Manchester Law Society Management Conference 2014

Simon Bernstein  MLS Management Conference 2014This post includes part of a previous blog, updated to include conference thoughts.

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Manchester Law Society Management Conference entitled ‘From Defence to Attack: Transforming the Law Firm through Culture’ and to those of you present, well done for staying for the ‘graveyard shift’!

As a thank you, I’d like to give you a free consultancy session, in which I guarantee you’ll take away game-changing tools that will enable you to speed up the rate of change in your firm, whatever stage of the journey you are at.

During the talk, I asked the audience what they understood by the word ‘leadership’.  The answers that came back included ‘communicating’, ‘taking your team on the journey’ and ‘management’.  What struck me was that none of the answers included ‘setting an example’, which I believe, loosely translates as ‘integrity’.  More later.

As was mentioned a number of times yesterday, law firms operate in the world of the ‘distress’ purchase – seldom having the pleasure of selling a service that people are actually looking forward to!  So against this backdrop, and within the context of heightened client expectation (or let’s be honest, client dissatisfaction) about fees and quality of service, where should you look to begin to transform the business?  Hopefully, it’s blindingly obvious:  yourself and your people.

Anyone who doubts that human resource is the number one factor in economic output, needs look no further than the economic crisis of 2008. The meltdown wasn’t caused by a failure in industrial process, or a cataclysmic natural event, it was caused by people and their decision making. It’s exactly the same in any business.
The beauty of doing what I do every day, is that I get to ‘look under the bonnet’ of large organisations and see what’s really affecting their ability to excel and, in some cases, what’s causing them to fail. Most of the time, it isn’t lack of ability or skill, it’s the wrong culture the associated lack of good leadership.

OK, so you’ve heard it all before. I can hear the moans of ‘motherhood and apple pie’, but bear with me a moment. This is hard, tangible stuff, with a financial impact. And don’t just take my word for it – global research from The Conference Board and the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has revealed that reshaping workplace culture is the top priority of chief executives.
Their report, entitled ‘The CEO Challenge 2014’, has put ‘human capital’ at the top of the list of challenges for employers. Human capital means how to develop, engage, manage, and retain talent, followed by the closely linked issues of customer relationships, innovation, operational excellence and corporate brand and reputation.

Pillars of Wisdom

Empathy has been working with these issues for over a decade, and it’s why we established Empathy for Legal and its four themes specifically targeted at the challenges facing the legal sector: Leadership, Talent Development, Client Experience and Growth.
Buzzwords? Call them what you will, it doesn’t alter the fact that over 1,000 CEOs worldwide placed employee engagement and better management at the top of the list of priorities when it comes to improving competitiveness, winning new customers and raising productivity.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the economic situation, the CB/CMI report found that ninety percent of all human capital strategies are focused on existing employees and not on attracting new ones. This includes providing training and development, raising employee engagement and increasing efforts to retain vital talent.

All of these issues are interconnected, as are the Empathy for Legal themes. Take any one of them out of the mix and the model won’t work: you can’t improve client experience without the right leadership, nor can you shape talent appropriately without understanding what the client wants. And when it comes to the bottom line, you can’t grow without all of the above.


Given what we learned from the economic crisis, it shouldn’t be a surprise that management performance is now under the spotlight. The report cites “improving leadership development programmes” as moving up the list of priorities for chief executives compared to last year, rising from 10th place to 5th. And the number one quality being sought among leaders? I mentioned it earlier; integrity. Again, a word we hear a lot, so here’s the dictionary definition: “Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” I wonder where the driver for that came from? The report suggests that bosses have learnt from the ethical scandals in the banking and retail sectors, however, from my perspective, I’d question whether many leaders know what to do with this knowledge, or even whether they have the structures in place to make the changes (look at what happened with Euan Sutherland at Co-op saying in his resignation letter he believes the group is “ungovernable”). Day-to-day skills like leading change, managing complexity, spotting opportunities and retaining and developing talent, are unfortunately, in need of a refresh.  And not just for the CEO.

The Sums Add Up

So, what’s our model for addressing this? We believe that Empathy for Legal’s four themes comprise a simple sum: Talent development + Excellent Client Experience + The Right Leadership = Growth. It’s not rocket science and Rebecca Ray, senior vice president, human capital at The Conference Board, and co-author of the CEO Challenge report, would seem to agree:
“Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development, and high performance is something companies can control, and is making the difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014. Moreover, if the focus of individual companies is sustained, human capital may well be the engine that revives economic growth.”

At the MLS Management Conference, Empathy for Legal joined forces with Tracy Miller Family Law to deliver the ‘Defence to Attack’ session for law firm leaders who are looking to unleash the economic potential that resides back in their offices.
I made an offer at the start of this blog to anyone who was there, but even if you weren’t, drop me a line and I’ll meet you for a coffee and give you a potted version of the talk for free.  Email:

Further research:
You might want to look at ‘Valuing your Talent’, a CMI is collaboration with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, CIPD, Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, Investors in People and the Royal Society for the Arts.