applied rigorously, over time it automatically builds succession throughout a firm, and it has the benefit of being organic. Let me expand on this a bit. If a partner uses the approach successfully and builds a high calibre team of professionals at different experience and competency levels over time, she or he will find successors start to pop up within that partner team. It takes a good few years, but it is guaranteed to happen: this has been proven time and again.

Achieving success in practice today undoubtedly takes high levels of competence and performance in a number of different areas. It used to be that working like a dog and looking after clients was it. The rest could more or less take care of itself. Those days are long past.

Contribution Criteria

Practice and client needs have become much more sophisticated and challenging. Trouble is, in many firms, partners and staff still don’t really know what they should be expecting of themselves or one another. It is important to spell this out in summary in a positive, constructive way which propels the firm forward and acts as a motivating guide to individuals to contribute in various key areas. These will include hardy annuals like financials, business development, people and support for the firm, but also things like building the capital fabric of the firm, building succession and active support for the brand, and raising each of these to exemplary levels through innovative approaches.

Brand

Finally, brand is another key area which can get attention. Everyone in the firm should understand what the firm’s understanding of brand is. ‘Brand,’ as I teach it, is the aggregate of what other individuals think and feel about the firm as a practice, as an employer, its services and the key individuals within it. Everything brand-related flows from this simple framework and makes it easy for everyone in a firm to grasp the nuances, concepts and necessary support systems to strengthen a firm’s brand, its employment brand and the brands of individuals within it.

Dare I say it? I believe that adopting this ‘simple’ approach to everything relating to leadership and management also makes this part of practice fun. More practitioners and staff will want to participate in and contribute to these initiatives as they will feel they ‘get it’ and don’t need a course in management to get results and get things done. This in turn grows future leaders and managers internally.

Online Reputation Management for Professionals and Their Organisations

Sean Larkan

Online Reputation Management (ORM) has become one of the latest marketing and brand buzz-concepts. This is one every professional should be concerned about and should understand.

Much has already been written about ORM, as any search on the internet will show. I have found that much of what is available online does not explain where ORM fits in with other important brand concepts – thereby help readers understand why it is important, why it creates personal and organisational risk, and how to manage it. Ideally, your and your organisation’s ORM should be a strong contributor to the strength of your brands.

In this short note, I will try to address this issue in the context of how I explain the concept of ‘brand’ to clients, as outlined in my book Brand Strategy & Management for Law Firms.

Your ‘Brand’ and Your ‘Brand Offer’

Your personal and organisational ‘brands’ (your brands) are what other individuals think and feel about you or your law firm. What people think is due in part to what brand offer you make to market, and whether you deliver on that and they experience it.

Your ‘brand offer’ in turn is what you put out to market as your offer to the market – what you offer or promise to do or can do or deliver on.

Your brand offer can comprise a number of important attributes – your technical, leadership or management expertise, experience, reputation and style, your ethical behaviour, whether you live up to what you promise to deliver, and your accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It also includes how you interface with those who work for or with you and for whom you work, what you have written or said, your experience, expertise and reputation, your thought leadership, level of emotional intelligence (EQ), communication skills and style, personal values, etc.

The combination of all these aspects, and how other individuals experience these attributes and feel about you and your firm as a result, contributes directly to your brands.

However, keep in mind that your brand offer is generally not your brand as such. It is what you offer to market. Your brands are what others think and feel about your personal brand and your organisation’s brands.

Online Components of ‘Brand Offer’

What is published online by you or about you also becomes part of your ‘brand offer’ to market in the form of your online reputation, digital footprint or ‘presence’. What is online about you can be a challenge because you will have authored or published some of it, while other pieces will come from others in the form of comments, complaints, reviews of something you have written or said, and so on. It all goes into that online melting pot.

Of course, whatever is out there is searchable and ‘findable’ and may influence what others think about you and your firm, which means that it influences your brands. So, it becomes part of your intended or maybe unintended or even unwanted brand offer and can in turn influence your personal and organisational brands. In this way, it also becomes part of your brands as such.

