Cross-sell… or die

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LAST WORD: Cross-sell… or die

Lexpert, January 2006

by Marzena Czarnecka

My New Year’s resolution for 2005 was to stop thinking I’m smarter than Robert Milton (still working on it); for 2006, I’m thinking of taking on an even greater challenge. I want to stop thinking that the Canadian national law firm as we know it is doomed. But it’s hard. Still fresh from cross-country interviews with pre-eminent lawyers at the country’s pre-eminent law firms, I kinda’ think this decade-and-a-half (give or take a couple years) experiment with the national platform is just about over.

Not that I’m predicting de-mergers for 2006. No, I think the current system will limp along for a few more years, maybe even another full decade. But unless decoding the genome gives us the power to fundamentally change the personalities of lawyers, at some point down the road we will look back at the era of the national law firms as a bizarre aberration… Or, worse, a misguided attempt by corporate lawyers to emulate, for no good reason, the m&a activity of their clients.

Why so glum? Because, all the pap the national law firms give us about seamless service, integrated approach and interoffice teamwork is, well, pap. Most lawyers can’t cross-sell and promote the work of their partners down the hall. Move them up or down the floor, and the lines of communication get even weaker. Put the Great Canadian Shield and a stretch of prairie between them, and they might as well… work not just in different cities, but in different firms.

The open secret about Canada’s national law firms: partners in Toronto have no clue what partners in Calgary do, partners in Vancouver have no clue what partners in Montreal do ( most associates, thanks to the extraordinary communications skills of their partners, are even more clueless).

Don’t believe me? The next time you’re having lunch with a colleague, try this parlour game. It involves three questions. Name three deals over $1 billion your firm did this year. Good, you did it in 10 seconds. Now, name three deals over $1 billion [close competitor] did this year. Wow, five seconds (it’s true. The average lawyers frequently has a better knowledge of what his competitors are doing than what his partners are doing). Now, name three deals, any three deals, your Vancouver office did this. Do you need me to repeat the question?
“We have a Vancouver office?” is not the right answer.

Here’s the really terrible thing: it’s not intentional. Nobody means to dis his partners (well, okay, maybe not nobody. There is that one guy… you know who I mean). They just… don’t think about them. The deals and cases closest to their hearts, ingrained on the brains, and on the tip of their tongues are the ones closest to them geographically, the ones they’ve worked on themselves… or the ones they wish they had worked on.

And it’s not that the guys in Toronto hate the guys in Calgary, and the gals in Montreal hate the gals in Vancouver. They usually have a really nice time at firm meets, golf tournaments, and what-nots. When they do have a real national file—and they remember they’re supposed to have a national platform—they even enjoy working with each other. But most of the time, they’re so wrapped up in their own deals and clients, they forget there are other people—never mind offices—in the firm.

Law firms know this—or rather, insightful, strategically oriented managing partners and leaders of law firms know that this failure is the biggest threat facing the future of major law firms. And it’s not just a multi-office thing: single-office law firms of a certain size fall prey to it too. The tax department is its own little boutique, the IP litigators operate in their own world, and what those tech types on the bottom floor do, nobody knows (and how long has that been an emerging practice area?).

So what to do? Well, investing in business development, competitive intelligence, client service and old-fashioned marketing is pretty much worthless. If lawyers 1) don’t know what their partners are doing 2) don’t care that they don’t know what their partners are doing, they’re really, really not going to care—or listen—to a marketing director tell them what their partners are doing. (That is, if she knows. Because lawyers who don’t care… well, you get the picture.)

The solution, obviously, is to start funneling some profits into the genome project, so law firm leaders can start engineering individual lawyers. Because changing the professional culture that creates and nurtures this navel-gazing… waay too hard.

There are glimmers of hope. There is one Canadian law firm that does an absolutely stellar job of cross-selling its departments, offices, and individual lawyers. Speak to any partner—and not a few associates, not even that senior—there, and you are speaking to the firm: they know exactly who’s doing what, why, and how this individual deal or case fits into the firm universe and strategy. There is another that’s getting there, doing a solid job with its Eastern offices (that Great Canadian Shield, though…). And there is a third—a surprising candidate, given its history of individualism run rampant—that, in 2005 at least, seemed to have many of its inter-office lines of communications open. Naming no names, of course.

Marzena Czarnecka is an ultra-cynical Calgary-based freelance writer. For the record, she does think “the national law firm” is an interim structure, even if lawyers figure out this cross-selling thing. But it’s replacement… not necessarily something better.

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