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Review for PM Magazine: Mitch Kowlaski – Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st century

Sarah stared blankly at the computer screen before slowly and, with resignation, covering her face with her hands.  It could not be happening again.  She had spent over an hour sitting opposite Brian, across an expanse of polished veneer and branded water bottles, explaining the importance of getting her involved with ITTs and pitches nice and early.  She’d even dangled the carrot of client research and knowhow, thereby improving his chances of winning the work.  That ringing in her ears was back again, increasing as the panic set in.

A short email: ‘Sarah – apols for short notice but this is due tomorrow.  Attached my notes.  Appreciate a final draft for review by 9am if poss.  Should be pretty standard fare –copy most of the last one over.  Leave a gap on pricing.  I’ll stick in hourly rates with a good discount to sweeten.  Thanks Brian’

The door opened and Clara put her head into the room.  “Coming for that Friday drink then?”   Clara was one of their newest trainees and was embracing the weekly drinks, provided by the partners as a way of demonstrating that they valued their staff as people, rather than fee-earners.

“I can’t.  Brian has just sent me another last minute pitch request.  I’m going to be here for a while.”  Clara shut the door again with a telling shrug of the shoulders, returning a few moments later with a large glass of wine.  “Thought it might help the creative juices to flow… not that Brian probably wants creative juices…  See you Monday.  Don’t work too hard.”

Sarah took a good slug of wine and leaned back in her chair.  Her eyes rested on the copy of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st century on her desk, placed there by one of the partners, who had been sent a free copy.  She picked it up and started to flick through.

It was written as a novel, rather than a business book and by the end of page two she was hooked, recognizing the characters portrayed.  This book was brilliant… she’d never read anything like it!  Telling the story of a law firm pitching to join a major corporation’s legal panel it was alarmingly close to home… with one key difference… the law firm in the book seemed to be from Mars.

‘We believe in changing the nature of how legal services are delivered… we don’t benchmark against what others are doing… we re-imagine the entire process…’, quipped the law firm Chief Executive.  Yeah right, Sarah thought, taking another slug of wine.

‘Pressure to pound out more billable hours inhibits innovation, encourages each lawyer to act in [their] own self interest, rather than in the interests of the firm as a whole; encourages the pursuit of short-term profits at the expense of long-term stability and profitability.’  Blimey… that was a bit strong, wasn’t it?

The book went on to talk about how the key to survival was having a better process, greater efficiency, constant innovation, more affordable pricing, better client care.  It profiled what the client actually wanted, narrating the pitch criteria setting meeting and raising discussions on the value of knowledge management, CPD, pricing flexibility, the lack of value that a discount presents… what?  Read that bit again… Didn’t Brian just say….?

It set out a clear set of criteria for the pitch with this client taking expertise and client lists for granted… but what was left?  Environmental sensitivity, diversity, efficiency, strategy, financial solidity, flexibility, service-level-agreements…  Wow… was Brian ready for this?

But as she read on the voice changed to that of a new starter at the ‘wonder-firm’ pitching for the work.  Sarah started to compare this ‘vision’ with her own firm.  This new firm was all about the people, demonstrating it through the way they approached client work, not through token gestures of Friday drinks.  They had the IT and HR infrastructures, as well as organizational strategy, to add real value to clients.  They were actually built and operated in a way that worked for their clients, not the way ‘that had always been’… the way that worked for the partners.  Their employees were energetic, empowered and enthusiastic…

Sarah finished her glass of wine, put the book down and stared back at her computer screen… “Should be pretty standard fare…  Leave a gap on pricing… hourly rates with a good discount to sweeten.”  She sighed, if this was the future of legal services, perhaps she wouldn’t have too many more Friday nights like this?