So, this cause-and-effect nature of your online presence and reputation means it is both part of your brand offer to market as well as being part of what others think or feel about you – i.e., your brands. It is for these reasons that it is particularly important to do all you can to manage your online reputation.

Brand Fusion

This in turn impacts what I term Brand Fusion (BF) – that is, whether what you offer is actually delivered on by you and experienced in that way by other individuals. BF is important as it directly impacts trust in your personal brand, and trust is the foundation stone of a strong brand.

Given the weight and attention given to what is online – written or published by or about you – and that many people do online research before making purchasing decisions or commitments, it is worth taking care to ensure that your online presence is as favourable as possible. It lives there for a long time and is not easy to alter or take down, particularly if you were not the author of it and have no control over the relevant media. This can create risk for individual professionals and their organisations, and even cause damage.

Managing Online Brand Risk

What can you do to manage this risk? For a start I suggest the following:

  • Create awareness amongst professionals in your firm by having someone with expertise come in and explain the importance of ORM, where it fits into brand, the risks involved and how it can impact your or your organisation’s brand;
  • Research this topic thoroughly and have a clear policy for your firm around online publishing and even speaking engagements undertaken by any of your professionals, to ensure they are qualified to do this and will not mis-state or mis-speak;
  • Consider using one of the many online tools which can virtually search the internet and then vet and report on anything it finds about the firm or its professionals. This becomes an ongoing due diligence of what is ‘out there’;
  • If you don’t take the latter step, at least do a manual search from time to time or have a qualified person do it for you; and
  • Take active steps to manage what is online and try to have damaging material removed, corrected or responded to as soon as possible after it is published.

Do this and you will be better managing two important elements of your brands – your brand offers to market as well as what others think of you or your organisation – i.e. your actual brands.

A final word of caution on a subject beyond the scope of this short article: Where firms do create a formal or informal policy prescribing what staff can or cannot publish online, one enters a complex area in that a lot of the online activities of your staff members will be through private channels they belong to. How far can one realistically regulate that and dictate to staff what they should and should not be doing? This will also differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

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Edge Principal Sean Larkan is a former corporate/tax lawyer with extensive experience in conference and retreat presentation and facilitation. As an Accredited Practitioner of Human Synergistics International and a certified Master Coach, he offers Edge clients knowledge and experience in such areas as leader, group and organisational behavioural and cultural diagnostics and coaching, and serves as a critical adjunct to firms’ strategy implementation. He is the author of Brand Strategy & Management for Law Firms. 

Do You Understand your Firm’s DNA? What Are the Good and the Bad Bits?

Sean Larkan

The DNA acronym is sometimes used with reference to the inherent characteristics of a firm or a part of the firm. Unlike the originating definition of DNA – an organic chemical of complex molecular structure which codes genetic information for transmission of inherited traits – which is fixed, the important thing about this loose use of the term “DNA” to describe firms is that it can, with effort, be adapted.

I find this quite a handy concept and tool in discussions with clients, particularly where I am trying to persuade them to adopt certain principles, systems or practices – or make them part of their DNA. A handy off-shoot is that people invariably “get it” right away. It seems to gel.

I use “DNA” quite loosely to describe the intrinsic workings of the heart and soul of an organisation – i.e., what really makes it tick or, perhaps, not tick; what helps it succeed or not.

When something good truly becomes part of your DNA, it happens virtually automatically and becomes the way things are done with little or no leadership or management intervention. In this sense it is closely linked to culture (“how we do things around here”) but I like to distinguish between them, as culture, coupled with leadership, really determines whether some things become part of your DNA or not.

This DNA concept is important and has significant ramifications for every law firm. This is because what comprises your DNA will determine your success, failure or mediocrity.

