• What was the Issue?
  • What was our Input?
  • What was the Outcome?
  • What is the Narrative?


Issue: Recently appointed Head of Department struggling to balance new leadership responsibilities with demands of ongoing client work

Our input: One-to-one coaching

Outcome: Greater recognition of the importance of the Head of Department role to the firm; sharper awareness of the tendency to defer leadership tasks in favour of client demands; increase in confidence in how to carry out leadership responsibilities; improvement in balancing competing demands of clients and leadership responsibilities.

Narrative: We were asked to support ‘Sarah’, newly appointed Head of Department. In our initial meeting, Sarah said she now seemed to have two jobs – her ongoing role as a very successful Commercial Litigator with a substantial practice and her new role as Head of Department (10 partners and 25 associates). She was finding herself unable to get to the tasks required of her as Head of Department until late in the evening or at weekends.

During the course of our coaching sessions, Sarah came to recognise the impact of her internal lack of confidence on her ability to perform her leadership role. Her skills as a lawyer had been honed over 20 years and she could readily reassure herself about her success as a partner at the touch of a button with stats as to her billings, hours and new cases, but there was a lack of similar evidence available to reassure her about the value of her contribution as Head of Department. Sarah identified that these internal factors made it particularly difficult for her to address the practical challenge of adapting her case-handling role to free up time for her leadership responsibilities; she was finding it easier to continue to case-handle as before and procrastinate over her new responsibilities.

Having identified these internal blockers, Sarah used our coaching sessions to develop strategies to bolster her confidence in the importance to the firm of the Head of Department role and in her ability to do it effectively. By the end of our six month coaching programme, Sarah felt she was achieving a much better balance between the demands of her client practice and her leadership role. The feedback from her Managing Partner was that she was growing into a really effective Head of Department.


Issue: Our client firm was considering a merger with a boutique firm that specialised in a sector that our client did not cover. The proposal was being advanced by a number of influential partners but the Managing Partner had reservations and needed some additional independent resources to assist with the due diligence into the proposal.

Our input:  We facilitated a discussion within the working group looking at the proposal as to how the merger might fit within the firm’s existing strategy. Having honed the proposition to identify what assumptions were being made as to what the merger target firm might offer to the existing strategy, we helped the working group to narrow the specific areas of due diligence to be undertaken.

Outcome: The additional due diligence identified that the assumptions being made regarding the potential synergies between the two practices were false. As a consequence, the merger did not proceed – resulting in very significant savings in terms of time, effort and money that would otherwise have been invested in setting up (and unwinding) this project.

Narrative:  The facilitated conversation with the working group reached the conclusion that for the project to make business sense, the incoming partners in this merger must be aligned with the firm’s existing strategy. It is dangerous to rely on people who do not currently work for a firm to execute a strategy.  With our support, the group identified the assumptions they were relying on in relation to their preliminary conclusions that there would be alignment between the incoming partners and the existing strategy. Armed with that, a range of questions and requests for additional data were put to the target firm. The answers to those enquiries made it clear that their niche sector clients would not be in the market for the services offered by our client firm. This undermined the assumptions that formed the basis for the outline business case for the merger and our client firm withdrew.


Issue: Continental European firm requiring input in relation to the international aspects of its strategy: should it expand into other markets, and what mechanism should it do it by?

Our input: we identified a range of strategic options available to the firm, ensured that they were properly considered and that the pros and cons of each were fully understood. In order to do so, we analysed the firm’s position in its home market, its client base and its directory performance. This included one-to-one conversations with roughly 25% of the firm’s partners.

We considered a range of strategic scenarios for the firm outside its home market, based on its international standing and its relationships with international firms. We considered the means by which the firm might develop internationally, including independence, developing or joining a European platform, maintaining best friends relationships and the prioritisation of some of those, a more formal association with an international firm or firms and merger.

Outcome: to play to its strengths, the firm’s predominant strategy is now to focus on what it does, and how it is portrayed, in its home market. The firm’s international strategy is now client-led (i.e. based on clients wanting the services and capabilities that the firm is offering). The focus of activity to increase the amount of international work is now on practices which currently receive the most work from outside the firm’s home market. The firm has entered into a loose international alliance on a trial basis.

Narrative: any strategic plan should seek competitive advantage by differentiating a firm from its competitors in ways that offer value to clients. In setting a strategy, a firm should look for ways to differentiate itself by reference to its clients and to its people. The most successful strategies build on strengths rather than seek to shore up weaknesses: what is it about the clients, what they do and what they ask the firm to do that might be different?  What is it about the people in the firm and what they do that might be different? To differentiate a firm from its competitors, there is no point in simply trying to mimic them.

The firm’s financial data showed that 75% of its fees were generated from clients based in its home market. The top 20 clients generated about 20% of the firm’s total income each year, but were mostly different from year to year. Although the firm offered a full range of services, on average, 90% of its clients used only one or two departments each year. In our experience, it is harder, takes longer and is less profitable to win work from new clients than it is to increase work from existing clients. We saw a significant opportunity for the firm to focus a significant part of its business development activities on its existing clients, given the broad spread of its client base.

Our advice was that competent execution of a strategy to grow the firm’s domestic business would outweigh the financial benefits that might be derived (after significant investment) in executing a strategy to grow the its international business.

In relation to the firm’s international aspirations, our experience is that an international strategy is only a realistic and achievable ambition if it is client-led. By this, we mean that the clients must want the services and capabilities that the firm is offering; it does not work to build the capability in anticipation of demand for it being generated. Although all international law firms have a strategic priority of serving multi-national clients in multiple countries, many multi-national companies still decentralise the purchase of legal advice and do not purchase their advice on a multi-country basis. True multi-country purchases are only a small percentage of most markets for legal advice. Most firms initiating an international strategy should do so (a) in addition to, and not instead of, focusing on a domestic strategy and (b) via one or more best friends relationship(s), rather than as a branded alliance or merger.


Issue: Experienced Managing Partner whose firm has offices in several jurisdictions and a strong position in its chosen sector. “Nigel” has concerns about the nature and extent of his mandate from partners; some work/life balance issues which flow into whether he should do another term after his current term expires; and the firm’s financial performance, and what his role should be in affecting this.

Our input: One-to-one coaching

Outcome: Clarity around the things which Nigel needs to take responsibility for (e.g. investments – new offices and new partners) and those which he can delegate. A shift to managing the firm across Practice Group lines, rather than geography. Practice Heads now have clear responsibility for the financial performance of their groups. Some difficult decisions have been made and implemented in relation to individual partners. He has booked, and announced to his partners, a sabbatical with his family, which he has been entitled to for some time.

Narrative: The focus of our conversations has been very much about what Nigel needs to do to be at his most effective, not the pros and cons of any business decision he needs to make. He has been confident in his ability to manage and deliver big projects, but unsure that he can adapt in such a way as to squeeze more performance out of the business on an ongoing basis. He is used to being (and being seen to be) very hands-on.

In our conversations, he came to understand the importance of his leadership style to his effectiveness (and to how stressful his role is for him). By assessing the outputs of his role, not the inputs (hours worked, miles travelled), he has developed a clearer sense of what to do himself, what to delegate and what to disregard., He feels happier and more effective in his role, has more time for one-to-one conversations with partners and believes he can sustain a high level of performance, and a balanced life, for a further term, if he is re-elected.