Time to rid the professions of Mini-Me?

 “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”  

19th century English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb Colton.

minime

 

We know this holds true for Gucci,Prada,Rolex,and other high end producers, but one could be forgiven for believing many in the professions adopt a similar mindset.

No professional firm likes to think, let alone say,they imitate their competitors, and in fact most professional firms go to great lengths in their capability statements (yawn) and on their website explaining just how really different they are from their competitors.

But guess what? In most cases the claimed points of differentiation themselves are practically identical.

Sorry if you recognise any of these from your website but here are some of the more common claimed points of differentiation I have picked up. Preface each one with “Unlike our competitors”:

  • ….founded in 1066 our firm has a long tradition of…. (take your pick from;personal service/integrity/meeting our customers needs/aged partners,etc),
  • ….our firm is built on the following core values(here is an off the shelf list of up to 400 core values but don’t look too greedy just choose 4 or 5 say;integrity,honesty,reliability, innovation,sexiness)
  • ….we understand your business and the industry you operate in (yeah right like you have 2000 customers, you know them all intimately and you are their industry “go to” firm?)
  • ….we value all our clients and give them all the same exemplary personal service (in reality when it comes to prioritising work you probably deal with whoever yells the loudest)
  • ….we provide you with cost effective solutions,(This usually means one of 2 things: either it will be cost effective for the firm,or the firm will discount heavily just to get the business),
  • ….we have competitive rates(for a start you do what most of your competitors do and bill by time and you probably base your rates on reverse competition anyway),
  • ….we exceed our customers expectations(have you actually asked each individual customer what their expectations are,or just assumed you know what they are?)
  • ….we are recognised as one of Australia’s/USA’s/World’s/Timboon’s top firms (at least the partners of the firm recognise the firm as thus)
  • ….we are a full service law/accounting/consulting/IT/services firm (Different? If you google “full service firm” you get 323,000,000 results in 39 seconds)

Ok so maybe the above is all just a little tongue-in-cheek but you get my drift.

Even if these statements are true for any firm they a hardly a point of differentiation- they are at best just table stakes and they might,if you action them,allow you to play in the professional services game.Not one of them is any guarantee of ongoing success nor will they make any firm stand out from the crowd.

VeraSage Senior Fellow in the advertising agency business, Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting who has made a successful career advising his clients how to truly differentiate themselves, points out that there are many myths about most firms so called differentiated positioning strategies.“Size” is not a strategy,neither is “full service”, “middle-of-the-road-stand-for-everything” nor is “hope” or “effort”. Tim’s definition of a truly differentiating positioning strategy is- well, actually being different: meaning “going deep versus wide”, narrowing your focus and defining not only the features your firm has, but importantly the features you don’t have.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with being better than your competitors often your customers will not know (and you may not want them to know) whether or not you are better than your competitors.Your customers will however know if you are different to whoever else they might contemplate for your services. When I ask members of firms what differentiates them from their competitors in addition to what is on their website (if they have read their website) they will often use words like “our premises”, “our technology”,” our technical skills”, ” our clients”,”our people”, “our culture”. It is only these last 2 responses-people and culture-that go a fair way in defining what truly differentiates one firm from another.

I believe that the primary attribute that you as a firm has that no other firm in the world has is you, and anyone else in your firm.Together with the internal relationships between firm members, plus the external relationships you and your firm have with your clients this is what makes your firm unique. Everything else- be it technology, premises, precedents, systems, or your processes- can and is being replicated-and probably being replicated better than how you do it.Your clients are even being replicated as you may share them with other firms. What you don’t share and what cannot be replicated though is yours and your firms relationship with those clients.

I come across firms that use energy and scarce resources on endlessly seeking to improve their internal efficiencies and/or beating themselves up with any number of institutional copying called benchmarking.I believe at least some of this would be better spent by firms uncovering and capitalising on what they already have-by inspiring their motivated people (hint: ditch any unmotivated people if you have them) and doing all they can to create a culture of innovation.

I particularly despair when I see smaller professional firms that intuitively have great potential (often because they have flexibility and a less rigid and formalised structure of larger firms), being advised to basically replicate the business model of those larger firms whether it be time recording, improving their leverage, improving their realisation and utilization,introducing rules and policies upon policies,etc. The larger firms will always have a size and process advantage over things like that (it is after all what made them larger firms in the first place) but that doesn’t make them great,it doesn’t make them different  and it certainly doesn’t make what they do right for a smaller firm.

