Category Archives: People

Flying start


 This article was first published in Managing for Success, the magazine of the Law Management Section of the Law Society. The Section’s website can be found here.


The appointment of non-executive directors is not common in law firms, but those that do take this step significantly outperform their competition. Nigel Haddon and Rob Lees explain how and why you should appoint a non-executive director for your firm


Nigel Haddon is a former chief executive of SAS Daniels, and now a management consultant who advises law firms on strategy and leadership issues. He is a member and past chair of the Law Management Section committee. He is an author of two Law Society publications and various articles. Rob Lees is an author of professional service firm strategy books and articles, including co-authoring the best-selling ‘WhenProfessionals Have to Lead’. He is a former global consultant advising professional services firms on improving individual, team, and firm capability


With so many law firm clients required to have independent, non-executive directors (NEDs) as part of their governance structure, it is surprising that so many law firms, with no regulatory barrier to the incorporation of NEDs into their own corporate governance, have opted not to do so.

Of course, this may be more down to lack of knowledge than anything else. Becase NEDs are relatively rare, firms may not know some of the basics: what a NED would do; what value they could bring; how to find the right NED for their firm; or how to incorporate the NED into their culture once they’d found one.

In this article, we address these questions, outline the business case for NEDs in law firms, and provide a beginner’s guide for recruiting a NED in your firm.

 Do law firms have to have a NED?

No. Listed companies must comply with the UK Corporate Governance Code, which requires at least half the board, excluding the chairman, to be NEDs. Smaller companies, perhaps more directly comparable with sub-top 50 law firms, are required to have at least two independent NEDs. AIM-listed and unquoted companies, which includes most professional service firms (PSFs), are not subject to the code.

However, there is much encouragement both in the code itself and from peers, funders and accountants for them to follow suit. This may be for a range of reasons, but one often cited is that NEDs can, when appointed appropriately and operating effectively, improve the management and operation of businesses of all types.

But appointing NEDs is no panacea. To be effective, a NED must be truly independent, and needs to be given time to really understand the business and to know when to challenge executive management. For a NED to succeed, the right person must be appointed, and an appropriate environment must be in place (or be created) for that NED to effectively operate.

 How can law firms benefit from a NED?

In a piece published in The Lawyer in August 2014 (, executive search firm Edward Drummond revealed that only one in four of the UK top-100 law firms had appointed one or more NEDs, but that those which had appointed them had grown about a third faster over the previous four years than those which hadn’t. They also identified a trend for law firms to ape corporate governance structures with a view to gaining competitive advantage.

And those which had appointed NEDs had generally done so not to gain sector knowledge, nor connections, but to add a ‘helicopter’ or external view of the business.

The benefits of appropriate NEDs being appointed to firms identified in the Drummond research and elsewhere include:

  • a fresh, external perspective
  • contribution to strategy development and performance improvement
  • strengthening leadership and management
  • helping instil a more stringent process for making strategic decisions
  • bulking up commercial expertise.

Would every type of firm benefit from a NED? With our 60 years in and with law firms, we would say that just about every firm in firm in the top-500 would benefit from at least one NED. There are exceptions – there are some firms where the cultural barriers may be insuperable, such as in a highly collegiate, regional ‘High St’ firm, and there are others at the lower turnover end of the top-500 which may not choose to prioritise investing in a NED, given a range of competing priorities. But in general, and given all the benefits, we would encourage every firm in the top-500 to at least investigate the options.

What will their remit be?

Recruiting people into any firm in any position starts from knowing precisely what you want the individual to do, and NEDs are no different. So you need to define the NED’s remit clearly before you begin recruitment. Of course, that remit may change over time, but their initial responsibilities must be clear to all parties.

Should a NED be someone who can open doors and introduce the partners to potential new business, or someone who can help the firm become even more effective across all aspects of its activities? The Edward Drummond research was quite specific on this point, and all of our experience supports their research: that lasting improvements to a firm’s operations and profitability only come from appointing NEDs with the ability to contribute across the piece.

