Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Overcoming chaos in the home office

For much of the last few years, I have largely worked from a home office. Then I moved to on-site work.

My home office was always a bit chaotic. Things deteriorated rapidly after I moved to on-site work, not helped by the habit of my family of dumping things in my space for me to get rid of!

For reasons I won't bore you with, the need to find past papers has suddenly made tidying up a matter of urgency. So I have been going through the piles. In doing so, I suddenly realised that my presence in the on-line world has actually changed the way I work. More precisely, the way I should work.

I have my computer with its electronic files. Then there are my various blogs, web sites and social networking sites.

I tend to keep paper records because they are easier to read, while I have also been worried by things such as computer collapses as well as software changes. The quantity of electronic material that I can no longer access is quite astonishing! So paper records have been of great value.

No more. There are still some things that need to be kept in paper form, but now I have a wide range of storage options, as well as a content creation and modification process. Let me illustrate what I mean.

In my personal as opposed to professional space, I am an historian and economist. I write a fair bit of historical stuff that I would like other people to read. However, I struggle to find the time to write proper journal articles.

I know from experience just how ephemeral records can be. There is no certain way of ensuring that material is preserved. However, with an effective content creation process, you can improve both access (this is important in a professional sense) and the chances of your writing surviving.

The starting point is my blogs. I use these to explore and record ideas. In survival terms, I am dependent here on Google. If Google were to go down, this material would be lost. But in the meantime, blogging is a good way to develop ideas for later access and re-use.

Some of this material I transfer to my existing web sites. Here I can make longer material available in differing forms. As part of this, I have access to a password protected intranet that I can access from anywhere in the world. So I can post work in progress in various forms for later use.

This the most vulnerable point in the whole process in that survival depends upon the survival of the site provider on one side, my ability to keep payments up on the other.

To overcome this, I have begun to use Wikipedia to put up historical material, thus ensuring broader access. I have also just started to turn some of my material into forms suitable for book publication.

Linking all this back to my home office point. I simply don't need to keep a lot of the stuff I used too because my whole process has changed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Partnerships - Problems with Multidisciplinary Workings

In New South Wales, the use of multidisciplinary partnerships and of solicitor corporations has been permitted within legal practice since 1987. However, the conditions attached made effective multidisciplinary practices difficult to create.

In 1994, the NSW legislation was changed to try to make it easier to create true multidisciplinary partnerships involving lawyers. Then, following a 1998 report, conditions were further eased in December 1999, providing great freedom in the formation of such entities. Despite this, very few true multidisciplinary partnerships have been created.

The reasons for this are partially cultural.

In Multidisciplinary Working - Introduction I spoke of the way in which project management approaches allowed professionals to combine across disciplines. However, I distinguished this from full multidisciplinary working. To my mind, this occurred when professions combined in some way to create an integrated outcome informed by the knowledge and insights drawn from the different professions.

I extended this argument in Multidisciplinary Working - Practical and Professional Issues 1. There I looked briefly at some of the models that had emerged to try to manage different business and knowledge domains, of which multidisciplinary working was but one.

Underlying the arguments in both posts were the profound cultural divides that place the different professions into distinct silos. Professional Mudmaps - Cultural Differences Across the Professions: Stocktake of Posts as at 24 September 06 provides an early consolidated list of posts I have written in this area, a list that I must update. In doing so, I also need to consolidate the posts I have written on the creation of a discipline of practice; I see this as a key requirement for the creation of true multidisciplinary working.

In writing on multidisciplinary writing, I have become more conscious of the way in which differing legal and commercial requirements among the professions continue to create divides. The rules attaching to legal trust accounts is one such example, problems with professional indemnity insurance another.

These differing requirements almost need to be traced on a case by case basis if one is to provide effective advice on the creation of multidisciplinary firms, whether partnerships or incorporated entities.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

FICPI Australia Annual Conference 2008

In my last post on Corporatisation, Keddies and professional ethics I mentioned a conference paper I was delivering later this month.

Stephen Krouzecky (Hodgkinson McInnes Patents) invited me to be one of the key note speakers at the Australian Federation of Intellectual Property Attorneys (FICPI) 2008 Conference to be held on Magnetic Island from 25 to 28 July.

Australian legislation is to be changed to allow patents and trade marks firms to incorporate, perhaps the last professional services sector to be so affected. For that reason, FICPI has decided to focus this year's conference on issues raised by the corporatisation of patent attorney firms. I am to be the key note speaker at the session on the management and operational issues raised by the adoption of corporate approaches.

Stephen invited me to present because of the posts I had written on corporatisation within professional services. This reinforces a point I have made a number of times, the way in which an on-line presence can be used to reinforce professional standing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Corporatisation, Keddies and professional ethics

I have been reworking some of my material on corporatisation in professional services for a conference paper I am delivering later this month.