Adam Smith wrote

” In mature markets, profits don’t come from increased efficiency, but rather from increased innovation and differentiation”.

Most of  us operate in mature markets and in such markets an increasing number of external disruptors,start ups and the odd innovative incumbent,are truly differentiating themselves whether it be with their service offerings,their strategic focus,their structures or their pricing. They are more innovative,creative and take more risks.Profit after all comes from risk.Many incumbent firms say they want to be different but what they really mean is they only want to be a tiny wee bit different. There is after all safety in numbers.It is not easy being different.It means you cannot stand for everything. Standing for everything is the same as standing for nothing.It means you will not be able to appease everyone nor act for everyone.It means saying no sometimes.

Keep Mini-Me in Hollywood. Instead take time to look deeply as to what already does,or will,make your firm different,remarkable and stand out from the crowd.

Even in the most competitive markets the market is not saturated with professionals-it is saturated with sameness.

 

School-of-benchmarking

 

 

 

Craft Beer,The Recovering Lawyer & Billable Hours

SSBCLogo1.3-268x300Very recently a recovering lawyer, Kate Henning from Smiling Samoyed Brewery, wrote to me. Kate gave me permission to repost part of her email to me:

“I have been following what you say about structure/pricing of law firms and how it is outdated. Unfortunately couldn’t get the tide to turn where I was working. It is utterly demoralising working to the billable hour. I often think when we have something go wrong at the brewery – for example a stuck mash that adds time to the brew day – that there would be absolute outrage if various batches of beer cost more than others. Sorry, something went wrong in the process so this one is going to cost more! Customers would soon turn off a brewery that did that. I don’t know why they accept it from law firms.” ( emphasis mine)

 

“It is utterly demoralising working to the billable hour”. I would love a dollar for every time I have heard- and continue to hear- a similar expression; be it from current lawyers, ex lawyers or in house lawyers.

Why is it do you think that working to the billable hour is demoralising especially for some young lawyers? Is it maybe because:

  • all young lawyers are inherently lazy and only want to work between the hours of 9-5 maybe 5 but preferably 4 days per week? ( I think not-they are professionals they will work hard if there is a valid purpose )or
  • daily billable hour targets are too unrealistic (we all know that to do 6 billable hours you need to “work” another 6 non billable hours)? or
  • given the amount of work available to reach daily billable hour targets some lawyers need to creep/cheat a little each day on their timesheet to appease the system (and who is going to know anyway)? or
  • at the end of each month some/alot of young lawyers time is written off by their supervising partner (and they are not told why)? or
  • notwithstanding what the firm may say most of the KPI’s for young lawyers are primarily, if not solely, based around how much $ they make for the firm (and as the firm bills by the hour that is directly related to how many hours he/she bills each year)? or
  • the inevitable billing dilemma a young lawyer finds himself/herself in when faced with looking at the estimate given to the client at the beginning of the matter and what is now “on the clock” (do I “bill & duck”, or write off; who do I fear most- my partner or my client?)? or
  • having to face a client who is suffering “bill shock”( perhaps because the partner is too busy/important to deal with fee complaints)? or
  • making any professional account for every 6 minutes of their day is 19th century factory floor command and control management? or
  • they, their peers and their employers know it is wrong and a sub optimal business model but the firm refuses to consider, let alone implement, any alternative?

 

I and many others have previously written about why timesheets are, amongst other demotivators, such big innovation killers, and what will happen to firms that fail to innovate. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for any professional firm-they know there are viable proven alternatives to the “we sell time ” business model yet many firms refuse to change.

Why some clients still accept time based billing is also beyond comprehension-perhaps unsophisticated clients know nothing better but sophisticated clients really have no excuse.

There are thankfully now more and more innovative firms and their clients who are reaping the mutual benefits of a non time based environment.The external disruptors and other non law firm entrants taking market share away from traditional law firms have long realised this.

In the meantime for those lawyers and clients who feel “trapped” in the billable hour system, maybe a visit to Smiling Samoyed Brewery or a taste of their craft brew at selected outlets might, temporarily at least, take your mind off your “demoralisation”?*

John-Chis

Disclaimer: The author has not (regrettably) been bribed or coerced in anyway in promoting this craft brewery or the over indulgence of any alcohol for that matter during the construction of this post.