Some firms hope to combine the two roles but, in reality, finding someone with both the right business networks and the expertise to help the firm substantially improve its performance is exceptionally rare. One requires knowledge of markets, the players within them, and how the firm’s services can be most effectively introduced. The other requires knowledge of how professional service firms ‘work’ and what the best firms do, and an acute understanding of how to translate that knowledge into actions that lead to the firm making substantive increases in all aspects of its performance.

A NED’s remit must be tailored to the challenges the firm is facing. For some firms, that may be how to be develop a more effective compensation plan for the partners; in others, it may be about succession planning; and in others, it may be about turning strategy into action (which is where a lot of law firms falter). In determining what you want the NED to do, it is imperative that their remit is tailored to a real understanding of the challenges facing the firm.

 What expertise does an effective NED need?

1. First-class diagnostic skills

A NED needs to be able to offer high-quality, objective advice, and this requires truly high-level diagnostic skills – with those skills having been applied successfully in PSFs and law firms. In our experience, law firms and PSFs are different from their corporate counterparts, and it is rare for people to be able to switch diagnostic expertise in, say, a production environment, to professional services.

 2. Strategy formulation and implementation experience

We have met a lot of managing partners whose instinctive understanding of their markets is first class. They know exactly what the firm should do to penetrate them successfully, but, sadly, they do not know how to align the firm’s people and processes to deliver the actions necessary for success. Consequently, any NED must be able to both craft strategy and assist the firm’s partners in turning strategy into successful actions. To us, this is a core skill, and it is one of the reasons why we believe truly effective NEDs must have worked in professional services at a senior level.

3. An objective, external voice

This is critical, of course – but not as critical as the voice being heard and acted upon. Again, we have seen too many instances when effective external advice floundered through managing partner inaction. So, while we firmly believe firms should appoint NEDs who can help them deliver lasting, substantive uplifts in performance, we also firmly believe doing so is an absolute waste of time in firms where the managing partner’s actions (on their own or with their team) have refused to countenance any challenge to the status quo.

4. A fresh perspective

This is the key element in the challenge to the status quo. All of the very best PSFs we know actively look for new markets and new ways of doing business. They refuse to accept the status quo and also refuse to be second best. Sometimes that presents a real challenge to a practice or a team, but that willingness to look at things differently is what singles the top firms out. As a result, looking for a NED who comes from exactly the same world as you do is usually a mistake: we recommend looking for NEDs whose experience in different firms and markets will challenge what your firm does.

5. Previous experience as a NED or at a high level in the legal sector

Law firms, in fact all PSFs, contain some of the most ego-driven people we know, and they can be intolerant of people they do not consider as their equals. Partners’ initial willingness to listen to what a NED has to say is typically positively influenced by the partners’ perception of the NED’s track record – so ideally, they should have experience as a NED or at a high level in the very best law firms, and evidence of that. Also, having faced or advised on similar situations speeds up the NED’s ability to consider potential responses and to come up with objective advice that will make a difference.

6. The ability to be a critical friend

Of course, this links closely to many of the other points above – having a different perspective, challenging the status quo and a voice that is listened to. Being a critical friend means having the expertise and skill to bring new ideas and perspectives to the table, and to act as a vital sounding board and external voice to challenge the firm’s current thinking and practices. It is an exceedingly tough role for anyone to play, just as it is exceedingly difficult for some firms to be the recipients of that advice.

7. A proven track record of delivery

One of the things often forgotten when recruiting is the need for the individual to fit into the firm’s culture. That fit takes you into the NED’s characteristics – such as sense of humour, interpersonal skills, friendliness, considerateness – and you need to choose which are the most appropriate for your firm’s culture. However, without exception, any and all characteristics are usually blown apart in most firms unless the individual delivers. Professional services is an execution game and sustained success is only achievable if the firm continually delivers the right products, delivered by the right people, into the right markets, at the right time. It sounds very easy, but in today’s highly competitive markets, it most certainly is not, and the more astute firms look for additional support from skilled NEDs to help them succeed.

How do we recruit for a NED?

It’s through people you know – definitely not through advertising. Most partners have good networks both within and beyond their community, and through these contacts, names often come to the surface. So too do names of good headhunters with a strong NED practice. Using the headhunter route obviously has costs associated with it, and our advice is to only use headhunters with a PSF arm, with experience in recruiting partners, as well as their more traditional senior corporate practice.

