How Singapore Law Firms are Raising the Bar
While issues of AI, technology and innovative business models have dominated discussions about the changing landscape for legal practices, another significant factor is the movement of talent. In more traditional and multi-generational practices, the founding or senior partners of law firms expected, and even demanded, a level of loyalty and commitment from their lawyers and confidently relied on a long career of service.
But times have changed, and so have the expectations of clients, referrers, experts, decision influencers and, of course, lawyers.
We have moved from David Maister’s (2000) personal relationship ideal of a Trusted Adviser to the phases of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and self-sustaining networks – or Ecosystems. As Stokes J, Dopson S (2020:pg 6) observed in their research of leadership challenges:
“It is not a new idea to suggest that leaders are no longer as powerful as they once may have seemed. Talk to leaders today and they will tell you that their role is constrained, and at the same time undermined, as never before. They are exposed: accountable for results and yet not really in control of them. In a world which appears to be changing fast and in unpredictable ways, leaders are obliged to try to make sense of the context people are working in, and to lead their people and organisations to respond effectively.”
While some law firms might have been caught by surprise by the swiftness of change, many are not standing still. They are updating their approaches and adroitly adapting management lessons from other professional and financial services businesses.
In 2021, the Law Society of Singapore alive to these changes, launched their first programme for small to mid-sized law firms called Raising The Bar (RTB). RTB is a four to five month acceleration programme customized to help law firms transform their business journey.
In 2023, the RTB workshops will be held for the first time in-person from 6 July to 27 July 2023.
In this article, course facilitator and law firm business development expert Sue-Ella Prodonovich looks at six ways in which RTB “graduates” of the 2021 and 2022 programmes are getting ahead of changes:
They have purposeful, responsive, business plans.
Today’s plans for legal businesses are no longer a routine of ad-hoc social activities, partner-only events, and annual entertainment budgets. They are dynamic, they flow across timelines, they connect capabilities and capacity, and they consider core-building or boundary-spanning opportunities.
Firms are embracing strategy frameworks like Lafley & Martin’s Cascading Strategies (2017) or Govindarajan’s elegantly simple “Three Box Solution” (2016) which provide continuous feedback systems and trade-offs. It is a faster way to market but it also requires a preparedness to accept that things don’t always go according to plan.
In RTB, we explore several planning models and levels of operation because different approaches suit different practices.
Mr Shen Kiat Tan, Director of award-winning firm, Kith & Kin Law Corporation observed:
“Before RTB, we had a hopscotch of plans that we implemented on our brand strategy. We were open to new ideas and RTB provided a safe platform for us to explore. During the consultation process, we received valuable inputs on various aspects of our firm’s business development, including issues on resolving conflicts in brand strategies across practice areas, establishing community and network connections, be mindful of consistency in branding across the profiles of our team.
We’re happy to add that since the conclusion of the event, we won our first international private-client legal award in a sea of outstanding and storied candidates globally.”
They have developed meaningful “brands” to communicate their position and their competitive strengths to the markets in which they choose to compete.
In the RTB programme, we devote a significant amount of time in defining what a brand means to a law firm (more than a logo), brand equity as an important guard of fee margins and talent attraction, and the necessity of brand alignment with the values and service proposition of the business.
And this is where digital marketing comes into play. Law firm digital marketing expert Paul Evans, Toro Digital, one of the RTB course facilitators, discusses a practical approach for firms getting started. He points to long-lasting “Evergreen content” like “how to guides” or a case study or a video tutorial – rather than throwing yourself into a hectic cycle of legal updates.
They are concentrating resources on defined market segments or niches.
Law firms, like every business, have finite time and resources to invest. Lawyers on the clock usually have somewhere between 120 to 150 hours per annum to invest in non-chargeable business activities that are squeezed in between client work.
Another reason for market, or client type, or work type, focus by law firms is the scale economies it offers. Margins improve when the cost of client acquisition decreases while speed of work and lawyer expertise increases.
Rather than being all things to all clients, firms are making strategic choices about what they won’t do and building an ecosystem of others that will.
“In recent years, and even more so in the wake of the pandemic, one can observe a spike in the entry of new small-medium boutique practices. The reasons for striking out are varied, ranging from reassessment of priorities, the flexibility and autonomy of work-from-home arrangements or the evolving costs structure of running a practice with co-working spaces and automation. The different ‘origin stories’ or structures of these emerging law practices thus make for differentiated offerings for clients to choose from, for example, subject matter specialization, personalised boutique service or streamlined, less/no-frills transactional experience. The need to define our practice from others is more pressing than ever” said Ms Megan Chia, a Partner of Tan Rajah & Cheah, a full-service commercial firm and one of the early adopters of RTB.