Bearing mind that a firm’s DNA can comprise good and bad bits, let us consider briefly some of the advantages of making certain principles, structures, practices and so on positive parts of your DNA:

  • People who come into the firm become quickly inducted into the way things are done;
  • People see existing people doing things in a particular way and follow suit;
  • This saves on leadership and management time, cuts back on training, and avoids micromanagement or the need to follow up;
  • In some respects, these things become a type of ritual, therefore automatic and requiring little or no discipline to get them done;
  • It saves time, which is a precious commodity;
  • It means these principles, concepts or systems walk around in the heads of everyone in the firm;
  • This sets semiformal but very powerful guidelines and standards;
  • As noted above, it is an easy way to discuss such concepts and inculcate them in a firm, as people almost immediately “get it”.

On the other side of the coin, what are some of the disadvantages of having less good things as part of your firm’s DNA? Every firm has these “bad bits”:

  • It is very difficult (if not, at times, impossible) to get rid of negative attributes, particularly if your culture is not conducive and leadership is not forceful. Getting rid of them takes some guidance, structure, possibly new systems, good leadership and management, and the right culture, and these are not always easy to source at the same time;
  • Because they are part of your firm’s DNA, the downsides are not always obvious because the firm has “always done things this way.” This can be dangerous. An obvious example would be an unconscious bias towards hiring from a particular ethnic group or gender, or even a range of schools;
  • Invariably, when steps are taken to address negative attributes regarding how you conduct business, there will be pushback from some partners who may be loathe to change how things have always been done. This is particularly true where the change may be uncomfortable for them.

What are some of the really important things you should try to make part of your firm’s DNA? Obviously, this will differ from firm to firm and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but here are some examples that should apply to most firms:

  • Every person in the firm, whether fee earner or support staff, has a particular person who is responsible and accountable for their personal well-being and professional development and success. It is astonishing how few firms achieve this in practice and, as a result, too many people “fall through the cracks” and never reach their full potential, or perform to their potential for the firm;
  • Everyone in the firm has a common and correct understanding of “brand,” and the role they can play in strengthening it. “Brand”, after all, is why people want to work at the firm, why clients want to use the firm, and why others want to refer people to the firm;
  • Self-management, responsibility-taking and accountability are sine qua non for all firm personnel, from the most junior to the most senior;
  • Every partner is responsible to build the capital fabric of the firm – i.e., contribute to what I call the foundational, long-term, fundamental and intrinsic strength and value of the firm. This is a massive challenge for most partners, who tend to think short-term and only about their practices and clients, without paying too much attention to the firm’s future or to leaving something of value behind when they one day leave;
  • No compromise on ethical standards and practices;
  • Cultural diversity in the workplace is, in the widest sense, the norm, so that the firm hires people from all sorts of different backgrounds regardless of race, religion, personal preferences and culture;
  • Being strict about hiring the right people, putting them in the correct roles, and moving on the management of people who are not well situated;
  • Everyone in the firm accepting the three key principles: accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It is surprising how powerful these obvious attributes can be when they become part of the DNA in the way everyone conducts themselves in an organisation. It also makes for a much happier workplace;
  • Outstanding support services and operations. Some may be surprised to see this one on the list, as these back-office functions are not normally given priority status or attention. However, every successful organisation today recognises the importance of ensuring that such services and operations form an integral part of their service or product offerings to clients and customers. How a law firm delivers in these areas is as important as the complex legal work done by fee earners.

What are the things you don’t want as part of your DNA?

  • Avoidance – that is, not addressing important or damaging aspects of the firm’s operations or practices. Unfortunately, this a common trait amongst law firms, even successful ones;
  • Poor working capital and data management. How many times do firms do analysis around cash flow or working capital management, report on this and get partner agreement around the need to “tackle debtors” – only to find that six months later matters are not only not improved but may be even worse?
  • Lack of diversity;
  • Lack of genuine interest in the firm’s most important asset: its people – or in the success of others in the firm;
  • A primary focus on money.

