Sunday, 24 June 2012

Stephen Allen



The death of the billable hour is a subject close to Stephen Allen's heart. Currently Director of Innovation (I want that job title!) at Berwin Leighton Paisner, formerly both a Chief Executive at leading barrister chambers 7 Bedford Row and prior to that Group Company Secretary at Orange broadband services, Stephen has a particularly well-informed perspective on the topic of what in-house lawyers want and how private practice firms should go about providing it. Always one to engage attention with an intriguingly-turned phrase, Stephen came in to talk to the Kysen team this week about "The Value Paradox": how in-house lawyers are undoubtedly tired of the hourly rate as a way to measure the value that private practice lawyers provide; yet the reality is they find it hard to measure value in any different way.

"I have a story for you, a parallel with Lady Windermere's Fan", he told us, "the famous Oscar Wilde play staring Lord Darlington, the man who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Imagine this scenario: a head of legal at a FTSE 100 firm invites two firms to give a piece of mission-critical legal advice. The first firm, Erlynne & Co, costs the job on the basis of research and drafting time, delivering an estimate of 70,000 pounds for the work. The client negotiates this down to 50,000 pounds. The firm then takes three weeks to deliver a 150-page report, of which the executive summary contains all the client needs. They tell the client 70,000 pounds worth of time was spend on the work, but finally agree to stick to the negotiated 50,000 pound charge. The client is happy, feeling they received real value for money.

"The second firm, Augustus Lorton, offers straight away to do the job at a flat fee of 50,000 pounds and the next morning delivers the equivalent of the exec summary, (the only bit the client actually valued in Scenario One), in a half page email. The client balks at paying 50,000 pounds for such a quick-turnaround job.

"The moral of the tale? Despite the rhetoric about wanting a change from hourly rates, a typical in-house legal client often finds it hard to see value in the way the job was handled in Scenario Two, despite them getting the bit they said they valued so much - and getting it sooner. This is what I call The Value Paradox.

"The message really is that it's the job of the private practice firms both to find a new pricing model and lead the client in understanding where the value is."

In his role at BLP Stephen has been working hard - indeed innovating - to find new models that get to the heart of how in-house lawyers want to work differently and in a way that works for his firm too. Take a look here for details on BLP's ground breaking deal with Thames Water, where they bought out the in-house legal team in a five year deal to deliver legal services to the company through the former in-house team, through BLP's own team and via subcontracted firms Ashfords and Pannone.

"A triage system is key to the success of how this project is managed, with the emphasis on accurate diagnosis of what skills a particular piece of legal work requires, followed by an astute assessment of who in our collective team does what best - and how to divvy up tasks for maximum benefit to the client and to the various firms involved. We're looking for a "win: win: win" for all the parties involved," says Stephen.

Remember the Orange slogan? "The future's bright - the future's orange"? I've always thought Stephen brought a little bit of that bright future to the profession, when he arrived from his in-house role at the telecoms company. Now of course, since its merger with T-Mobile, the merged company "Everything Everywhere" has a new slogan: 
                            
                                          "I am who I am because of everyone."

Maybe there's a point here for the profession, about collaborating to win ...

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There was something strangely familiar about this week's stories of celebrities and tax avoidance schemes: a memory nagging at the back of my brain - investment in high risk creative projects, (film, music)? With the idea that the inevitable losses can be offset against tax on other income? Then I remembered it's pretty much the plot of Mel Brooks' excellent satirical dark comedy The Producers.

The Story focuses around a desperate washed-up Broadway producer and his accountant and a play they design to be a flop - to avoid the scrutiny of the Revenue  and oversold to investors 250-fold in the confidence they'll never have to pay out (so in fact part Ponzi scheme). You'd think that "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden" couldn't fail to fail, so to speak. Especially with its Busby Berkley style geometric choreography with aerial shots of dancers in swastika formation. But it turns out to be a surprise hit and panic then ensues as its creators are expected to pay out to their investors. 

The 1968 film won an academy award for its screenplay and is preserved in the National US Film Registry. It is one of the maddest satires of antisemitism you'll find. Delicious for this. If you haven't seen it, take a look - the 1968 film is much better than the remake or stage play. 

Of course on the subject of life imitating art Jimmy Carr went one better. Check out this Youtube clip of a Carr routine where he lambasts greedy tax avoiders. First rule of reputation management anybody? That's right: it begins with the words 'people in glass houses ...'

***

Thank you to my twitter companions who kept me entertained on a broken down train on Tuesday evening. To stave of frustration and boredom I put out a plea on Twitter (a "twea"?) for any good jokes or other interesting distractions. I was inspired by the response. 

@legaltwo kicked it off with: "Did you hear the one about the law firm that embraced technology and client focus? No, me neither ... boom boom :-)". Made me smile out loud and we went on from there. 

(I hope it goes without saying that my clients and many of my friends in the legal world, being connected with such new-fangled concepts as PR, are by definition among the early adopters, in the vanguard, the exceptions that prove the rule.)

