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Leigh Dance has written, published and spoken extensively on many aspects of global legal services, at major global conferences and in business and legal industry publications worldwide, including The Wall Street Journal.  Click here for our extensive archive of past (we believe still insightful!) published articles.

Dance is author of Bright Ideas:  Insights from Legal Luminaries Worldwide, published by Mill City Press and available on Amazon.  Bright Ideas is a compilation of 23 original essays by leaders and influencers around the world.

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from Ann Lee Gibson: Recognize Signs that Your Law Firm Could Be in Big Trouble


My fast friend and smart-as-a-whip Competitive Intelligence consultant Ann Lee Gibson posted a super piece on March 22 at the link above.  While focused on American firms, law firms everywhere should read this post.

Ann gives “20 indicators that your firm—or a competitor firm—probably won’t make it, at least not in its current incarnation.”

I’ve added here to Ann’s sometimes funny, often brutally true list of indicators, and expanded on a few signs in her post. Here’s a prime indicator that works for leaders everywhere, not just in law firms:

Your managing partner lives in an alternate reality, where she only listens to those who agree with her every word.  It’s often not that obvious, until you take a closer look and realize that those who take an alternative view have been moved far from the inner circle.  Watch out.

Another prime indicator:  Law firm management refuses to accept its current market position, and deludes itself into believing that formerly top practices are still 1st rate.

Adapt Your Star Practices to Market Realities

The inability to adapt to evolution in any given practice drives many top practices downhill.  Firms sometimes come to us when they finally see that the inability to develop international capabilities in formerly premier practices has hurt performance.  It’s often possible to make changes and turn things around.  Unfortunately, many firms steadfastly refuse to adapt to globalization and other market developments, and mislead themselves to believe their previous crown jewel practices are still shining bright.

Ann comments that law firms invest in CI as a way to prepare offensively and defensively for the future and the opportunities or threats that come with it.  One of the duties of CI pros, she says, is to “track leading, lagging and coincident indicators that identify specific opportunities and threats and that forecast their timing.”

Take Indicator 11 from Ann’s post:  “Clients are viewed primarily as revenue sources, not objects of real affection and service.”  It’s upsetting to see firms seem to encourage partners to leverage clients’ problems for their gain, and continue to focus on pushing fee income up while paying little attention to solving client problems or improving service delivery.

Pay Attention to Solving Clients Service Needs

The service delivery part is especially important for international work.  As I said in a recent article in AmLaw Daily, clients active in multiple new markets recognize that service styles and practices vary across cultures. They know that great short- and long-distance service can be every bit as important as technical legal skill in giving valuable counsel.  Service attributes often tilt the scale among competing firms, and multicultural fluency is highly valued—especially when corporate leaders and customers come from all corners of the earth.

Indicator 12:  Partners won't delegate work to other lawyers until they make their own production numbers.

I’ve heard lawyers grumble about this issue since the downturn, and it’s a huge enemy to any firm’s integrity.  Moreover, it’s a real problem for firms wishing to convince their clients to work with them across many jurisdictions.  Clients will quickly recognize that a partner is hoarding work and lacks the requisite expertise.  Why would the client accept a hand-off to an unknown foreign office from such a lawyer?

Baker & McKenzie, a top global law firm, seems to have found a powerful way to avoid this harmful behavior by offering to “bring the entire firm to every meeting.”  Organizing client service teams in response to client needs regardless of geography, Baker’s partners are encouraged to understand the client’s global footprint and know their growth plans in every market.  Now that’s client affection.  Even better, Baker partners managing client relationships are expected to monitor each office and lawyer serving the client and conduct post-transaction reviews.

Get Your IT Act Together

Moving to Ann Lee’s Indicator 15, “You’re still using MS Office 2003.”  Really?  I hope this is an exaggeration.   IT is one of the most powerful ways to reinforce client relationships across borders, and without good IT you are at a severe competitive disadvantage.  If you’re in the middle of the pack on IT, you’ll be behind soon.

Trust drives healthy client relationships, and for many of your clients, IT is the glue that helps hold it all together.  In multipolar business, relationships between international law firms and corporate clients are not one to one, but multipersonal.  Across the time zones, organizational structures, legal systems, and compliance frameworks, good IT helps build a new form of trust:  a network constructed with information and project continuity that supports solid personal relationships.

Now Ann, we look forward to your post on the indicators that your law firm is on a trajectory to the moon?   Clue:  it's more than good coffee.