Only by empowering energetic, fearless, forward-looking management teams can firms take advantage of the gathering winds of change
Traditionally, UK law firms play it safe. They design their management teams negatively: to not steer the ship onto rocks; to not rock the boat; to not get caught in a storm. That’s because for many senior partners it’s about protecting what they’ve got rather than chasing what they could win. “Let’s power this ship forward!” they shout. And then whisper the caveat: “But please do so without challenging us too much or risking our personal income.”
But with the industry in a state of flux, is the old way of doing things – a safety-first strategy that aims to keep everyone happy – the right strategy? By taking a conservative, manage-by-committee approach, are firms with senior partners half-eyeing retirement holidays in New Zealand handicapping themselves long term? After all, it is the next generation who must eat the fruits of this strategy, and with new business models and rapidly emerging technologies gathering like locust swarms, that could be a scant meal unless suitable insect repellent is applied.
Taylor Vinters is one law firm thrusting forward into the storm, determined to reach the promised land beyond rather than standing still, shivering, trying to keep the rain off for as long as possible.
CEO Matt Meyer came to the role in 2008 aged 38, and today cuts an energetic, determined figure who’s on a mission to lead, not manage.
“The legal industry faces formidable challenges over the next few years,” he says. “With changes afoot, I want us to be famous for coming up with a brand new, disruptive business model. It’s work in progress but I believe we’re on the right path. In this industry right now there is a huge opportunity to experiment and be entrepreneurial. It’s a crime not to take that opportunity. The market we serve is incredibly open-minded and looking for something different. We must leave behind the baggage of our structure and training, and forget how we’ve measured our value historically.
“However much my professional colleagues and I may want to preserve the industry that we have been in the past, the reality is we need to focus on being a commercial success in the future, in whatever shape that takes.”
This forward-looking, opportunity-grabbing ethos is one that more law firms would do well to follow, but which many are held back from chasing due to a ‘safety-first’, conservative approach to management and strategy.
Matt says: “It’s about bringing energy and excitement to what you’re doing. I meet so many management teams who are there reluctantly and consider themselves to be ‘servants’ of the partnership and ‘custodians’ of the business. That’s negative. A large part of that attitude comes from where they are in their careers, and the fact they’ve been successful professionals who have been pulled out to ‘babysit’ rather than ‘challenge’ the business.”
The danger of the status quo
At the BDLN we believe that any firm wanting to break new ground and grasp new opportunities must be challenged regularly by their management team, not simply kept on an even keel while sinking ever deeper, however slowly, into the ocean. And that can only be done by raising the energy levels of management teams and empowering them to challenge the business.
Matt continues: “Here at Taylor Vinters, by bringing in a young management team with a clear, fresh strategy, we were given a clear mandate for change. The single most important thing in our business at the moment is having a clear strategy and a ruthless dedication to sticking to it. To elicit real change you need energy and enthusiasm because you must inspire the whole team – 200 people in our case – to come with you.”
And Matt believes that youth – at least in terms of attitude – is an advantage.
“Coming to the role a bit younger means you’re in touch, and have the energy and enthusiasm to engage with everyone and bring them along on the journey,” says Matt. “It’s not an age thing, it’s an attitude thing. We’re at a stage in our careers when we’re excited about what we’re doing, motivated to build something and connected with a bunch of people who can help deliver that.”
The forces of change – those locust swarms – bearing down on law firms, particularly mid-sized ones, are not going to be successfully navigated via a traditional, conservative approach to management. By acting like ‘custodians’ – present to do nothing except keep things steady, safe for future generations – management teams risk doing the exact opposite: giving future stakeholders a very tough time indeed as they struggle to make changes that should have been initiated years ago.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for firms to hand the tiller to an energised generation of young-at-heart leaders who, like Matt Meyer, are in touch, willing to embrace and take advantage of change and up for the fight.
Matt Meyer is Chief Executive of Taylor Vinters. Matt was part of the management team that won the 2011 Managing Partners Forum award for ‘Best Strategic Leadership in a European Professional Services Firm’.