Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Lawyers (and other professionals) appreciate

Back in December Tony Karrer tagged me to join in Five Things Meme requiring me to say five things about myself that other people did not know. Wandering around the blogosphere I was surprised at just how far this particular process spread.

In December there was another tag game, this time centred on what lawyers appreciate. A list of posts on the topic can be found on Life at the Bar.

In his response, Bruce MacEwen (Adam Smith Esq) said in part:

Lawyers appreciate professional management at senior executive levels of their firms. Lawyers are not taught, and by and large don't care to learn about:

  • competitive strategy
  • management 101
  • finance
  • marketing
  • IT, or
  • human resources.

Ergo those functions should be left strictly under adult supervision. Hire worldly-wise and savvy strategic advisers, Chief Operating Officers, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, CIO's, and heads of HR, and get the lawyers out of their way.

What lawyers do care about is professional excellence, a collegial and fulfilling atmosphere, and above all else the ability to serve appreciative clients with impeccable legal counsel. Lawyers appreciate being able to focus on that to the exclusion of all else. Let them.

While I understand Bruce's point - you only have to look at certain managing partners to see what he means - I also found it depressing.

One of the features of all good professionals regardless of field is that they have, to use one of David Maister's favourite words, a passion for their professions. This holds whether you are a school teacher, a doctor or a lawyer. In this sense, part of the role of management is to help the professional do her or his job, to provide support and then get out of the way.

There is in fact a growing problem here in many professions - teaching is an example - where externally imposed requirements are forcing a growing administrative load on professionals. But beyond this, there are two main problems with the way Bruce phrased his comments.

The first is that the discipline of practice requires professionals to learn certain management skills.

Increasingly, professional practice involves project and team based work. We speak of team teaching, of multidisciplinary working, of teams of health professionals. This has always been a feature of areas such as IT, but is becoming increasingly widespread.

The discipline of practice also requires professionals to manage their relations with clients. The age of the God professional in which the professional dictated, the client accepted, is now long gone.

Increasingly, too, the growth of larger professional services organisations means that professionals are placed in management or staff supervisory roles as part of their normal professional role.

These things require all professionals to acquire at least those management skills relevant to their particular professional circumstances. This can create real problems because, as I have argued previously, professionals are trained in very different ways from managers.

The second problem is that many professionals simply don't have the luxury of following the course Bruce suggests.

If you look across professional services, the reality is that most professional practices are just too small to afford complete professional management. Willy nilly, many professionals including lawyers have to become involved in management whether they like it or not. And many do not like!

Professions and professionals respond to this challenge in different ways.

In the case of doctors, for example, where individual practice had been the norm, multi-doctor practices became common. Each doctor remained in individual practice but with a service company providing shared services (premises, receptionist, accounts etc). Now, with increasing compliance loads, many doctors are opting out of individual practice into paid employment.

In other cases many professionals opt for self-employed status to minimise management load, working on their own or with a single part or full time staff member. This group faces very particular problems in that they either have to learn to do themselves or outsource, and outsourcing has its own problems. In Australia, the present biggest single complaint among self-employed professionals is their inability to get adequate accounting or book keeping support.

One of the reasons for the spread of franchise style arrangements in professional services is that they can help overcome these types of problems.

Those who wish to grow their practices as businesses face a new set of challenges because they often have to learn to manage as they go along. Generally, what these professionals need are basic management and associated business skills, together with simple scalable solutions that can grow with the business. Much of the discussion in the management literature with its focus on the bigger end of town is simply too complicated to really help this group.

My particular passion as a professional lies in finding ways to improve management. In this context I have a particular sympathy with this last group simply because I have been there.

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