On seeing @legaltwo's offering @Louise_Restell tweeted me her latest blog post, which touches on this subject of lawyers embracing technology (or rather not). She makes an interesting point that there is a clear need for an official and independent legal advice and guidance site - similar to NHS Direct Online she suggests. The Legal Services Board found in a recent report that "the internet revolution has yet to reach legal services" (what a quote!) and this is making it almost impossible for consumers to find accurate and helpful legal information when they are looking for support. They are swamped by information and just can't see the wood for the trees. Our friends at Prolegal tell me they are exploring a legal diagnostics site. It would be interesting if they could be persuaded to share this for the benefit of all. Watch this space ...

Thanks for the company @Legaltwo, @Tucola@aahafezi (who was the one person to urge me just to live in the moment and enjoy observing the lovely evening through the train window) @RupertWhite, @Louise_Restell, @HeatherTowns@MEkowalski@LexFuturus@allaboutcosts. You were there when I needed you!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Keir Starmer



"Starmer struck" is how I would best describe the two teenage girls who came with me to see a talk by the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer at this month's Hay Literary Festival. Apparently he has a "firm judging chin". He is certainly an excellent communicator, putting across quite nuanced legal and ethical points in language so simple and clear that nothing was lost on my 14 year-olds companions. They told me afterwards, with starry eyes, that they felt 'very reassured knowing our justice system was in the hands of such a capable man'! 

For me? I was particularly struck with his views on the importance of transparency in public office and the work he has done to build what he describes as a 'virtual glass wall' around his department. Whereas his predecessors tended to the view they shouldn't have to justify their decisions and that the public should trust them to use their discretion wisely and get things right, Keir believes this is no longer a tenable position in an age where the public has seen such lack of integrity among so many public office holders, first with MPs and expenses, and now Leveson bringing disrepute on politicians, police and press alike.

"Discretion can be a force for good, certainly. But it can also hide incompetence - or even corruption' he says 'and in my mind this means we must be transparent: issuing guidelines explaining our general approach to an area, be it assisted suicide, phone-hacking, whatever. Then be transparent about what we decide in each case. We are making important decisions that have very significant impacts for individuals, for families, victims, witnesses. We owe it to them to be open about how we arrive at these life-changing decisions."

He also told a wonderful tale of the case of the DDP impersonator. Definitely a case he had to stay at arm's length from; he didn't even want to be privy to who in his department was handling it. The doppelgänger was Paul Bint, a con man who posed as rich or important men to win the affections of women. One of his girlfriends gave witness for the prosecution. Her suspicions about her new boyfriend began when she realised she had never seen any one of the three expensive cars her lover bragged about and he was always cadging lifts from her. The clincher came when they had a row one evening and as he left in fury he sprawled the word 'Bitch' over her garden fence "which didn't seem something the DPP would do" she said in the witness box. Quite. 

When the time came for the trial, Keir did just have three questions for his colleagues: "Is the man pleading 'Not Guilty'? If he is, what's his defence - is he saying he really is me? And in that case, what happens to me if he is acquitted?" Luckily for everyone concerned, Brint was found guilty of fraud and put away. My teenage friends can rest knowing we still have the right man in role for this very important job.
***

So what do we think of Danny Boyle's Green and Pleasant Land? I always knew we could expect something imaginative, ambitious and memorable from the top film-maker and theatre director, his medium being such a high-impact visual one. And as his plans to transform the Olympic stadium into "the British countryside" were unveiled this week, my heart did stop for a moment - although I'm not entirely sure it was all for positive reasons. The pastoral scene is to include three live sheepdogs, 10 chickens, 12 horses and 70 sheep to create "a picture of ourselves as a nation" we are told. So far, I can't say this particularly resonates with my own sense of what's great about England - don't know about you... 

But then he came to his "mosh pit" under the fake Glastonbury Tor, filled with real people - members of the public representing the masses; his "posh pit" at the other end representing the first-night-of-the-prom-goers - and his hopes the two groups might "do battle and face each other off" on the night. Now that's more like the England I know. Like it. And the model includes four big suspended clouds which are capable of producing rain, "just in case we don't have enough." Well thanks for that, Danny. Thoughtful.

But then more excitement later in the week as we learn that this "rural idyll" theme is to be just one of several segments, each sequence to burst through the previous.  According to the Guardian "the countryside side set was a feint, inducing critics into taking it at face value...thus to make the eventual spectacle more shocking".  Now that's more like the Danny Boyle we know and love. 

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Last chance to see... The BBC's Chief Economics Correspondent reminded us at a Gorkana Media Briefing at Mayer Brown this week that as the TV team moves out of the historic Television Centre in White City to join radio colleagues at Broadcasting House in Central London's Portland Place, and the BBC ceases broadcasting from its iconic headquarters altogether, 50 years of TV history comes to a close. Television Centre was built in the 1950s and officially opened in 1960. It is synonymous with an age of broadcasting that brought us Play School, Blue Peter, Top of The Pops, the original Dr Who, Fawlty Towers and countless other programmes that are now part of out collective cultural mind map. 

