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The importance of thinking differently

17 April 17

Do you feel the need for change in your business but find it much harder to adopt the necessary mindset to see it through? Try these seven steps to make the process manageable

by Stephen Vallance

 As lawyers, thinking is what we do. We are given facts; we apply our knowledge and experience and come up with solutions. We were taught to do that at university and during our traineeships, and we have been applying and refining the process ever since. For most of us the process has served us well and has got us to “here”, which in most cases is a relatively well paid but challenging existence.

The way we have been trained to think, although it has worked successfully to date, I believe can only get us so far. We are trained to be cautious, risk averse and not to make mistakes – the antithesis of a modern successful business. Is that why we see relatively few truly entrepreneurial lawyers, and why the legal profession has to date been so resistant to change? Is it this learned mindset that, by and large, restricts our high streets to sole practitioners and smaller practice units? These are the themes I would like to address in this article with, I hope, some practical solutions.

Break the pattern

Many solicitors are without doubt looking for change. The more senior wish exit routes or a better work-life balance, while the younger struggle to understand how they can become business owners in this modern and increasingly regulated world. While the desire to change is no doubt there, like that annual resolution to get fit or to lose weight, most struggle to pay more than lip service to the actions that they know they need to take in order to fundamentally alter their business lives.

So why is “thinking differently” so important?

We are all familiar with this definition of madness: “Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get a different result.” Until we think differently we will keep repeating the pattern. Like losing weight or getting fit, just wishing it to happen won’t work. Worse still, making too many unsuccessful attempts will simply leave us feeling bad and reinforce negative beliefs that things can’t change. We need to start by believing that change is possible; then and only then will we change our actions and, in turn, our businesses.

Important, too, is accepting the consequences of these changes. Almost universally, things will get worse before they get better. A new diet is often followed by a period of hunger; a fitness regime by fatigue and sore muscles. The same with business changes, which will often lead initially to additional workloads and responsibilities. Changing your beliefs will allow you to accept that these are good; they are the first signs that the change is working and will soon be replaced by a sense of satisfaction and an increasing belief that your goals are in fact achievable.

False assumptions

One simple area for change for many firms, and a good example, is client retention (although the principles can be applied to almost any area). Many firms that I speak with acknowledge that keeping in touch with their clients is high on their priority list, but few seem to have time to address this.

Brian O’Neil at Client Communications specialises in e-newsletters for legal practices. I asked him, in his opinion, how many of the 1,100 or so practice units in Scotland were regularly in contact with their clients. “I’d say there are around 50 firms (or less) publishing regular e-newsletters to clients”, was the response, a frighteningly low figure. What is the main barrier to firms progressing this? “I don’t believe cost is a barrier. I think it is a perception that it’s difficult and will take up a lot of time and effort, when in fact it is something you can outsource.” O’Neil added: “One of the other reasons firms don’t do it is because they don’t think they have to: they think that if they do a ‘good enough’ job, the client will just come back. In this digitally connected world, if you’re not in touch with your clients you are going to lose them!”

So it appears that these unfounded “beliefs” are holding firms back. The evidence shows that it is neither expensive nor difficult, and the benefits are clear. Surely then it is only the mindset that needs to be changed?

Go it alone?

Likewise, why do we see so few young solicitors opening up on their own? (“Young” in our profession is a pretty elastic term.) I asked Greg Whyte of Glasgow practice Jones Whyte what made him decide to set up his own firm at the age of 31. “It was an opportunity to build from the ground up,” he answered, adding: “From a personal perspective I had always been more interested in the business side of running a law firm. I liked the idea of taking the gamble, despite it outwardly looking like a bad idea jumping into a saturated/flat market.”

I found this an interesting counterpoint to the client communications issue. Here was someone looking at a “difficult” market but happy to have a go and take a risk.

Likewise, you can’t help but be impressed by David Hall and Karen Baird, who opened their firm Hall Baird in 2015. Sited in an old telephone exchange on the outskirts of Castle Douglas and far from the local high street, I asked them why they chose such a relatively remote location. “It was a no-brainer – convenience for clients,” they both agreed. “The investment in going out on our own seemed like the best option at the time.” Both believed that their family values and their traineeships in particular helped them look positively at the challenge of starting up their own firm, and they both understood the “rewards for hard work”.

Seven steps to achieving change

If you accept the view that we need to change mindsets away from “can’t do” to “can do”, how then do we achieve it? We know from advising clients that many problems seem huge when you are too close or too involved. With distance, perspective and assistance you can break them down into small manageable chunks, making most things achievable with a little time and patience. So what might those chunks look like?

  1. Identify the things in your business life that you are unhappy about and really want to change. Write a list of up to five in order of priority. When I set myself challenges I tell people, sometimes a lot of people. Why? It keeps me honest. I can lie to myself about how I’m progressing, but once I’ve told the world I really have no option but to do it. While perhaps not appropriate for all of your business goals, most of us do need someone to make us accountable.
  2. Start asking yourself why you have these challenges. Each time you answer it, ask yourself “Why is that?” again and again until you’ve been through that process five times. What you often find is that the problem is not what you think: it is something deeper and often not directly related to the problem that you think you have. “Making more money”, for example, is seldom an actual issue. As you dig down through the layers of why, it is much more likely to be something else that needs to be dealt with in the business.
  3. Having decided what you need to change, decide what you need to do to bring that about. Here the answers may be more obvious, although many of the traditional solutions might be less robust. Try to look at alternative and creative solutions, as that is where the real value lies. “Dream big, then shrink to fit” would be a good way to look at it.
  4. Do it. Two small words, but always the biggest stumbling point to any project. So many of us put things off for reasons too numerous to cover. Action though brings about change, and no amount of thinking about it will be any use unless there is action.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: welcome them. It is after all how most of us learn. Changes will seldom be universally successful, but each thing we try will help show us what does and doesn’t work and will ultimately lead to a better business. Remember, in business, unlike in law, mistakes need not be expensive.
  6. Monitor it. Measure what is currently happening and assess how the changes are having an effect. Perhaps try different options and monitor each separately to identify which works best.
  7. As you gain information and knowledge, adapt what you are doing and then go back to stage 4, and repeat, repeat, repeat!

Trained or born?

I suspect that few will disagree entirely with the theme of this piece. For those stirred to change, the biggest challenge I suspect is how to see it through. Perhaps looking for external assistance or inspiration would be a starting point.

I will leave the final words with Billy Smith of Complete Clarity Solicitors in Glasgow, who has addressed many elements of modern practice differently and who places recruiting and developing the right people, particularly trainees, right at the top of his business development agenda. “We went through a rigorous interview process, starting with around 40 candidates and whittling them down to a final seven from which we identified two,” he advised. Was it worth all that effort? “We already have two trainees in place who are coping with ever-increasing workloads and who are developing central roles within the firm. We’ve found that with training and the right supervision their work can often be better than some qualified staff where you assume that they know perhaps more than they do.”

To the question, “Do you think entrepreneurial solicitors are trained or born?”, Smith’s answer was interesting. “I think we all have certain innate characteristics which we can’t change. They can, however, be developed and shaped.” I asked him in conclusion how he managed to maintain such a vibrant business.

“I work on as well as in my business, and as a group we take meaningful time out to look at what we do, why we do it and how we can do it better.”

I think these last words sum it all up very well. 

Stephen Vallance works with HM Connect, the referral and support network operated by Harper Macleod

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