We’ve appointed someone. How do we make sure they add value?

You need to integrate the NED into your business. This is where having been clear from the start about the role’s remit will pay dividends – integration is so much easier when both parties are clear about the NED’s remit. In our experience, successful integration is always about time and timing.

Time is about allowing the NED to experience the firm’s culture in action. The best NEDs will always ask for time in the firm to understand how it works, how power is distributed, who carries sway, which practices are closest to their markets etc. If a NED isn’t able to answer these and all of the other questions related to getting things done, they will not be able to give informed strategic advice.

Timing is about knowing when to introduce the NED into the business: when they will get the best reception, and when the partners have time to help the NED understand the firm and how it works. We have heard people say there is never a good time, but an effective managing partner knows how to position events to ensure the NED gets the right introduction and welcome.

And before you bring the NED into the firm, communicate clearly with your people about who the NED is and what their remit is. Otherwise, rumour and exaggerated rumour will abound.

What next?

An effective NED will see part of their role as educating the board and the partners, helping to uplift their skills and expertise. You should therefore see a distinct improvement in the board’s and the firm’s performance – and this uplift in expertise may ultimately make the NED redundant, and see them replaced by a NED with slightly different expertise or a different perspective.

Why do some NED appointments fail?

 Unsurprisingly, the reasons are often obvious, and many stem from the recruitment process. There can be subsequent relationship failures too, some of which simply weren’t predictable and, sadly, some that were. Anyway, here’s our list of things to avoid:

  • a failure to integrate the role into the business (ie no one understood why the individual was appointed and what they were supposed to do)
  • accepting the word of someone you know well in appointing a NED, rather than having a rigorous selection process
  • the NED not being truly independent – they are known to one or two of the power brokers and tend to side with them, especially in any contentious debate
  • the NED not providing a sufficiently different perspective, but looking and acting like the people they are working with, so they’re seen as yet more of the same, harming and not helping board diversity
  • the NED having too many other commitments and demands on their time to commit the time necessary to get to know the firm properly, making their advice too general to be really helpful
  • the NED not really having the strategic knowledge to turn effective diagnosis into effective strategy and action
  • the NED not being sufficiently skilled to challenge the ‘groupthink’ that exists in a lot of firms.


We’re still not convinced…

If, despite our hopefully persuasive arguments, you are not sure that you should go down the NED route, ask someone you trust who has done so, or a consultant who has worked with firms who have. In our experience, which is supported by an ever-increasing amount of research and anecdotal evidence, using NEDs to improve board and firm performance is unequivocally the right thing to do.


© Rob Lees and Nigel Haddon, December 2017



Being a member of the HR team in a professional service firm can be a soul-destroying activity. In too many firms, HR is seen as having little to offer and adding little value (it was once called ‘burden’ in one of the firms I’ve worked with). Sometimes the lack of value is because the firm’s partners, including the firm’s executive have little, or no, idea what HR should do; sometimes it’s because the HR team, themselves, don’t know and so accept the role that’s given to them, and sometimes it is a because a former fee earner has been moved into the role and has little understanding of anything other than the basics.

That role, no matter who originates it, is more often than not the manager of the transactional services that are seen to constitute the relationship between the firm and its people: recruitment, remuneration, employment contracts, disciplinary and grievance procedures. All of them important and needing to be done well – but none of them what HR’s main focus should be.

To understand what that focus should be, we need to step back and think about the market for professional services and how one firm differentiates itself from another in order to gain a competitive advantage. Or, put simply, how it can win more business and be more profitable than its competitors.

It’s over twenty years since I first heard Jack Gabarro, one of my co-authors of When Professionals Have To Lead, say that professional services is an execution game; he was right then and he’s just as right now. Success in professional services is down to what a firm’s partners and staff actually do. It’s always what the people do and how they do it. Whether that’s a simple piece of tax advice or guidance on how to avoid a hostile takeover, the expertise (capability) of the individual(s) providing the advice is paramount.

Which makes the question of how a firm differentiates itself from its competitors extremely easy to answer. Its people must be able to relate to its clients and deliver its services more effectively than its competitors’ people.

