Last Tuesday I took myself along to the 16th PSMG Annual Conference – it’s a rare but pleasant occasion when I am purely in delegate mode rather than speaking or running a workshop. The venue – America Square Conference Centre – was marvellous, the rooms were gleaming white with cheerful red chairs and there was a section of the London Wall forming the backdrop to the refreshment and exhibitor area.
A couple of things struck me about the event – the predominantly male line up of speakers and workshop leaders and also that amongst the 90 or so delegates there were only two from property and one from accountancy. Mostly lawyers then – surprising when the title was “The professions in transition”.
Keynote 1 – Tony Williams – Jomati
Professor Stephen Mayson of The College of Law (I have heard him speak at three events recently) opened proceedings and introduced the first key note speaker. It’s hard to recount what he talked about as, like other sessions, copies of his slides were not provided. However, I recall comments about globalisation, recession, BRIC and CIVETS (Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) and General Counsel’s need for certainty in legal budgets. Two points I noted – he mentioned that Microsoft reduced their legal spend from $900m to $600m in two years and that the latest RICS survey revealed 20% bids were sub-economic. There was a useful list of recent law firm mergers and some interesting international alliances reviewed.
Keynote 2 – George Bull – Baker Tilly
George talked about the Legal Services Act and, in particular, ABS (Alternative Business Structures) and suggested that the changes in retail legal services were more like a big wave than a big bang. I liked his comments about “kamikaze bids”. He reviewed some of the recent trends in ABS, borrowing material from Neil Rose (see below). He raised interesting questions about the future impact of comparison sites and posed questions, as many do at present, on big brands, the death of the High Street law firm, consolidation, back office sharing and MDPs.
Neil Rose of Legal Futures “The LSA – it’s not just about the lawyers”
This information-packed workshop was probably the best session from my perspective. Neil started by talking about the eight legal professions (and LDPs) and some of the new regulatory aspects introduced by the LSA. The two public law firms in Australia (Slater & Gordon and Integrated Legal Holdings) were discussed, in the context of the likely impact of deregulation in the UK. The £26 billion UK legal market (£15bn consumer, £10bn commercial) and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on law firm finances http://www.pwc.co.uk/eng/publications/pwc_annual_law_firms_survey.html (and http://kimtasso.com/pricewaterhousecoopers-law-firms-financial-survey-2011) were mentioned. What was surprising was the extent to which this session (and the earlier ones) referred to the role of Epoq document automation http://www.epoq.co.uk/. He reminded us of the adage “Get big. Get niche. Or get out” and mentioned a great quote by Nick Jarrett-Kerr: “You can’t make a tiger by inflating a cat”. Priceless. On a more positive note, he suggested that the new entrants may help to expand the legal market.
Tim Nightingale of Nisus Consulting “Innovate to survive or thrive”
This was my other favourite session – another workshop. Tim was armed with his research results from talking to companies in the FTSE 100 and 250 about disruptive innovation in the legal sector. He concentrated on three of the five drivers – fees, business models and brand. Leading a useful discussion we talked about the loss of scoping skills making it hard to develop coherent and profitable pricing strategies and the value billing approaches used by some firms. The client needs for trust, transparency, certainty and project management were raised. Then there was a spirited evaluation of partnerships as a business model. The service performance ratings for firms raised some eyebrows – with Slaughter & May topping the charts with 8.6, then Herbert Smith with 8.5, Allen & Overy 8.3, Clifford Chance 8.0 and Freshfields at 7.9. He reminded us of The Economist’s findings that “Profitability of global firms is lower than that of national firms”.
There was some interesting material on brands – not least the Magic Circle and Silver Circle “group” brands. His research revealed that when asked about distinctive brands in law the responses were as follows: Slaughter & May (24), Linklaters (10), Clifford Chance (7), Freshfields (7), Herbert Smith (7), Allen & Overy (5), Olswang (5) and Eversheds (5). I was really chuffed about the Olswang rating!
Keynote 3 – Professor Stephen Mayson
This session explored the concepts of profession, value creation, value added, culture and climate.
The panel comprised a marketing consultant, a sales trainer, an in-house marketer, a banker, a partner from a Scottish law firm as well as George Bull. The first question was about what types of risk (financial, regulatory, client driven etc) was likely to have the most impact. The next question caused some issues as some were unaware of the term “digital native”. The question about whether professional firms could learn anything about the branding of banks didn’t really receive an answer although there was some interesting discussion about partners being “unconsciously competent” at marketing. There was a good question about “which baby was likely to be washed away with the bath water” and the answer appeared to be a) collegiate environment and b) interesting work. There was an interesting line of debate about communications between “upstairs” fee-earners and “downstairs” support staff but I’m afraid I became rather irritated at some of the comments (notably that those marketers who were first involved in marketing in the professions probably weren’t “top flight” – I can think of a number of people – most of whom are no longer in the professions – who might object to this).
I reflected that, some 25 years ago, I attended the original meetings (hosted by Touche Ross where George Westropp was the first non-accounting partner) that led to the creation of the PSMG (the PM Forum was a subsequent breakaway group) and some of the folk involved right at the start. I wondered what they would have made of the issues being discussed by professional service marketing people these days.