 

Last Post for 2013: no predictions just a wish list for 2014

last_post

Annually around this time of year commentators, consultants, observers and some key players in any profession or industry explain what happened in their field over the last 12 months & make some predictions for the next calendar year.*

I used to as well and occasionally got some of it right,but I have come to realise that many things are unpredictable and so they should be. How boring would our lives and businesses be if we remained the same and could predict the future? Of course some people-like some gamblers and punters-are better at predicting what will happen than others but there are good reasons why casinos and bookmakers exist-most of us can’t predict the future too well.

Doesn’t mean of course we cannot be better prepared for what the future holds nor have more control over our own destiny -that is what innovative and creative organisations do.

For the legal profession I have read every kind of prediction for 2014 and beyond:”Biglaw is dying”,” Biglaw will just get bigger”, “there are no disruptors in law just enablers”,”the disruptors are coming to get us”,”the changes in the profession are cyclical not structural’ to “the changes in the legal profession are structural not cyclical”. I of course have my own views, but better and more informed people than I will make these predictions-and some will be right.

So instead of predictions here is my wish list:that the legal profession,in fact professional firms generally, in 2014 understand:

  • at long last that hourly billing is best left to the oldest profession in the world,
  • that timesheets are self evidently insane and are huge innovation killers,
  • that when the Creator invented management structures partnerships were towards the bottom of the league table-not the top,
  • that all customers are not equal and do not want to be treated equally,
  • that as value is subjective it is your clients perception of value-not yours-that will define your success,
  • that you don’t have to necessarily be better than your competitors, but you should be different,
  • all the Bigdata and benchmarking in the world will not help you realise your full potential-it only helps you imitate your competitors better,
  • your people are not your greatest assets-you don’t own them- but they are the most untapped resource you will ever have,
  • that the better firms do the simple things consistently well,
  • that when firms’ internal measurement and reward systems are changed to encourage rather than discourage,true collaboration, the world is their oyster,
  • there was a reason Martin Luther King Jnr said “I have a dream” and not “I have a business plan”- no one follows business plans.
  • finding your “WHY” is more important than knowing WHAT you do or HOW you do it (thanks Simon Sinek)

Yeah I know what you are thinking- sure and some people still believe in fairy godmothers, Santa Claus and that dreams will come true.

And thank goodness for them.

Have a great one.

 

* politicians also make predictions but I don’t include them- they cannot even remember what happened in the past let alone predict the future!

The Simple Truth About the Professional Firm Business Model

As we slip into 2014 there is much talk- and even some action-about what business models are appropriate for professional firms in the 21st century.

Whilst some professional firms are still in denial and others struggle with how to make the change it is clear that the 19th century era partnership model, overlaid by the early 20th century industrialized notion of the leveraging of people x time, upon which most professional firms are still based, has run its race.

There are now many options for professional firms as to how they best structure themselves and create firms that are much more suitable for the people that work within them and to better serve the customers they seek.

In my view no matter what structure your firm is- or should be-for many years I have held a very simplistic view as to how really good firms look at themselves. This is represented as follow:

 

IMG_1559

Let me explain.

I believe that only the best firms have an incredibly strong base that everything else is built upon.I call it their internal environment-their culture if you like. This is the way things are done around here,the way we treat each other, our values, our leadership,our behaviours,how innovative and creative we are,our goals,our vision and our aspirations. And I happen to think it is this internal environment and little else that attracts and retains really good people (at all levels in the firm); that really good people are inspired and motivated to do really good work; that really good work attracts and retains really good customers, and, finally, that really good customers pay really good fees.

And it is in that order. It is from the bottom up-not top down.Play around with the order at your peril.

Good luck in trying to attract and retain good people if your culture is crap. Good luck too in trying to produce good work and service if you have the wrong people.Best of luck trying to attract and keep the customers you really want if your service and work ethic sucks. And you will need more than luck if you are trying to extract top fees from average customers.

I know it is not MBA stuff nor worthy of a Harvard Business School program. Its not even new. Our parents might have even called this using common sense with common courtesies. But it is that simple.

Is it easy? No of course not. If it is was that easy all firms would be able to do it.

What do you think? Have I got this wrong? Is there something I am missing? Love to hear your thoughts.