Also, therefore, extremely easy to answer is what HR’s prime function should be. It has to help the firm develop the capability of its people, from its new entrants through to its partners. And, as assignments are rarely won or delivered by one individual, that capability must include operating effectively within a team and collaborative context, whether that’s across functions, offices or, as firms grow in scale, states and countries.

So, what should a firm expect from its Head of HR?

Let’s start with the obvious: a set of ideas that take the firm forward and that get implemented. To be implemented successfully, the ideas must be contexted in the firm’s operating reality and be completely aligned with its strategy. So, the HR head needs both a clear strategic understanding of what professional service firms (psfs) need to do to be successful in their different markets and an holistic understanding of how firms ‘work.’

The markets for different types of professional services operate differently and the matrix below indicates how the markets segment. With this knowledge, it is easy to determine the capabilities firms need to operate successfully in the different segments. The operating reality of most firms is that they compete in two or three segments. Only with a clear understanding of which segments the firm competes in, as well as an equally clear understanding of the firm’s position relative to its competitors in each of its markets, is it possible to develop a world-leading strategy to develop the capabilities of all the people in the firm. But, developing is the easy part; implementation is always much harder.

Successful implementation needs more than knowledge of markets and best practice learning systems. It needs something much more personal – the ability to make the case and win an argument with the partners about why developing capability is critical to the firm’s success and the ability to convince the partners you are on their side. That, you are ‘one of us.’

Partners, by nature, tend to be sceptical and non-strategic, so it’s absolutely key that the HR head ‘works’ the partner constituency and persuades them that they, personally, can make a difference. That they can become even more effective and that they must be the people, who lead the firm to the next level. After all, change only occurs where the work gets done – and that puts the partners front and centre.

Although this note has concentrated on the need for the head of HR to primarily focus on developing capability, they must also know what best practice is in all of the constituent parts of the HR function, and be able to put people in place to lead those parts effectively and make the function valued within the firm. And, naturally, they, like all of the firm’s leaders, need to be a skilled team leader.

And, finally, the head of HR must be able to make a contribution to the ‘top table’ debate about the firm’s future. The head of HR that firms need will never be able to do an audit or provide legal advice (other than in employment law), but they must be able to bring their strategic knowledge of how to achieve market success and their holistic understanding of how firms ‘work’ to bear in any debate.

And, what should the head of HR expect from the firm

The first thing here is also obvious – the resources to do the job. It’s pointless having someone with the ability to help the firm make a difference if you don’t give them the resources to make it a reality. And, ‘resources’ does not mean simply cash and people, it includes the freedom to operate.

The second, also obvious, is support and inclusion. Real support and inclusion – not lip service. There will always be some partners, who don’t see the value of paying ‘top dollar’ to someone, who doesn’t bring in fees. When that happens, the firm needs all of the top team to actively support their HR colleague and persuade the partners that he or she will make a difference to what the firm does. Active signalling and support is critical.

A final comment on soul-destroying

There is another soul-destroying reality that can occur even when the head of HR has all of the capability necessary to help change the firm for the better, and that’s asking the HR head to report to a partner, whose knowledge and capability are inferior. While there are some great examples of heads of HR working for partners, who truly understand the value of the function and who actively champion it and its people, there are still too many examples where the opposite is true.

The ‘the partners only have confidence in a partner’ argument that usually goes with it is both spurious and demeaning. The real argument should always be about capability, about having the right people around the top table, regardless of their backgrounds. It’s an absolute waste of time and money recruiting top HR professionals if they don’t get the status and recognition they should have. It sends a clear signal about what and who is important, and it’s why some firms fail to hold on to the very people who can help make them even more successful. And, in an execution game, that’s madness.

