At a recent in-house training workshop on “Communication, conflict and negotiation” I explained about different personality, cognitive and relationship styles – and the mind set of fee-earning professionals. We considered how to adapt our approach so that we could create rapport and trust and forge strong relationships with fee-earners. This, in turn, would increase our ability to influence, persuade and gain buy-in to marketing, business development, human resources, technology and financial programmes.

I was struck when a young marketer (who is relatively new to the professions) said “But why do we have to do all this? Why can’t we just do what we were hired to do?” It’s a good point. But those of us who are committed to working with professional service firms take it for granted. After I answered her question – explaining that we are all change managers in professional services, the group urged me to write down my response so that they could share it with their colleagues.

The professions in transition

I’ve worked with the professions for over two decades. I have watched legal, accountancy and property practices transform from inward-looking, short-term professional partnerships into modern, commercial and even corporate entities. In the most sophisticated firms, they employ professionals in management disciplines and allow them to get on with the task at hand.

But many firms have not made that transition. The owner-manager model persists. And with it the need to persuade each and every partner individually of the merits of each programme which their partners on the Board have sanctioned.

An emotional journey from owner-manager

Rationality be damned. Yes, the partners know that if they are to achieve the transformation to a successful, sustainable business of the future they must change. Yet the impact of a myriad of small changes that erode the old model of the client-serving-fee-earning-bit-of-every-management-task partnership is hard to bear.

Every partner has a right to say what they do and don’t want to happen in their practice right? Every partner has the right to expect those employed to provide support in whatever way he or she demands it, right?

We’re doing all right

And if you were working 10 hours a day to get seven hours of billable hours and then a further two hours to deal with the mountain of administration and internal meetings as well as endure constant interruptions from round-the-clock emails you’d be a bit grumpy too. And very protective of your time.

And as all that hard work has ensured a regular flow of eye-watering profits, why change? Why risk altering the delicate balance of success? Why trouble clients with potentially different ways of working? Why risk the firm’s reputation and your own confidence by attempting to adopt some new and unproven (from their perspective) approach?

Multiples roles for the modern professional

The modern lawyer, accountant or surveyor must take on a huge range of new roles and tasks which go way beyond what they signed up to and were trained for at the start of their career. They must generate fees today by delivering excellent technical work whilst keeping up with an ever-accelerating slew of new rules and regulations. Yet they must invest so much time in winning new business and keeping key clients and referrers happy.

They need to keep up with the array of new technological systems and devices to increase efficiency and deliver greater value – and perhaps watch in horror as the mainstay of their long careers is reduced to a free app. They may even be asked to switch from advising clients to developing new products. Each increase in efficiency means yet more pressure from clients to reduce prices. There goes the profit.

They need to attract and retain the right talent where the old promise of possible partnership in the future is no longer enough. They have to train, nurture and even spoon-feed the next generation and swallow their disbelief as these folks demand fulfilling work, the right to be consulted and even work-life balance.

And they may have to accept that their area of specialism has become commoditised and face the prospect of reaching the end of their productive life. Or face having to re-train and deploy their resources in a different way.

Professional service support people or psychologists?

No one said that working support-side in professional services firms was easy. Changing hearts and minds is the work of psychologists. So whether you are a marketer, a finance expert, a technologist or a human resource professional you need to also develop some of this skill set if you want to be effective.

But the challenge is also part of the allure. Wouldn’t it be a dull life if you could just turn up each morning and do what you are paid to do? Where’s the fun in that?