Barry Wilkinson reviews a recent book on how to become the firm of choice, which takes the innovative approach of presenting its lessons through a case study of a firm wanting to make radical change

This is a short, easy-to-read book packed with ideas which are relevant to many firms facing a rapidly changing legal market. Although written by consultants, it is narrated as a case study told largely by the lawyers involved, so the voice is not saying ‘this is what you should do’, but ‘this is what we did and this is how it worked’.

The book starts with an outline of the case study firm, a New England practice which has grown to over 20 partners – successful, good lawyers, but not offering anything exceptional to the market, just like many others in both the US and the UK. The managing partner of many years is due to retire, and wants his successor to secure the firm’s future in an increasingly difficult market. He enlists outside assistance from the managing partner of a similar firm which has gone through a similar process. This simple technique allows the authors to show that others have faced the same dilemmas; it helps law firms to learn from the mistakes and successes of other (albeit fictional) businesses in a similar position, rather than beating them over the head with ‘do this and not that’ messaging. The managing partner also enlists an experienced consultant to mentor the partners through this challenging process of change.

The first step of the project is to assess the current situation, involving all partners to get buy-in to the idea that standing still is not a viable option. The partners brainstorm issues of concern, candidly and objectively. They identify over 30, grouped under five headings: markets; clients; people; financial; and underpinning beliefs (culture). (Note that none of this is about being better lawyers; the issues are business / commercial ones.) These five groups are not definitive, and many of the issues are interconnected. For example, competitors cutting prices (markets), clients being more price sensitive (clients) and gross margins going down (financial) are all interrelated.

The firm then gets the partners into teams to address the main groups of issues in parallel – a useful way of highlighting that everyone needs to be involved.

Interestingly, the first task the consultant sets the teams is identifying the key questions. My own experience over many years is that lawyers are highly intelligent people who dislike being told what to do. Focusing on questions first is more productive – then, with a little help, the partners can work their way as a group to the answers which work for them.

Overall, the five categories produce almost 70 questions – an indication that the business issues are not likely to be solved easily or quickly. These questions, while not exhaustive, provide a useful checklist for firms sensing a need to change.

Of course, not all questions are key, and so the list has to be culled. The firm sends the teams of partners away to identify the key questions and come back to the partnership with proposals for follow-up action. Even then, the answers are not all apparent, and there is a need for further analysis and deeper understanding. For example, the client team has a key question: ‘How do clients perceive us?’. The resulting action is to develop a questionnaire to understand client perceptions of the firm and satisfaction.

The message of the book is loud and clear. To be the firm of choice, you must provide much more than good lawyers. The firm has to be better than its competitors, both current and potential, in understanding its clients’ needs and true wants. The firm then has to attract and retain people, at all levels and in all roles, who are willing and able to fulfil these needs consistently and well. These values need to be common throughout the firm and lived every day, rather than merely talked about – or worse still, hidden away in a drawer marked ‘strategy’.

Later sections of the book reinforce the other key messages:

  • Identifying the right questions may not be easy, but actually delivering the solutions in practice is harder still.
  • So much of it is about people: attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, values.
  • Everyone needs to be on board – quite bluntly, there can be no room for those who do not buy in, however exalted.

These are tough messages for partners accustomed to the markets of the last 30 years, where the current business model has worked well.

This book is written about and targeted at substantial medium-sized firms – in the UK, this probably equates to the top 200. Those firms are increasingly being squeezed from above and below.

For those starting to feel squeezed or threatened, this book provides a really helpful checklist and modus operandi – as well as reassurance to partners that others have trodden this path before, and emerged successful.