What lawyers can learn from other industries: retail and accountancy

I have a clear memory of the first time I worked with consultants on a deal I was involved in. Having joined a private practice firm as a trainee fresh(ish) from university and law school, I had seen little of the working world. The consultants just seemed so… different, certainly to the lawyers I encountered daily. It wasn’t that they weren’t nice people or did not know their stuff – quite the opposite – but they went about things in a manner that was entirely alien to me.

Bubbling away in my mind ever since then has been the question of what makes people successful in their field and how can that be applied to what I do? A lot boils down to the person rather than the industry and you can all too easily make sweeping statements, but there are some generalisations that I would suggest have a practical application to the life of a lawyer.

I am going to explore some of these and how we might benefit from looking at practices outside of the legal world. This is part one of three blog posts on the topic (yes, I know, three whole blog posts on the same issue, but I will try not to repeat myself!), and we’ll start by looking at valuing customers and a different kind of value – financial literacy.

Retail: client is king

The phrase “the customer is always right” was coined in the world of department stores around the turn of the last century, the mantra being that customer service and satisfaction are paramount.

Being a pedant by nature (who would have thought?), I struggle to admit that other people are always right. However, I have no issue with the nuanced concept that what we do should always be for the good of our clients – be they your fee paying clients if you are in private practice or your business colleagues if you are in-house.

This extends to all aspects of your role, from ensuring your communication style is appropriate to understanding your client’s pressures and working to them (or in spite of them). The client must be the fundamental reason we do our jobs. Some lawyers I have come across seem to act as though clients are just a nuisance: they know nothing and they get in the way. A particular bugbear is the lawyer who continues a debate a point even though their client has said they are not bothered.

The bad news for these lawyers is that, in the long run, it is often your clients who determine how successful your career will be… or otherwise. I’m not saying you will fail without stellar customer satisfaction scores but I would suggest that you are more likely to hit the heights with clients on your side. So, if you need a reason to ensure you place the client first in all things – making the client king – then it can be pure selfish drive to succeed!

Accountancy: make sure the figures add up

Bear with me while I illustrate this one with a personal (and embarrassing) story.

I once had a conversation with one of the more senior executives of the business I worked for, putting my case for more legal resource. His answer to my raft of well-constructed and eloquent points was “build the economic argument” – in other words, you can have all the resource you want if it does not cost us more money.

What the clever soul does in this position is go away, lick your wounds, and fight another day. Not me.

In my portfolio of great ideas and supporting contentions, I had nothing on this – if anything, my plan would cost us money. So, taking the resort of the desperate and to my shame, I decided that simply repeating my really good points was the best way to go about convincing him that I was right and he was wrong.

I was allowed to bang my head against this particular wall for a short period longer until the executive gently said, one more time: “build the economic argument”, before smoothly and politely extracting himself from the conversation, no doubt to talk to someone far less stupid or tedious than me. I now have the words “build the economic argument” seared on my brain – and, with 20:20 hindsight, I subscribe to the view as well.

The first thing that any accountant will tell you about running a business is that the numbers have to add up – you have to be making money.  And so, if you want to propose a course of action, be it as part of your advice or in your management capacity, you need to show the cost benefit – good arguments alone do not cut the mustard.

In my case, the costs (predominantly salary) exceeded any savings (predominantly saved external counsel fees) and I could not point to or value a concrete risk that would be avoided or mitigated. It was a painful lesson to learn but one that has stuck – eloquence alone is no match for numeracy. In my defence, no-one ever taught me that, so I am hoping my embarrassment might be of use to someone similarly uneducated!

Coming Up!

In part 2, I will look at two more industries – investment banking and manufacturing – and explore what can be learned about risk appetite and eliminating waste.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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