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Professional Services

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The professional’s guide to leading a law firm

Expert Q&A with Gordon Brown of ClientSavvy.

Last updated: 06 Aug 2020 6 min read

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Gordon Brown is a senior business development consultant: his business ClientSavvy provides strategic advice and client expertise to professional services. Here, he discusses key considerations around leadership and client relationships as legal firms look for recovery.

How can partners and managing partners lead more effectively through these tumultuous changes?

“The culture and leadership of law firms are generally conservative. You have to ask: are leaders babysitting, or are they ‘boldly going’? I fear that the former is more common. There is a propensity to babysit the business and its legacy rather than changing the business and challenging norms.

“I know that the legal profession has changed considerably in the past 10 years. But that change has been predicated by clients imposing it on them. Law firms and their leaders did not lead that change.

“Leading change must have a sense of realism that we cannot sit on our hands while the world, the market and our clients are changing. We’ve got to grasp this more than we ever have in the past.” 

What is the realism leaders need to confront?

“What got partners and managing partners to where they are now, the logic and the experience, does not necessarily get them through this. Trusted expertise, based on yesterday’s logic, will fall short. The success they have enjoyed plays against the risk-taking and a bias towards action which must now be a priority. I have seen in the past 20 years in this business a bias, a reason, to not act. 

“They need to add in outside-in thinking and better analysis of external variables – especially what clients are thinking and doing – and new measures to assess what didn’t get done.”

How does the style of leadership need to change?

“The tone and style of a modern leader, I think, is very different to, shall we say, the authoritarian approach that lawyers particularly bring to the table. The form of leadership has to be much more open, has to be less hierarchical, and you have to start bringing different opinions to the table. You must start looking at what’s going on in the outside world and bring that back in. 

“Leaders in law firms have not always been good at that, and they tend to go forward lockstep together as opposed to bringing contradictory views.” 

How can lawyers make themselves more visible and determine what is most relevant to their clients?

“I’d flip it around on the basis that relevance gets you visibility. If lawyers had been as close to their clients as they should have been, then they would be visible; they would be on that speed dial. And I don’t think that many lawyers are. Most of them are still very transactional led. It’s the little things between the big deals that tend to be gaps they don’t fill in. It’s only when, if the deal is on, or the big deal is there, or there’s something tumultuous happening that they are visible.

“That’s because lawyers are fundamentally not that generous with their time. Indeed, they’re not allowed to be because if they’re on billable hours they’ve got those targets to hit, and the clock is running. And so they’re struggling with the time they may need to have, long or interesting conversations with clients that may go nowhere, but are all part of building up that picture of what a client’s doing, what they’re thinking, where they’re going.

“Leading change must have a sense of realism that we cannot sit on our hands while the world, the market and our clients are changing. We’ve got to grasp this more than we ever have in the past” Gordon Brown, ClientSavvy

“When they’re not generous with their time, they’re also not generous with their expertise. Now, people will turn round and say, ‘We’ll give you an hour off the clock. We’ll do this, that and the other.’ But that’s on a transactional basis as opposed to saying: ‘Hang on a second, let me run my idea past you. Let me chuck this into the pot. What do you think of this?’ And so they’re not as visible as they could be because they’re not taking that time to understand what they need to be relevant.

“Law firms also need to define what utility they bring to their clients. Any good law firm can deliver a legal execution suite, but what clients need is business utility. And that is anything that makes the client’s business better, makes them money, saves them money, de-risks or makes them more competitive. If you can find out what that utility portion is, and what you’re doing for them and what it enables them to achieve, you are relevant and by definition visible.”

What needs to change regarding marketing and business development?

“Marketing is often in a parallel universe to how a firm and partners win work – it’s just not good enough. It invariably creates ‘stuff to go out the door’ to demonstrate value and yet clients are saying, ‘We don’t have time to hit the delete button, let alone read it.’ I think you could argue that to be better, they have to move away from this centralised, standardised model, because clients want things tailored and bespoke to their business.

“Marketers and business development people need to think about what partners want from their input. Mostly, they want three things: Opportunities to meet and to grow existing client relationships and build new ones; they want something new, relevant and different to talk to clients about; and they want tailored content for their clients that is backed up and relevant to their firm’s track record and expertise.

“The way marketing and business development are financed is also problematic. The way firms allocate budgets means it becomes a fully costed marketing budget. It happens to be an annual dash for cash. How much money can we get? Well, how much do you need? What do you want? You’ve got to then determine all your programmes a year to 18 months in advance before the budget year starts.

“That means any opportunities or events that change in the marketplace, such as what’s happening now, cannot fully be explored. But the finance model stymies that creativity. And so, an opportunity arises and you think, ‘That’s a significant gap in the marketplace, I need to do this,’ but if you’re working on a fully costed budget, it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

“A lot of people I know just don’t do it because it means that you’ve then got to take money from somebody else and there’s a big argument about it. And so, within the commercial world, they understand that what you budget for six, seven months before it comes into your new financial year, you’re only possibly matching 50%, 60% of the opportunities available to you in the marketplace.”

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