One of the concerns associated with corporatisation is the risk that it might create new ethical conflicts. I dealt with this one briefly in a post in May 2007, Corporatisation and Professional Ethics.

One difficulty faced by those who would oppose new corporate forms on ethics grounds is the reality that ethical conflicts can already arise in a billable hours environment. In this context, the troubles that have beset the Australian compensation law firm Keddies Lawyers are instructive.

Those who are interested can find some coverage of the Keddies' issue here:

I am not in a position to comment on the detail of the Keddies case. However, if you stand back from the detail, you can see how existing billing practices can create ethical problems independent of the nature of firm structures.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

‘”The Elephant in the Room”: Working-Time Patterns of Solicitors in Private Practice in Melbourne

Skepticslawyer remains one of my favourite blawgs, in part because of the breadth of its coverage. Here I noticed with interest a post by Legal Eagle, “The Elephant in the Room”: work practices of solicitors, commenting on the release of a report on the working time patterns of solicitors in private practice in Melbourne.

Legal Eagle's post contains a link to the report as well as commentary on the material set out in it.

Back in March I put up a short post on Associate attrition in law firms - five bottom lines. If you look at Legal Eagle's post, you can see why churn remains such a problem in legal practice.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Common Management Problems - micro-management

This post continues my common management problem series with a look at the micro-manager, one of the most common reasons for management failure.

All staff know the micro-manager. This is the person who cannot let go real control, who tries to set, control and check every activity. Lacking authority and responsibility, staff cease to be independent workers and instead become no more than arms and legs for the manager.

One common symptom of micro-management can be found in the complaint by managers that staff will not take responsibility, that they have to do everything themselves. When I hear this complaint, I automatically check for micro-management. Most times I find it.

With some managers, micro-management is a deeply entrenched feature of their personality, a need to control. There is often little you can do with such managers to improve the situation. If they are important in their position because of their knowledge or particular skill-sets, you may just have to work around them. Otherwise, you are better off removing them, or at least reducing their staff management role.

The partial or inconsistent micro-manager can be a particular problem, simply because they are harder to spot

Often insecure, this type of manager would not usually see themselves as a micro-manager. If queried, they would say (correctly) that they do give staff autonomy.

The core problem with these managers is that they are inconsistent. They stand back in most cases, but then intervene on an irregular basis. Having allocated a task with a report back deadline, they then ask before the due date, have you started or finished this task?

The staff member in question who has been trying to set his or her own priorities may not even have started the task. Now he/she finds a worried manager creating worry in the mind of the staff member. Suddenly the staff member has to shift focus, even though something else may suffer.

This can have exactly the same effect as the more extreme micro-manager cases in that staff take less responsibility for their own work, pushing responsibility up-stairs to their manager.

From an overall management perspective, it is easier to help the partial micro-manager improve performance, subject to one qualification: the problem has to lie with the manager, not the firm itself.

Too often, partial or inconsistent micro-management by one manager is in fact a symptom of, a response to, micro-management at the next level up. In worst cases, micro-management across the firm may be a cascade effect from the CEO or managing partner. Here we have a systemic problem.

One difficulty with micro-management is that it can yield high performance simply because the manager in question is so driven. However, it also has great dangers.

I saw a simple example of this recently at project level. The manager in question had to go on leave in the middle of a critical project roll-out. While the rest of the project team had the skills required to continue the roll-out, the project struggled because team members did not know everything that the manager had been doing, nor did they have the authority to take over key elements of the manager's role.

This case illustrates the practical problems that can arise should the micro-manager suddenly leave the scene.

At a more macro-level, the firm suffers because the bad drives out the good.

Staff who cannot work in a micro-management environment leave. Those who remain are less likely to be able or willing to accept responsibility and to provide the drive that the firm may need. Remove the micro-manager or managers, and the firm may go into sudden decline as a consequence.

Previous posts

Those interested can find a full list of the posts in this series here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Break in posting

This has been a long break in posting. There have simply been too many pressures to allow me to post regularly.

In all this, I have missed the discipline of posting. Even when posts are short, they provide an opportunity to consolidate my thoughts.

There is an irony in my failure to post because I am such a strong supporter of the use of blogs as a professional device. I am failing to deliver on my own advice!

Despite my failure to post on a regular basis over the last six months, the blog has continued to attract search engine traffic. In December 2007 it passed 11,000 visitors. The number today is 16,477. So my previous work is still attracting readers.

So I am going to try to resume posting as from 1 July, simply catching up on the July back log and thus getting back into a pattern of regular posting.