“Raising The Bar” equips us with the skills to articulate the values behind our practice, and the value we can communicate, in a succinct but powerful brand message to our clients. It compels us to get clear on who we are as lawyers, what we are as a practice and then identify the potential clients we need to reach with our brand.”
A third driver of change is that generational loyalty of clients and referrers can no longer be taken for granted. So, smaller practices who can’t match the budgets of “BigLaw”, are narrowing their competitive set. In some cases, smaller firms collaborate with others in formal alliances or trusted networks to pitch for a large account, which brings me to the next outcome.
They are involving more of their team.
There are many benefits of team-wide engagement (Spencer N & Newton 2018 and Ziercke & Hartung 2021) versus top-down partner pronouncements. A key one, in my experience, is the immediate expansion of a firm’s network of contacts that makes this a winning approach for lawyers (and for your clients).
There are usually three distinct levels of business planning in a professional services firm: the business plans of individuals often nest in the business plans of practice teams or service specialities or regional groups, which, in turn, nest in the business plans of the whole firm.
It goes without saying that it’s more efficient for everyone if plans complement rather than compete with each other.
Mr Ronald JJ Wong, partner of Covenant Chambers, a Singapore firm with regional collaborations said:
“Raising The Bar gave us an external view and further clarity on marketing strategy. That was good because we wanted to update our views on what marketing could be to a legal practice. We also wanted to broaden the learning experience, so we included a small group of professionals (with different levels of experience) in consulting discussions. That made a difference when it came to agreeing on areas for improvement and honing in our key focus areas.”
They have gone from hoping for recommendations to extending relationships.
For many practitioners business development consists of doing a good job and hoping the client will refer or use them again. This approach works perfectly well if you are a senior partner or your clients, or referral sources, aren’t using anyone one else with the same idea. But for others, building a book of business can be daunting.
Another area we cover in RTB is the “Client’s Engagement Pathway” and professional (or non-salesy) ways lawyers can build relationships throughout a matter’s course, ask for more work at the most appropriate times, and keep their professional dignity intact.
They are comfortable switching from experts to learners.
When faced with change, finite time, and limited resources, smaller firms do well to think like a start-up and chunk their plans into groups. This is something the RTB programme does very well because there is time for learning and reflection, and a deadline to meet!
An example of these planning “chunks” is preparing for actions (30 days), executing those actions (30 days), and reviewing the experience (30 days), all by the end of the year!
The group learning experience is invaluable. One firm was so impressed with another that they acquired the practice!
RTB provides a forum for reflective, analytical thinking and the “a-ha” revelations for a practice. That is its value. The deeper discussion in subsequent consulting sessions sheds light on the priorities and practicalities of execution.
Raising The Bar is a 4-5 month acceleration programme customised to help Singapore Law Practices (SLPs) compete and thrive in a digital first world. Armed with the new knowledge gained from the programme, SLPs can expect to reap the benefits of improved client satisfaction, greater profitability and a competitive edge within the industry.Unlike other traditional programmes, Raising The Bar enables firms to go beyond the hypothetical, putting theory into practice. A carefully curated group of industry experts will work with SLPs to develop firm-specific strategies, implement them efficiently and accelerate their business journey.
More information about the programme can be found here: https://www.lawsociety.org.sg/lit/raising-the-bar/
- Evans P “Getting Started with Evergreen Content For Your Law Firm”, Toro Digital
- Govindarajan, V (2016) “Three Box Solution: A Strategy For Leading Innovation” (author summary 14 min video) and book
- Malhotra, N, Smets, M. & Morris, T. (2016) Career Pathing and Innovation in Professional Service Firms Academy of Management Perspectives
- Martin R & A J Lafley (2013) “Playing To Win”
- Martin R (2017) “Strategic Choices Need to be Made Simultaneously not Sequentially” , Harvard Business Review, April 2017
- Maister D, Green D & Galford R (2001) “The Trusted Advisor”
- Spencer N & Newton S (2018) “Designing Your Firm of The Future: Stratgeic Learning & Development in professional Services”, University of Oxford Said Business School and Meridien West.
- Stoke J and Dopson S (2020) “From Ego to Eco: Leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution” University of Oxford Said Business School.
- College of Law (2023) “Why Firms Should Engage Early Career Talent in Business Planning, Strategy and Business Development.”
- Prodonovich S (2018) “How To Market To A Niche”
- Prodonovich S (2020) “Is Your Image Attracting Clients or Repelling Them?”
- Ziercke E & Hartung M (2021) “OK Boomer: Intergeneration Conflict In Law Firms.