On the basis that I believe in keeping an open mind, avoiding complacency and lifelong learning I took myself along to hear what I hoped would be some of the latest thinking in law firm management. So here’s my observations and personal highlights from the conference (for those who didn’t follow the tweetstream on #ksconf).

Old and new friends

Let me start by saying that one of the things I like best at these events is the networking – a chance to meet new folk and connect with old friends. It’s probably nearly two decades since I was last face to face with Charles Christian – although we “speak” regularly through social and other on-line media and I have kept in touch with Tim Percival (now at Harvey Ingram) almost as long. Having missed another Twitter friend – Brian Inkster/TheTimeBlawg – at a previous tweetup it was great to finally have a real time conversation with him. And, of course, chatting again to another Twitter friend – Chrissie Lightfoot (NakedLawer) – is always good fun. I must say that the two chaps from Taylor Vintner made my day – one was still speaking highly of my first book on selling professional services and the other indicated that he would have liked to have heard what I had to say on the conference platform – thanks guys! As to all the new folks I met – I’ll avoid mentions until I get to know you a little better.

Opening remarks – brands

Professor Stephen Mason opened the event by saying that “Que sera sera” is not a good strategy. He stressed the need for client focus and spent a little while talking about the difference between reputation and brand (and I always thought that reputation related to the accumulation of past actions and brand about a future promise of value delivered) and that “independence, ego and autonomy” was not conducive to brand development. He referred to Chrissie’s mention in her book that “brand isn’t everything but everything is the brand”. He gave a timely reminder too to focus on “profitable” relationships and not just relationships.

Next up was Elliott Moss of Mishcon de Reya – this was my favourite session of the day so I have devoted a separate blog to it (see above).

Charles Christian – Technology

Almost his first words were “Buying technology is no substitute for a business development plan” and I, as always, was won over. Charles talked about the generational change and made me feel very old by reminding me that I was working in the technology sector when mainframes were the norm and PCs hadn’t been invented. He touched on cloud computing (mentioning that Clifford Chance has indicated that it plans to put all its systems in the cloud by 2015) and talked about the huge opportunity to re-engineer and re-envision the way that law is done. There was considerable comfort for smaller law firms as he indicated that larger firms with legacy systems might be at a disadvantage as they are less flexible in adapting to the new ways of working.

There was a mortal blow to the social media nay-sayers when he reminded us all that every technological development (faxes, emails, Windows, web sites, touch screens etc) had been accompanied by “it’s not relevant to law firms”. He reminded us of the frequent client bugbear about the lack of good communications with solicitors. I tweeted his comment “Social media is just another communication tool – it’s a cost of business just like energy – you have to have it, so get over it”. Hear. Hear. And he confidently predicted that something else will come along to replace Twitter soon.

Evaluating solicitor consortia – Panel session

The panel comprised Russell Jones & Walker, Blakemores, QualitySolicitors and HighStreetLawyer. The concept of panels was explored – Qualitysolicitors explained that as the first national UK brand to bring small firms together from the 170 member firms now they planned on having 300 by October 2011 and a market share of 5%. Fixed fees, Saturday opening and W H Smith store access are part of the offer.

The debate centred around brands for awareness and brands for ensuring consistent delivery of quality advice. There was a lovely use of the Monty Python “sprint 100m in any direction” to allude to the challenges of herding the cats that are law firm partners.

The fact that 70% of the public can’t name a law firm was mentioned and the some of the other values of consortia were mentioned: referrals, management of digital/Google and social media campaigns, brand reputation and consolidated back office.

Using the example of different types of food specialist food store and supermarkets, the point was made that different parts of the market needed different propositions at different prices. I couldn’t help thinking that too many people see brands as a sticking plaster and source of short term new business rather than as a fundamental rethink about the value delivered to clients and aligning the whole organisation around delivering that value.

Workshop – Developing an alternative service structure

My first workshop was chaired by Neil Kinsella of Russell Jones and Walker and Professor Stephen Mason. I was delighted that he opened on the need to create a sustainable competitive advantage and provided extracts from the book “The modern firm” by John Roberts, an outline plan and a case study of an average High Street law firm. He also honestly admitted that it took a “near death” experience for his firm to take strategic planning seriously. The discussion covered a range of topics – the need to analyse competitors and profitability, cultures that support implementation, options such as mergers and segmentation and niches, client intimacy and cost reduction. A final point was that capital was a bigger issue now than ever before.

As a strategy consultant I forced myself to keep quiet during this session so as not to interfere. However, I couldn’t help contribute a little comment about the need to explore where the client perceived value and to develop services (and pricing structures) that might require people to think beyond the traditional boundaries of law firm services.

Workshop – Personal image by Lucinda Slater

Feeling extremely self-conscious about what I was wearing, I joined this talkative group to hear about image and impact, first impression management, the challenges of smart casual and dress down days. There was a great simple exercise to identify key messages you wish to convey with your personal brand.

Recognition – Master or servant? Nick “Mr Loophole” Freeman

Good to see a criminal lawyer on the stage for once. He started with a reference to Jack Straw’s comments that there are too many lawyers – 1 for every 400 in the population and that it’s easier to find a lawyer than a doctor.

Whilst criticising marketing and PR consultants, Nick explained how his “obsessive interest in road traffic regulations” enabled him to distinguish himself, establish a niche, attract significant media interest, gain a voice and develop a host of celebrity clients. Recognising “the brutal fact that celebrity sells” he provided numerous anecdotes about his cases and described the FreemanKeepOnDriving service that allows Mondeo Man to access the sort of legal advice traditionally only celebrities can afford. There was also a plug for his book “The art of the loophole” which is to be published next year.

There was another panel session at this point regarding rainmakers and whether they are born or made and the extent to which they are mavericks. There was considerable support for an approach where everyone considered business development at every touchpoint. Then Kevin Green, Head of Legal at IBM presented and there’s a separate (short) blog post on this one above.

Chris Marston, Head of Professional Practices at Lloyds TSB Commercial gave a short session reviewing the (economic) challenges of 2011 and sharing the surprisingly positive results from the 200 firms surveyed in the LMA Annual Financial Benchmarking Survey. For better performance reviews he suggested measures including income, wider/deeper client relationships, risk management, client satisfaction and people development.

Controlling physiology

The final session was billed as “Leadership and the essential skills for successful business development” by Keith Liddiard, International Programme Director at NetlawEdge. I was fascinated, having excelled in the neurophysiology element of my original psychology degree, to see that he was to explore the impact of physiology on emotion, feeling, thinking and thus behaviour and results. He then performed a live demonstration on a delegate by hooking him up to a heart rate monitor and trace that showed where the brain was in cognitive (frontal cortext) processing and then showed results during coherence and chaos situations – as well as showing how quickly simple breathing techniques could be used to restore coherent functioning. I liked too that he mentioned the 34,000+ words in English used to describe various emotional states. This all gave a different perspective on the relationship issue.

Professor Stephen Mason provided a short round up of the main themes of the day: focus (don’t try to do too much), “it’ll never catch on” (but did), no surprises for clients and the need to grab opportunities (do what no one else is doing).  He advised firms to “dare to be different” and not just to follow the herd.