Feeling nostalgic? Take a look at this video and write up for a recent documentary on Television Centre that the Guardian's Michael Pilgrim described as 'a leaving do for a building'. Hankies at the ready... 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Elizabeth Ferguson




How well do lawyers deal with uncertainty?  An interesting question raised by Elizabeth Ferguson of change management consultants Crelos at a very thought-provoking panel discussion they hosted last week.  The event formed part of the consultancy’s Change Mastery Series, focussed particularly on the professions and designed to drive debate on the latest theories, models, tools and techniques of change.  Well of course the legal profession needs all the help it can get in this area, given that lawyers at every level of the market and across all disciplines (barristers as well as solicitors) are facing more change now than at any other time previously.
We are all familiar with the maxim that in today’s business world "change is constant", ie that a state of change is no longer an exceptional event, but the norm.  Crelos even talk about the issue of "change fatigue", how people are becoming dulled to the idea of change as the stimulus is so constant, and how this can get in the way of innovation if not addressed.  But in the legal profession we are experiencing change not only in this sense of continual evolution, but also as "revolution" as well, following deregulation in the form of The Legal Services Act which now allows legal services to be delivered by Alternative Business Structures, paving the way for  all manner of creative alternatives to the traditional partnership structure or classic barrister offering. Indeed new weird and wonderful ABSs seem to be popping up almost on a weekly basis: we now have our first listed law firm in the UK after the merging of English stalwart Russell Jones & Walker and Australian firm Slater & Gordon; and I recently blogged about the astonishing news that haulage company Eddie Stobart is getting in to the business of law; and last week’s big ABS news was that newly launched fixed-price legal offering Riverview Law is opening in New York.  

Elizabeth shared with us some conclusions drawn from recent research interviews she has conducted among senior executives in professional services firms.  She began with the observation that many professional firms remain steeped in history and tradition, working within a culture that emphasises cooperation and a collegiate approach which has many advantages, but which is not generally helpful in promoting dynamism and transformation at pace, she says.  

"The professions contain some of the most intelligent high achievers in the world of business.  So why do they find change so difficult?  The short answer is, because they are made up of human beings.  Managing change is about far more than just changing structures: the real difference between failure and success is most often the extent to which you are able to change behaviours, ie get people to think and do things differently.  And that is inherently difficult; as famed organisational psychologist Elliott Jaques put it so eloquently, "It is precisely the uncertainty inherent in human work, the feeling of never being quite sure, that makes you close your eyes and agonise over decisions".  And this is why even the most intelligent people will balk at change, preferring to stay in denial, resist, put up walls, etc.   Another main barrier is of course "group think", that classic feature of group behaviour where individuals’ desire for harmony within the group holds them back from properly challenging each other’s ideas and realistically assessing alternatives.  If I have one message for the professions, it is to have confidence in your abilities to deal with change; you do have many of the tools: you have particularly strong skill sets in analysing data, weighing up evidence and coming to judgements. The challenge is to be brave in applying all this when it comes to your own business and your own individual position in a fast-changing market - and to know when to bring in help from the experts with some of the softer skills challenges!"

For more detail on Elizabeth’s research of business leaders in professional firms and how they see the impact of the changing regulatory and economic climate on their businesses, click here

***
It's good to be reminded there's still heroism in journalism, particularly at a time when the Leveson Inquiry has brought the reputation of the media to an all-time low. Attending the Amnesty Media Awards made me think about the power of the media in a whole new light. In contrast to the jaded view of the press we are inevitably left with, watching the sordid detail of dodgy press practices that emerge through the inquiry process, the journalists celebrated in these Awards all have a strong conscience and are driven by impulses you could be forgiven for thinking were outmoded in our cynical media age: the relentless pursuit of truth; the need to tell the stories that oppressive regimes are trying to hide. And some of these journalist will risk even life and limb in this pursuit. 

Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, whom I blogged about earlier this year (26 Feb 2012 see second story) after her death by shellfire in Syria, received a posthumous award. It was collected on her behalf by her photographer colleague Paul Conroy who was wounded in the same attack that claimed her life. He limped on to the stage to collect the award on crutches and with various wires and tubes peering out from under his clothing and joked how Marie's 'infectious bravery' hadn't been such good news for him, particularly from his family's point of view.

For more information on the Awards, check out the live tweets from the event. 

***
This week I've been at the Hay Literary Festival on the Welsh/English border, enjoying a wide range of speakers from  the world of books, screenwriting and music. For many years Hay was sponsored by The Guardian but these days it's supported by the Telegraph. Before I headed off for the festival a chum from the Sunday Telegraph told me over lunch that the atmosphere was rather tense the first year the Telegraph took over, a good number of literary professionals and stars even choosing to boycott their party they were so upset The Guardian had been usurped. The Guardian readership must surely be the largest represented at Hay of all the broadsheets after all. (Me? I'm not particular of course, having a professional interest in reading across all the nationals every day and favouring the different titles for different types of coverage.) I understand relations are rather better now and everyone is only too appreciative of the Telegraph's generous continuing support of the arts in these austere times. 

The hottest ticket? Hard to choose, but in my view it was 'legendary punk poet and King of the performance stage' John Cooper Clarke. Tickets sold out very quickly but we booked ours early (*smug*).  He didn't disappoint. There was lots more to enjoy. If you're interested, you can check out the lineup here.