© Rob Lees and Mike Mister, September 2016

Rob Lees is a co-author of the best selling When Professionals Have To Lead and, until retiring last year, a consultant to the leaders of professional service firms worldwide. He can be reached at

Mike Mister is the head of the leadership practice at Moller Professional Service Firms Group, one of the leading psf consulting firms. Mike helps firm leaders across the globe improve their firm’s strategic and leadership capabilities. He can be contacted at

Guest blog – banking of a different kind, part 2, by Rachel Brushfield

Rachel kindly submitted a blog published on this site a few weeks ago, entitled ‘Banking of a different kind’. Here I’m delighted to publish her follow-up piece. The words which follow are all Rachel’s own. Enjoy! This blog shares the benefits of coaching and personal development and 11 useful resources; personal development books, personal development courses and personal development seminars, videos etc. Time is precious and business pressured, so what are the benefits of personal development? This is what our clients say:

  • Time to reflect/think through where you are and where you are going
  • Time to think about you
  • Time to build on your strengths and address weaknesses
  • Understanding that you can choose to respond to others better
  • Better understanding of yourself and how to relate to others
  • How to address day to day issues better
  • Identifying problems, weaknesses and opportunities and how to work on them
  • How to use strengths to overcome weaknesses
  • Skills to be more confident about yourself and dealing with others
  • A forum to discuss issues/goals/frustrations and how to resolve them
  • How to see situations from others’ perspectives
  • Greater understanding of self, how to reframe, pause and reflect and insights into problem solving
  • Feeling supported and empowered
  • More aware, reflective and reasoned
  • How to be more balanced, composed and in control
  • The opportunity to discuss key personal & professional issues in a non-judgmental and objective environment
  • Time and space to express feelings and thoughts
  • An opportunity to refocus attention
  • Vocalising goals so they seem more real and obtainable
  • Breaking down big scary overwhelming change into small steps, making it easy
  • How to achieve goals
  • A platform to concentrate on the things you’ve been putting off or avoiding
  • Understanding the cost of not addressing important issues
  • Feeling more in control and that you have choice over thoughts & actions
  • Feedback, reframing, support & challenge from someone there for you
  • Courage to do what you want to do
  • Unravels the confusion, identifies the route to be taken and prioritises the abilities that can best be utilised and where
  • A supportive, objective and confidential sounding board

We have identified 5 client types who benefit from personal development.  Which type do you relate to? “I ‘have it all’, so why am I so tired and dispirited?” “I know what I want, but I’m not sure how to best achieve it.“ “I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not this for much longer!” “I know/I’ve been told that I need to acquire a new skill/adapt my behaviour or habits, but show me how to fast!” “I need someone confidential/objective to talk to and bounce ideas off who I trust” 11 personal development tips

  1. Get a coach
  2. Get a mentor
  3. Look at Ted talks
  4. Get in touch about our Energise personal development articles. Topics include busyness addiction, how to do absolutely nothing, managing procrastination, overcoming overwhelm, fear, beliefs, safe risk, insight mining etc.
  5. Read the iconic book Stephen Covey ‘7 habits of highly effective people’
  6. Define your personal values
  7. Do a psychometric test to increase your self-awareness about your personality type and what impact this has on you and others e.g. Myers Briggs, Insight, Belbin, Talent Dynamics
  8. Create a personal development plan with S.M.A.R.T. objectives which will benefit yourself, your employer and your clients
  9. Write an account of your life and what has influenced it
  10. Keep a worry diary to monitor what you worry about
  11. Do a mindfulness class

Are you interested in coaching? Get in touch for a no obligation conversation. What’s the best action you can take to explore personal development for yourself or someone you supervise/manage? Rachel Brushfield

Rachel Brushfield

Talent Liberator



+ 44 (0) 845 22 55 010

+ 44 (0) 7973 911137


Evaluating Managing Partners

This guest blog is by my friend Rob Lees, former global head of HR at Ernst & Young, later a director at their Global Leadership Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and more latterly a consultant to professional service firms. Rob is co-author (with Tom Delong and Jack Gabarro) of the ageless and invaluable book “When Professionals Have To Lead” (Harvard Business School Press, 2007). This piece was originally written for Managing Partner magazine. The words that follow are Rob’s own.rob-lees_height-165


Evaluating Managing Partners when you’re not sure what they’re supposed to do!!


When my colleagues and I were conducting our research into what truly effective managing partners do that differentiates them from their peers, we also asked the partners we spoke to how they evaluated their managing partners when there was often little or no clarity around what the managing partners were supposed to do.