VeraSage Symposium November 2013-some reflections

HR Firm of the Future signpost Crop

 

The VeraSage Institute has 3 central pillars on which professional firms are based. These are:

  1. Never bill by time
  2. Never use timesheets,&
  3. Offer a 100% money back guarantee.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           As a senior fellow of  VeraSage, earlier this month I was again very privileged to attend a VeraSage symposium comprising its founders, some senior and practising fellows and also some VeraSage guests, this year held on the Big Island of Hawaii.

It is always a treat to meet with such smart, stimulating,courageous,& innovative people who continually challenge and push the boundaries to find new and better ways of running their businesses, serving their customers and improving their respective professions not just for themselves but future generations.

This year was no exception.

Whilst there were a huge variety of topics discussed over the days (and nights) a very brief snapshot of some of the presentations follows.

After the welcoming remarks by VeraSage co founder Dan Morris,the formal part of the 2 day symposium commenced with the irrepressible and dynamic Boston lawyer Chris Marston (who that evening married his beautiful Cecilia on the beach at Waikoloa) challenging us all on how we compensate our team members and ourselves.In short Chris believes if we are going to value price we need to value pay- and that means abandoning what is essentially the old labour model of compensation.

Wise Sage Ed Kless also delivered his views on compensation arguing that in a professional knowledge firm everyone is a defacto owner of the business and should be entitled to some share of profit.

Needless to say there was significant discussion from the attendees on how best to compensate team members and 2 things became clear.First, there are any number of options and one size does not suit all and second,gone are the days when anyone is paid for simply turning up for work to just do an “OK” job.

First time guest Laura Snyder,an ex-practising and in-house lawyer, flew all the way from Paris to explain her vision for providing out-house general counsel support to international SME’s.

For a change of pace part time accountant and the G. Robert Newhart Non-value-added Verasage Fellow, stand up comedian Greg Kyte continued his Certified Public Agnostic theme by delivering a humorous presentation titled “Do You Believe In God?

Dan Morris led us in a great discussion on the benefits of the much under utilised Before Action Reviews.

Reminding us that surveys show 85% of businesses think that financial statements produced for them by their accountants are next to useless, Adrian Simmons ( who the next day was appointed VeraSage’s newest practicing fellow) updated us on the innovation that is Thriveal. In particular Adrian explained how the Thriveal Lab is allowing young-and not so-young- CPAs the opportunity to get together in an environment where experimentation and creativity is supported and fostered as they increasingly look to provide new services and products that are of real value to their clients.

Next it was some of the Australian attendees turn to take to the stage with McCullough Robertson partner & founder of eLawyer Matthew Burgess walking us through his and his team’s creativity journey, the abolition of non-time-based pricing and their ultimate abandonment of timesheets.

Joelle Blackburn, People & Development Manager at Moores Legal,spoke about many lawyers (lack of) self confidence and self esteem when it comes to pricing. Joelle emphasised the critical importance emotional intelligence plays in well functioning professionals whilst sadly noting that in the professions we score high on IQ but lower on EQ than the general public.

Next up was David Wells Managing Partner of Moores Legal who took the room through their journey of adopting Moores Agreed Pricing, abandoning timesheets on 1 July 2012 and providing examples of the positive impact this has had on their firm’s culture,their people and their clients.

Craig Hollett partner at BBV Legal in Perth was another who spoke about his firm’s transition over the last 3 years when they first adopted fixed pricing across the whole firm.

To end formal proceedings on Day 1 Ron Baker reminded us that if your “why” is not polarising it is probably worthless and re iterated how our firms are primarily determined by the customers we don’t have quoting Steve Jobs who said

” I am as proud of what we (Apple) don’t do as much as what we do do”.

On Day 2 Laura Snyder made an excellent presentation on some of the radical changes and shake up affecting the UK legal profession and one couldn’t but help think that the legislative intervention in the UK legal services market was primarily a response to the exorbitant cost of legal representation in the UK and a move to free up a protected profession. It will be very interesting to see how the UK legal market in particular pans out over the next few years and whether of any of this makes its way to other jurisdictions.

Inspirational VeraSage Senior Fellow Michelle Golden stimulated our thought processes when posturing the potential roles in professional firms of a value strategist and how that requires a different skill set to a result strategist.

Ed Kless talked about leadership and in particular the brilliant thoughts of Howard Hansen & Steven Geske best espoused in their book “Healing Leadership-A Survival Guide for the Enlightened Leader” ( a book I have since read and highly recommend).Many of us left the conference with the desire to be “a non anxious presence“.