I hope this article prompts you to do an exercise whereby you try to identify the DNA of your firm. Be brutally honest about the good things and also about the not-so-good things. This exercise can form a powerful starting point to planning the future you want for your firm.

One of the Most Important Discussions Law Firm Leaders Will Have: Welcoming New Associates or Graduate Lawyers to the Firm

Sean Larkan

New associates or graduate lawyers follow a long and mostly arduous path through the university and local law society systems before they can join a law firm. They arrive at their first law firm with mixed feelings of excitement, trepidation and uncertainty, but mostly they are yearning to learn the ropes and do well.

As a law firm leader, you can play a significant role in helping them to find their feet. What I am suggesting is, instead of leaving their initial settling in solely to your human resources staff, make time to meet with them as early as their first day or two.

If you decide to follow this path, it does need quite a lot of thought and preparation. Can I suggest the following items be borne in mind?  As space does not allow for lengthy descriptions, I have set this out as something of a checklist:

  1. Introduction
  • Learn their names in advance of the meeting – you will pleasantly surprise them;
  • Briefly tell them about the firm, its culture and guiding principles, its direction and your vision and strategic key objectives for the firm, with a smattering of war stories and anecdotes to give them a feel for the heart and soul of the firm.
  1. Next-up, do some listening:
  • What outside, creative interests do each of them have – music, painting, photography, design, dance, etc.? Encourage them to nurture these, and no matter how busy they get not to drop them;
  • What interests do they have in particular industry or business sectors? They should be encouraged to nurture these and to try to link them into the work they do. Wherever they end up working in the firm, they should nevertheless maintain these interests and expand them.
  1. Ask them – don’t tell them – what they think makes an effective lawyer in practice, then suggest some things for them to think about:
    • They will probably surprise you with their responses to the initial enquiry;
    • They should think about accessibility, responsiveness and reliability, and be meticulous about achieving these bedrock behaviours. They are at the core of every successful lawyer;
    • They should understand ethics and principles of fair play, and not venture outside firm guidelines on these;
    • They should show respect for and an interest in others (especially secretarial staff who, certainly at the outset, will know more than they do about many practical aspects of law) and helping others succeed;
    • They need to understand from day one that they will be developing their personal or individual brands:
      • At the outset, they must understand that their brand is not what they think, but what other individuals think and feel about them individually. Every interaction they have with individuals, inside and outside the firm, will influence this brand. It will ultimately determine their success or failure in practice;
      • They should be encouraged to develop an understanding of their own strengths, weaknesses and values. What will they tolerate and what will they not tolerate? Outside this, they will need to learn to stand up to people. Ideally, they want to end up at a firm which has similar values and guiding principles to their own;
      • They should be encouraged to view the Simon Sinek presentation on YouTube to develop an understanding of their own “why” – i.e. why are they wanting to be in legal practice?
      • They must understand that the most important foundational element for a strong personal brand is trust in them by other individuals within and outside their firm.
    • They should take an interest in firm initiatives like strategy. They might even get a chance to play a role on a strategy task force;
    • There are many skills and styles of thinking, behaving and interaction outside of law which could well assist them in practice:
      • EQ or emotional intelligence is far more important for their success than raw, innate intelligence. They could be referred to Travis Bradberry’s website and book on the subject;
      • They should become completely technology-literate, including in such areas as project management, word processing, dictation, search, spread-sheeting, etc.;
      • They should be social-media literate;
      • They need writing, speaking and communication skills;
      • They should nurture a growth mindset. In this area, they could be referred to the work by Carol Dweck;
      • They should have a framework of what good leadership skills look like;
      • From the outset, they should develop good rituals. They could be referred to the writings of Tony Schwartz on this subject;
      • There are many more. You and your group may have some more ideas not covered here.