Obviously, when there was a specific action or set of actions the managing partner was elected to deliver, that greatly aided the evaluation process, but nearly all of the partners we spoke to included the performance of the professional management group in their evaluation as they considered the managing partner was specifically responsible for the selection and performance of that group. Unfortunately, in too many instances, the perception of the performance of the professional management group had a negative impact on their view of the managing partner’s performance. The question is why? And, of course, what can managing partners do to ensure they avoid the negative impact?

Undoubtedly, the major issue facing the majority of managing partners in their dealings with the professional management group is their lack of knowledge about what ‘good’ is, although there is an understandable belief that, in the finance function, a fellow professional will know what to do.

Let’s use Human Resources as an example. If we asked most managing partners what the most important task is in Human resources, we would be likely to get a range of responses. But, in professional services, which is an execution game, there is only one answer and that’s to create a development process that enables the firm to develop its professionals faster and more effectively than its competitors – and, by doing so, to create both a competitive and economic advantage. It’s an answer that should be a ‘no brainer’, but sadly it usually isn’t.

Without an understanding of what ‘good’ is, when managing partners assess what their head of HR is doing they can get it badly wrong. And, if they do decide they want to change their head of HR, they usually sub-contract the selection process to a head hunter – assuming, often wrongly, they will know what good is. So, in the end, the selection process often ends up solely about fit (critical, of course, but only after capability) and without a robust discussion about how the individual will create a development process that will deliver what I call ‘speed to experience’ and give the firm three significant advantages over its competition. Not just the competitive and economic advantages I mentioned earlier as there is a clear third. The market for top talent is highly competitive whichever way you cut the market, and all of the research indicates that one of the critical factors in an individual’s choice of which firm to join is the quality of the development experience. The highly competitive people who live in professional firms like to constantly add to their knowledge and experience so they can continually improve and do more challenging work – and they like to do it as quickly as possible. So, if one firm has a reputation of having a discernibly better development process they will attract better people. As I said earlier, it really should be a ‘no brainer’!

So, managing partners must know what ‘good’ is. And, if they don’t know (and in my experience they always know whether they do or not, even if they can’t quantify it), they have to find out. One of the other things that differentiates great managing partners is an unwillingness to accept second best in any aspect of the firm’s operations. And, as the performance of professional management group influences the firm in multiple ways, including the partners’ opinion of their managing partner’s performance, knowing what ‘good’ is and making sure it is delivered is key for every firm – and every managing partner.

You can read more about Rob’s book, WPHTLand indeed buy a copy here




Guest blog – Banking of a different kind by Rachel Brushfield

Banking of a different kindRachel Brushfield 044 Low Res


During the downturn years, I have been doing some serious banking. Not financial banking, but banking of a different kind. I have been banking insights, self-awareness and tools to make myself more useful for my clients and kinder to myself. In a world of uncertainty with disruption the ‘new normal’, this has been an excellent investment, with far greater returns than the interest in a saving bank account would have yielded. Self-interest is not selfish, it is wise and make you resilient and resourceful.  More kind to yourself and more useful and self-aware with others.

I have been banking a number of useful commodities that I am sure you can relate to easily; new high quality contacts now tagged connections on LinkedIn to create ease in future, thought leadership with books, chapters and articles published, content to share for a content hungry world, trend digests to help me make focused and sound business decisions and to add additional value to my time-poor clients.  But I have also been banking something that many lawyers poo poo. Insights and tools from personal development, that soft fluffy thing that is so hard to prove the benefit of or justify in business.

Or is it?

The personal development that I have done on myself in the downturn years and indeed throughout my life has given me a rich treasure chest of useful tools for lifelong use. If such a qualification existed, it would equate to a PHD. In a coaching market that is currently unregulated, isn’t that reassuring to know?

As I sit writing this, I picture you reading this, cynical, sceptical. Am I being unfair to you? You need evidence, I know, practical tangible evidence. You are lawyers trained in critical thinking.

