David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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by Derek Bedlow 2000

from Legal Week (UK), 2000

Many characteristics of lawyers’ backgrounds and training do not encourage them to take client relationships and social skills seriously. In particular, the education and selection process rewards individual rather than team-based achievement. Macro strategic initiatives will only achieve limited results if you cannot win your clients’ trust. Derek Bedlow speaks to David Maister, who suggests that the route to success lies closer to home.

The law would be a simple profession if it were not for the clients. Law firms spend millions of pounds each year on marketing themselves, taking part in beauty parades, producing glossy brochures, wining and dining and spending partners’ hard-earned cash on yet another rebranding exercise. Wouldn’t life be easier if clients actively sought your advice, automatically sent you all their work, brought you in early and paid your bills without question?

This, according to professional services management guru David Maister, is achievable. Exactly how is the subject of his recent book, The Trusted Advisor, written in conjunction with management consultant Charles Green and executive vice president of Internet company Digitas Robert Galford. For precise details, you will need to read the book, but fundamentally, as its title implies, it boils down to trust. And that, according to Maister, is in relatively short supply. According to the book, there are at least 22 qualities that the trusted adviser must have in addition to the obvious technical skills. These range from simply being honorable, reliable and consistent to being able to truly understand where a client is coming from and the ability to give frank advice in a constructive way, remaining sensitive to the client’s views rather than simply imposing it on them. Maister says the key to achieving and demonstrating all of these traits is simply the way you interact with other people. Essentially, show respect—and mean it. But, he warns, that does not mean that his is a ‘soft’ message. “It is not about being ingratiating or smarmy.”

“The skill is in influencing other people,” he says. “There is no such thing as a business issue that does not also involve emotion. If people are not doing certain things you know they should be doing, there is usually an emotional reason why.

“To be a good adviser, you must be good at two things: understanding where your client is at now and the counseling process. It is not just saying that ‘b’ is the right answer. If the client is at ‘a,’ then the question should be, ‘How do I help them understand that “b” is the right answer? And how do I help them build the commitment to change and build their courage so that they are willing to do “b”?’”

To be able to do this, Maister contends, professional advisers need to work on their social skills; the benefits that come from gaining ‘trusted adviser’ status will not be realized unless lawyers can supplement their intellectual capabilities with the emotional skills beyond simply telling clients what to do.

While he says the law is not necessarily the worst offender within the professions (for the record, these are advertising and architects), there are many characteristics of lawyers’ backgrounds and training that do not encourage them to take client relationships and social skills seriously. In particular, the education and selection process rewards individual rather than team-based achievement, from marks at school and university to persuading a law firm to hire you. As rational people, lawyers respond to what is appreciated and neglect things that are not.

Maister says the genesis of the book is autobiographical. He started professional life as a university lecturer and admits that nobody was more “pompous, arrogant and patronizing” than he was. “I thought my job was to say, ‘Listen, you idiot, this is what you are doing wrong and here is the answer’” he says. “But life has away of teaching you that if you really want to be effective, it is not enough to be right; you must learn how to be helpful. The major triumph is recognizing it and then it becomes a lifelong learning process to figure out how.”

A good place to start learning those skills, he suggests, is in the office. “The skills are not different in different settings. If you are ahead of the game in managing people, you will be ahead of the game with clients,” he says. “Do you treat a secretary differently than an assistant solicitor? The way you manage someone should not depend on their status and you should be always be offering supportive, candid and constructive feedback. Those same skills that apply to managing people internally sensitivity, delicacy, supportiveness—are excellent practice for dealing with clients externally.”

But, according to Maister, the problem is that too few law firms pay sufficient attention to people management. And, with even fewer exceptions, there is a lack of accountability that would require senior lawyers to take these issues seriously, a situation he describes as “Dickensian.” Firms may encourage their partners and assistants to take teamwork seriously, but without enforcement they are unlikely to be successful.

“Every firm pretends that it encourages teamwork, but the reality is that if someone chooses not to act as a team player there are no consequences,” he says. “Consequently, the level of functioning teamwork remains quite small. They remain mostly firms of individuals, judged by billable hours and business generation. And if you never give people practice at functioning together as a team where they are required to be sensitive to the emotional reaction of how they say things, then it is not surprising that they start off a little behind in being sensitive to the emotional reactions of their clients.”

The place to start rectifying this situation, Maister says, is in the criteria by which partner performance or potential is judged. “The tragedy is that the list of things that you have to be good at to be a partner has been so limited,” he says. “But partnerships can have values that say, ‘If you do not treat people well, then you are not in this partnership.’ Equally, despising clients will not make you unpopular in a firm.

“The position the best firms get to is that they say, ‘To be a partner in this firm, you must be a lawyer that is trusted by your clients.’ It is not a moral point—you are limiting your economic success if you do not require standards beyond technical competence.”

Maister insists that he is not simply picking on managing partners. The Trusted Advisor is a departure—or, as he would rather put it, an “evolution”— from his previous titles, Managing the Professional Service Firm and True Professionalism, in that it is aimed at individual partners rather than at management.

From his own research, even in the best firms only 10-15 percent of partners have what Maister describes as a “personal development plan,” an idea of where they want to be in three years’ time. His research also revealed that many partners spend half of their time on work that could be handled by more junior staff.

Maister says that his first book was a “how-to” manual for those who wanted to manage their firms. Since then, he has found that the assumption that lawyers do want their firms to be managed should not be taken for granted.

“Many law firms are unmanaged because their partners choose them to be,” Maister says. “If you do not want to be managed, that is fine, but do not expect that you will get the benefits of a well-coordinated organization.” Many managing partners find it easier to concentrate on the macro issues, such as a merger in Frankfurt, than address the micro internal issues. “To change that culture requires the interpersonal skills and the courage to actively manage your partners. Many managing partners are terrified at the thought,” Maister says.

But he contends that spending management time on the macro things is likely to prove fruitless unless the fundamentals are already in place.

“It is absolutely pointless to ask, ‘In which direction shall I point the thundering herd?’ if the herd is not thundering,” he says. “If you have the skills and are trusted by your clients, then taking these skills to other jurisdictions is a terrific idea. But if you are not trusted by your clients, then it does not matter if you open a Frankfurt office or not.”