As will be appreciated, the success or otherwise of new lawyers is not so much about brainpower, although of course this helps. Many of the things mentioned above overlap with and support one another. By engaging with them upfront you and the firm are showing them you value them and respect them – and this is a very good start and confidence-builder for them.

I suggest that initiating a conversation with new associates or graduate lawyers will be one of your most important and rewarding discussions of the year. For their part, it has every chance of influencing their time in the legal profession for many years to come.

Law firm brand success calls for leadership, education and structure!

Sean Larkan

Brand is such an important asset and so fundamental to the success or failure of every law firm that it is a strategic, not an operational or administrative, issue. It is therefore surprising how few firms invest in developing a common firm-wide understanding of brand and a supporting strategy – or put in the effort to strengthen its various components. Those that do reap some remarkable rewards.

Firms with well-known brands will sometimes feel they don’t really need to spend time on their brand as it is in ‘good shape’ and they haven’t had to do too much to get it there. What they fail to realise is that their brand has become what it has by accident, or even luck, as an off-shoot of other things being done well, rather than being a successfully implemented strategic initiative.

The importance of developing a common understanding around brand, but keeping things as simple as possible while doing it, cannot be over-emphasised. There are hundreds of thousands of books and articles on brand, many of which relay different approaches to brand, and use unique pieces of jargon. It can all become very confusing to non-brand aficionados. For brand to work in a law firm, it has to be broken down to a succinct educational and implementation process. Senior lawyers simply do not have the time or the stomach for anything more complex or time-consuming.

The first thing to understand about brand, and contrary to common belief, is that brand is not what we think it is or what we offer to the market by way of our skills, reputation and other attributes, but, quite simply, it is what others (mainly clients or non-client influencers) think.

And that is where the first challenge arises. Brand is a very personal, individual matter. It is about what individual people (or an aggregate of them) feel and think and experience about our brand. We can’t tell people how to feel and think; they will decide. This requires appreciation and respect and then the effort to address this challenge. There are many subtleties involved and no quick fixes; it takes time, persistence and consistent effort and interactions to influence such feelings.

Even those firms that have been educated around a common understanding of brand often find themselves derailed from sufficient focus and effort to grow and develop their brand. This is why it also takes the involvement of senior leadership and management, which in itself is another challenge. Such people do not often feel they need to get involved in such matters and prefer them to be ‘done by marketing’.

Two other important things to understand about brand are firstly that brand comes to the fore in three main forms – organisational brand, individual (usually partner) brands, and employment brand. Each needs to be understood and nurtured. These types of brand also need to be aligned, as they strongly influence one another. For instance, a well-regarded employment brand will contribute to a firm’s overall brand, while a strong organisational brand will contribute at least something to an employment brand.

A second important characteristic is that the most important foundational element to brand is trust. Trust is at the heart of all strong brands, and again relies on how individual people feel and think about a brand. It is very personal. It takes effort, consistency and time to build trust in a brand. Hard to build, easy to break.

One of the biggest influences on this issue of trust is ensuring that what the firm promises (e.g., on its website or in its published materials) is actually delivered on by the firm and everyone in the firm, achieving what I call brand fusion.

Let’s look at a simple example; a firm may make some bold statements on its website and in graduate recruitment brochures about taking an interest in individual staff development and ensuring new employees get good coaching, access to good work and so on. If a number of partners do not do this (a common issue!) or even the senior HR personnel clearly do not see to this, there will be no brand fusion and trust will never build in the employment brand, resulting in massive opportunity cost to the firm. This cost can come in the form of delays in hiring and higher recruitment costs, not getting access to the best people, higher-than-normal staff turnover and so on.

A very useful exercise to provide structure and discipline is to develop a short-form, written brand strategy. I always recommend in an early iteration of such strategies that the first focus be on education and creating a common understanding around brand. It is then important to achieve consistency by ensuring all new entrants to the firm are carefully inducted into this understanding and appreciation around brand. The strategy also has the benefit of identifying leadership around the effort, creating direction, highlighting strategic key objectives around the brand, allocating responsibility and providing for some form of report-back and review of progress. In this way one can ensure key members of the firm are involved in the project from an early stage and that over time, desired results are achieved.