Ok then, here you go. Some examples of how personal development has been useful:

  • Staying present and achieving a complete turnaround of an outcome in an hour with a stressed HR law firm client. Closing gambit – “I apologise, I took out my frustration on you, we do want to continue working with you.” Opening gambit “We think you are too expensive, you are not giving us what we want and we are not sure we want to work with you any more.”
  • Making decisions in line with my personal values, the things that are important to me, so that I am always authentic and fulfilled
  • Staying resourceful and resilient when my back has been against the wall at the darkest time post 2007 crash
  • Preventing a high potential employee from derailing their career. They were physically running out of the room before delivering a training. In 4 hours of coaching, I helped them understand why their fight or flight mechanism was kicking in and to develop a detailed strategy and plan to feel comfortable and choose to stay in the room. It worked first time.
  • The instant disappearance of anger in a client by working out the insight that the anger was caused by frustration. The cause? Conversations were always moving on to a different topic because an introverted and reflective French speaking father was thinking in French, translating into English and preparing what to say, compared with his extroverted fast thinking and speaking English wife and children.

Why have I made personal development a priority? The future has been firmly in my sights – a happy inner future as well as a prosperous financial and reputational outer one.

Finally, one last thing to share. One of the things that has stuck in my mind when I researched and wrote an article for Managing Partner magazine on emotional intelligence was the insight that a feeling is faster than a thought, neurologically speaking.  Now that could give you a serious competitive advantage. Not so soft and fluffy perhaps.

Rachel Brushfield

Talent Liberator




+ 44 (0) 845 22 55 010

+ 44 (0) 7973 911137

A people business, right?

images833IJ8SAA people business, right?


The topic for this blog almost literally fell in my lap. I met a friend for post-work drinks when, as is the way with these things, we soon turned to a kind of ‘how was it for you?’ conversation, about the last few months in general, and our respective businesses in particular. It didn’t take me to long to take my friend through the evolution of my consultancy practice over that period – I suspect both of us were more interested in how my friend’s medium sized law firm was faring.

I heard what I expected to hear given market conditions and my knowledge of my friend’s firm’s place in their chosen markets, that is, it had been a record year in terms of turnover and profitability. Some of what I heard had made the regional press, and why not? It may not be of huge interest to clients, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with celebrating success. Heck, I’m in favour of it, I’ve been there and done that! But what I was told next stopped me in my tracks, and left me pondering the meaning of ‘success’.

My friend told me that over 25% of the Partners and staff who had been at the firm a year ago were no longer there. Now, some level of attrition is normal, and I’ve always thought that churning 10 to 15% of your staff per annum is what you’d expect in most professional service firms (PSFs).  After all, people retire, move out of the area, leave for a lifestyle change and so on. There is data out there (it won’t take you long to find using your favourite search engine) to suggest that around 8-10% is what law firms should be aiming for, it’s ‘healthy’ at that level, and that 12-15% is towards the very top end (or poorest outcome) that a PSF should achieve. But 25% plus? Something about that didn’t sit right with my understanding of ‘success’, even allowing for record financial results.

For me, success in a PSF is about creating a ‘One-firm’ firm which is able to harness its resources in a way that enables it to compete most advantageously in its chosen markets. Those ‘resources’ are its structural, relational and human capital (together its’ ‘intellectual capital’). And to quote David Maister, a One-firm firm is characterised by “institutional loyalty and group effort” and such firms “rarely lose valued people to competitors”. Given the challenges of recruitment in the legal sector nowadays, you’d have thought that firms would be putting discretionary effort in to talent retention, wouldn’t you, in creating a “sense of cohesion and belonging among the firm’s people”[i]?

Now, I don’t know that my friend’s firm didn’t do everything in their power in 2014/15 to do just that, and were just plain unlucky with the outcome. But I do know that the “starting point in addressing any firm’s strategy for human capital is to place people at the centre of [the firm’s] efforts to gain sustained competitive advantage by developing a workforce that feels it is an integral part of the general needs and aspirations of the firm”[ii]. After all, law is a people business, right?

In short, a firm needs to provide all its Partners and staff with a clear line of sight as to what is required from each of them, each day to help the business achieve its strategic goals. It can be difficult to do this at the best of times, but if strategic objectives are centred on vague goals like being ‘bigger’ or ‘more profitable’ it can be too big an ask. But unless meaningful efforts are made to provide that clear line of sight, people may conclude that they don’t belong in an organization that isn’t clear about where it’s going, and what it wants from its people.


[i] Nick Jarrett-Kerr ‘Strategy for Law Firms’ (2009)

[ii] ditto