When two tribes … How should professional firms get the best from their business services teams?

This breakfast session with Ben Kent of Meridian West, Clint Evans of SOS Consulting and Andrew Woolfson of WAWP brought together senior business services professionals from across HR, Business Development, Marketing and Operations to discuss how to get the best from business services teams in professional firms.

With three case studies to choose from, the group chose to focus on Case Study 1, which illustrated possibly the most common attitudes faced by business services professionals, can be summarised as:

  • “Thou shalt not be seen or heard”
  • “How hard can it be?”

Below are the key areas covered in the discussion:

The role of business services in meeting the needs of the business

  • People who know what they’re doing can advise and challenge.
  • Specific type of leadership that has the interests of the whole firm at heart (because business services tend to see more of the whole firm than any single fee earning team or individual). That leadership style involves knowing when to be forthright vs. when to simply deliver a required service.
  • The calibre of people sitting on the Board has a bearing on the position of business services within a firm and the levels of support it receives from fee earners, and is usually driven by the values of one person, most likely to be the Managing Partner. If that leader doesn’t see the deeper value of business service functions then they will be of lower quality and value.
  • The struggle between Business Services departments can be more difficult than working with the fee earning side of the firm as there are frequently silos across business services functions – all believing they are doing what’s best for the business – but not necessarily to a shared strategy – need to be close enough to the business to spot opportunities to collaborate and generate new business.
  • One solution has been the clustering of various Business Services teams, but this has not always been successful, where only a single Business Services leader has access to the Board/Managing Partner.

Client-driven change

  • Shifting client expectations and more vocal demand from clients is now driving internal change in firms.
  • Clients don’t want to see just the partners any more, instead they want to meet members of the whole team who will be working with them and their key business services contacts within the firm, in order to develop relationships, build trust, and receive value over and above the core legal service.
  • Business Services directors can bridge this client/firm gap as they often see the path ahead that fee earners don’t see, with a strong understanding of internal systems and role clarity.

Staff-driven change

  • Change within firms and the role of business services is increasingly being influenced and driven internally by staff, in areas including flexible working, diversity, infrastructure, Technology and IT development.
  • However, it does also need advocacy from fee earners to bring about real change.
  • Understanding the business, its clients and the markets it operates in will help business services to help set the firm’s agenda and strategy. This means individuals need to be able to demonstrate their value and contribution to the business through the capacity to recognise what the real numbers are and interpret them meaningfully.
  • Business services professionals will therefore require training and skills development to ensure they have the confidence and ability to challenge with evidence and substance.
  • One result of increased responsibility driven from these changes will be increased accountability for business services leaders and their team.

Dashboards

Using RAG to understand elements of the business and business services contributions is a way of communicating to those less familiar with business service functions about the scope and demands involved.

The feast or famine of business services

  • Change is often cyclical, driven by changes in leadership, which needs to be accepted as an element of working in professional firms
  • The debate between delivering core services in-house and outsourcing continues with divisions now being divided into 3 segment – fee earners, advisory and admin services. Brokering & outsourcing services are becoming more sophisticated, particularly for delivering ad hoc services, including:
    • Lexoo, Lawyers on Demand and Peerpoint for legal services on demand
    • Intelligent Office for experts in legal back office functions
    • Integreon for outsourced managed services

Closing comments – what’s needed from roles

  • Key skills are changing and need to be articulated with a clearer value proposition so that firms know the talent they have within Business Service teams
  • Changing cultural dynamics particularly in the challenges to the partnership / annual enterprise model and what this means for longer term planning and investment
  • Career pathways for business services are still seen as taking second place to professional skills development. Future talent hiring will depend upon improving this aspect
  • Business services skills development support is needed particularly as these individuals will increasingly be client facing.