Even with the above efforts and other key related initiatives, experience has shown that brand initiatives invariably need to be followed up on, stress-tested, updated and re-energised from time to time.

Without doubt, without this type of approach and some needed structure, discipline and leadership, one of your firm’s most powerful and valuable assets may be relying on chance for its survival and prosperity.

Getting the job done: Some practical examples

Sean Larkan

A year ago, I published an EIC article titled Forget systems and structures – getting the job done is the key.

In that article I suggested effort often goes into putting in systems or structures, but not enough emphasis is put on ensuring the success and implementation of projects – and that, consequently, results don’t always follow.

Successful firms succeed because they get the right things done. This gets results, the real test of everything we do.

On the strength of feedback, I would like to expand on this theme and look at some practical examples and how these may play out in law firms.

The obvious one is developing and implementing strategy. I have found that three things are vital for successfully doing this:

  1. Get all the pre-strategy items agreed and out of the way before you commence developing the strategy per se: I call these “Core Purpose” while my colleague Nick Jarrett-Kerr refers to them as “Strategic Intent.” These would include things like determining locations, practice areas, industry sectors to focus on, values and cultural attributes (guiding principles), profit-sharing and leadership structures, and the like;
  2. Limit the number of Strategic Key Objectives (those things, if you achieve them, which will have nothing less than a massive impact on your firm) you identify in the strategy process to a maximum of five or six, and appoint task forces headed up by one person (who has power to co-opt others) to get the job done. Report on progress;
  3. Formally stress-test the implementation, success of the strategy and make necessary changes at least annually (properly done, you will get more results out of this than the first part of the process).

The next is your brand (your firm brand, employment brand and individual brands), arguably your most valuable but misunderstood firm asset. Ensure this is done:

  1. Get a brand strategy specialist in to help you, someone who is not principally focused on names, logos, colours, printing, websites and other aesthetics. These are important, but come later;
  2. Ensure a common, simple understanding around brand (you need to all speak the same simple language and know that you each play an important role in strengthening and supporting your brand) and educate each and every member of your firm around this – every lawyer, every support staff member, every partner; this is not something you leave to ‘marketing’. It is a strategic matter which should be owned by firm leadership;
  3. Develop a brand strategy to ensure the critical elements are tackled and actually implemented. In the first year this may chiefly involve item 2 above, but that is no bad thing. One example of these elements is achieving Brand Fusion™ – i.e., ensuring that what you as a firm suggest or promise (review your website and brochures to find many examples) you actually deliver, and people inside and outside the firm actually experience in practice;

A final example is achieving consistent, across the board partner-team performance and contributions. Most firms who seek our advice point to this as an ongoing issue.

It is hard to summarise this complex matter in a few points, but these are key areas to address:

  1. Ensure all partners have a clear understanding of what it means to be a partner and the range of contribution criteria they need to meet;
  2. Ensure those contribution criteria are focused on the right, critical elements for the firm at its particular stage of development, growth and market positioning. This will differ from firm to firm;
  3. Develop a suitable feedback, support and development system for partners to ensure regular feedback, actioning of issues and support where needed;
  4. That there is absolute clarity around partner responsibilities and accountabilities for building and running successful teams of lawyers (a somewhat controversial subject in some jurisdictions). We have developed a sophisticated Responsible Partner™ methodology to address this;
  5. Develop an efficient one-page ‘snapshot’ or ‘dashboard’ reporting system, which is produced at least monthly, and provides feedback on all critical performance and contribution elements;
  6. Ensure some form of appropriate partner accountability and consequences based on the above results.

The above are just three examples, but do even these and you will be well on the way! I hope they provide some useful pointers. I would be happy to expand on these based on individual firm circumstances.