Simon McCrum draws on his decades of experience in law firm leadership to provide clarity on how law firms can refocus on the key priorities and deliver sustainable business growth.
It's a year or so since I stopped being a Managing Partner of a law firm when my firm was acquired, later leaving Private Practise altogether to set up McCrum Consulting and my new life as a Management Consultant to law firms.
After 15 years in various management roles at a very large firm and then 10 years as Managing Partner of a Top 200 firm, that was at one stage the fastest-growing law firm in the country, it was a very weird transition.
Not surprisingly, it took months to slow down, but slow down I have. I have got used to getting 2 emails a day, instead of over 200. I now have something I did not expect. I have clarity of thought that I have not enjoyed for decades. Quite apart from particular experience or expertise that I have, I now see that this clarity of thought is in itself valuable to law firms' "Management".
The way I have come to describe it is as follows - when you are running a law firm, you start with a few bits of separate rope in your head that are important to you. Quite quickly those ropes get tangled - with each other but more so with the hundreds of other bits of rope that come along every day, particularly when you are active and growing. It's not long before your bits of "priority" rope are lost, tangled up, unrecognisable, and look like they've been in a washing machine.
Since I moved away from being Managing Partner, my mass of tangled rope has been dried, sorted, and separated. I now also see that many of the ropes were unimportant.
I can now see the handful of key ropes that a firm should concentrate on to strengthen its foundations to build a platform for profitable, cash-rich growth. My early experience as a Management Consultant to the sector is already showing me that I can see these key ropes more clearly than can a Management Team that is dealing with an ever-changing and growing mass of tangled ropes.
Where firms have invited me to work with them, it is often because they want me to help them to replicate the growth my firm saw in 2012 and 2013, in both of which years Darbys saw top-line organic growth of 35%. We were, in 2013, the fastest-growing law firm in the Top 200.
Looking in to build out
With my new-found clarity of thought, I first take these firms on an exploration. Before we go outside, we need to look inside - a tower won't stand up for long if its foundations aren't strong enough. Once they are, it is fairly easy to work with a firm to build a vision around which everything orbits and which harnesses everybody and drives the business forward.
There can be a range of flaws in a firm’s foundations that prevent sustained growth. These obstacles can often only be seen by an independent outsider with decades of experience in the sector and who now has clarity of thought. Sustained growth isn't possible in a firm for example where there are already significant lock-up or cash problems - growth can kill! High staff turnover, or discord or lack of unity at owner level, or lack of direction and vision, or diverse or confused power bases in a firm don't help either. The wrong behaviour drivers can hole a firm’s aims. A worsening PII claims record is another shadow. Inability to recruit talent, or having the wrong people in central or team management roles are also tangible reasons why plans fail. Nowhere for high-performing staff to go is another failing. There are often such elephants in the room whilst firms embark on major marketing drives or hiring sprees.
There are other foundations that need honing before a firm can embark on an effective growth drive. There's no point having a marketing drive if you don't capture, nurture, and over time convert every enquiry you generate. There's also little point in winning matter 001 from a new client (which you can easily do by quoting a low, unprofitable price) if you don't have a firm-wide "service" promise and an active, embedded, and centrally-driven "total care" apparatus which means you will actively promote all of your services to every client. Without these two things, at worst you can lose clients or at best they use you once and bounce off you. Our whole strategy at Darbys was built around delivering a great service – every lawyer, every time, and about getting more matters per client by making sure they got all the legal care they needed from us rather than from a range of law firms.
A commitment to delivering a great service – every lawyer, every time and active and sustained client nurturing are thus keys to easy and great riches. Pricing jobs low, or failing to capture and then bill all time spent on a file, and not getting your bills paid quickly, are basic flaws that can creep in while everyone chases the next new client.
I work on all of these building blocks with law firms, as part of overall brand-identification and brand-honing. We arrive at a set of values, a vision, and a set of key behaviours that the people in the firm design themselves.
Once these areas are addressed, it is time to turn to the desired "growth" challenge, but that growth is now much easier to achieve and easier to sustain.