The heart of professional services strategy


Last week I chaired a conference on Strategic Law Firm Management organized by Ark Group. While there was disappointingly little on law firms’ high-level strategic positioning and how that may shift over coming years, there were a wealth of insights into more general management issues. Clearly, people and culture are at the heart of managing professional firms, while the competition for talent is growing ever more intense. Getting people and culture right is the single most important determinant of success. Other success factors will be driven by this.

Listening to the speakers reminded me of a framework I’ve been mulling over for a while, on how attracting, retaining, developing, and motivating great people is linked to attracting the most worthwhile work from the best clients. Clearly, these two highly desirable outcomes feed on each other, yet many firms do not explicitly link them in their strategies and activities. To my mind, building knowledge-based relationships is at the heart of being able to link client development and people development. In knowledge-based relationships you are able to learn most from clients, get the most interesting work, and attract the best clients. Providing “black-box” services to your clients disengages your ability to attract either great people or great client work. It is important to recognize that there is a very real difference between great clients and great client work. Many professional firms have outstanding clients, but often the work they do for them is mundane and unstimulating. It is getting great work that is more important for developing your people and capabilities than getting brand-name clients. Small clients can give you fantastic work.

The framework below shows the nature of great people and great client work, how these feed on each other, and what is required to link them. At the center of attracting both great people and great client work are a set of common values and behaviors. These are fundamental to both of these outcomes, and how they are linked. Leaders of professional firms need to consider what specific activities and initiatives will help to develop this cycle, which is at the heart of professional services strategy. Successfully engaging in this cycle will rapidly develop meaningful, recognized differentiation in highly competitive marketplaces.