Jeff Wald Managing Partner of Top 100 US Accounting firm Kennedy & Coe presented his firm’s recent history of not only adopting fixed pricing but how his firm create an impact & is a major influence in the defined industries they specialise in and how they do it whilst having fun. Very stimulating.

Libby Klein one of the early drivers of value based pricing at Moores talked about her own personal journey at the firm and the challenges and highlights she has so far experienced along the way.

Dan Morris then gave us an insight into his soon to be written book “Lessons From The Waterhole” and we all can’t wait for it to be published.

Ron Baker-after copping two well deserved roasts from both myself and Greg Kyte- recovered enough to close Day 2 with a presentation about our Post-Causality World explaining that innovation and creativity can never be planned for-it should always take us by surprise and why there is little or no creativity in data driven organisations.

Finally Ron left us with the following 10 lessons he has recently learned:

1. The Four Defenses for Keeping Timesheets dominate the debate: we need them for: 1) pricing; 2) cost accounting; 3) project management; and 4) determining the efficiency of the team. All these are incorrect and have been empirically refuted

2. “In the real world…”? When some one says this, they are losing, or are about to lose, the debate

3. Eliminate “the fade”-discounting degrades our pricing integrity and trains customers to ask (and expect) discounts

4. Separate project management from pricing, they are two entirely different skills

5. Eliminate individual revenue targets–it creates silos and works against the one-firm firm principle

6. Our new #1 KPI should be “how much value are we leaving on the table?

7. The professions need to get back to providing excellent customer service

8. Our self esteem is important–without it we cannot do a service to our team nor our customers

9. Understand and communicate the immense psychological positives in firms that have no timesheets

10. Timesheets are the real cancer in the professions–they need to go. VeraSage will continue to provide heat and light to this debate

There were many memorable quotes from these 2 days none more so than from Matthew Burgess when he said:

” With timesheets I used to ask is it billable? Without timesheets I now ask is it valuable?

Which question does your firm ask?

Burning Timesheets

 

 

The Billable Hour Is Dead-Sort Of.

 

the demise of the dinosaurs (2)Fearless lawyer Mike Ayotte who is never afraid to express his opinions as The Last Honest Lawyer, recently wrote a post titled “The Billable Hour is Dead” and likened lawyers use of the billable hour to the demise of dinosaurs, whilst conceding that even after dinosaurs met their fate lizards pulled through (as did crocodiles and sharks!).

As you know, I would so love to believe that the billable hour is indeed dead-but I regret to report it is not- at least not yet. It is no doubt sick, but if it is dying its death throes are still reverberating.

I recently returned from the US attending some legal conferences and meeting with many lawyers, law firms, legal commentators, consultants, academics, legal authors and law students. Almost without exception (the exceptions primarily being legal consultants and software vendors who peddle time “capture” methodologies and who perpetuate the “lawyers sell time” myth) all agreed that the billable hour is pretty crook, is a sub optimal model and is no longer meeting the business needs of either the law firms or their clients (let alone the social and cultural needs of those who work in law firms).

What then has largely been the response from the profession to this sickness?

Apart from the innovative and courageous outliers- whose numbers I hasten to add are increasing all the time- and who have put the billable hour out of its misery by completely changing their business model- most firms apply a bandaid approach and continue to work within, and therefore prop up, the existing leveraged based business model.

Some firms have come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to increase the billable hours of their lawyers especially by spending huge dollars on technology & training so lawyers can better (“more accurately”) record their time wherever they might be and whatever the day or night of the week. (Atticus Finch’s tombstone would these days read something along the lines of “Here lies Atticus-a heroic biller & time recorder”). Whilst it is true many firms have adopted Alternative Fee Arrangements (mostly in response to client demands, rarely of their own volition), most of those AFA’s look to me to be billable hours in drag (“if it walks like a duck, quacks ……”) based around fixed fees, capped fees, blended rates, etc- all calculated on the time x rates x people model.

Is it any wonder good people are increasingly looking for better alternatives than working in a private legal practice; clients are looking to other providers to add value to their businesses; and that external disruptors will continue to flock to the legal profession in droves to exploit law firms’ soft underbelly-our lack of flexibility, failure to innovate, unwillingness to collaborate, our short term greed for the almighty dollar, our 19th century governance structures, absence of diversification-and most of all our cultural desert.