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August 17, 2012

Redux: Special Projects Groups for Expertise-Imprisoned Firms: Quarterbacks, Point Guards, Project Managers. These are your New Lead Dogs.

Increasing Complexity, Ambiguity and Multi-Practice Issues: The Need for One "Special Projects Group" in Every Larger Law Firm.

No matter what larger corporate law firms want to think, with five or six exceptions--e.g., think perhaps Baker, Kirkland, Skadden, Covington, Williams & Connolly, Boies Schiller--most GCs and CEOs have enormous problems distinguishing one large firm (i.e., 250 lawyers or more) from another. Clients are beginning to see peer law firms as generic. An SPG, done the right way, might make the right law firm stand out--and even do much better work.

Like others, we've written on several occasions and with different twists about the "silos" mentality of law firms in America and Britain serving higher-end corporate clients. And we do think--well, we simply know--that right now is the time for every one of the largest 250 Western law firms to develop, establish, carefully maintain and market to clients one strong Special Projects Group:

No, get over yourselves. If you are a larger firm, the entire operation will never be one SPG. It is our smaller firm's idea--based on the way we've delivered services to clients for over 15 years--and it has three parts. 1. Control whenever you can the kind of clients you serve long-term by researching and targeting only solid companies with savvy management and sophisticated general counsel. Choose your clients. 2. No matter how the work comes to you, be nimble: do the work better, faster and cheaper--but without reducing your “rack” hourly rates. In the end, deliver Value. 3. Operate on the assumption that many projects fall immediately into several practice areas and or even areas which have “no name.” Advise, transact and litigate that way.

Parts 2 and 3 of the idea address a problem Julie McGuire (from an in-house culture) and I (from a larger law firm culture) keep seeing repeatedly over the last 15 years. Many law firms that service large and publicly-trade companies take a fragmented approach to working for clients (as well as to prospecting for them). Lawyers in one specialty can’t or won’t spot issues that should get the attention of lawyers in different specialties that the great client really needs. Rather than being “full service,” the law firm is relegated to “an aggregation of narrow views” (a Carolyn Elefant term). The best clients and law firms on earth suffer from this problem. Some lawyers think of this as the competing “silos” mentality.


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Walt Frazier, the best defensive point guard ever.


One possible solution is for larger firms is to (a) formally establish and (b) actively brand a special projects group (SPG). The SPG would be led by two or three lawyers who would be most likely to recognize the need for multi-specialty approaches to novel, complex engagements. They are full-time roving Quarterbacks--or Project Managers. The managers build a different team for each complex project and of course draw upon, whenever possible, lawyers from their own firm. But no law firm has the best of everything; good clients now know this. So SPG managers could in special cases go outside the firm to retain talent from another law or professional services firm.

Think of it as “unbundling” or freeing talent from sources outside the firm. In any case, work by an SPG--the law firm equivalent of special forces--would be done aggressively, quickly and at premium (i.e., higher) lawyer rates or equivalents.

Better Expertise. Apparently, no American or British law firm has yet established an SPG. But other large service companies have. For example, Turner Construction ($8 billion/5,000 employees) has a Special Projects Division with branches in several of its offices dedicated to lucrative but smaller-scale and higher-end design projects. The Division hand picks a different team for each project. Some construction industry folks regard Turner’s Special Project Division as operational and marketing brilliance.

Better Market Profile. Apart from delivering better services, an SPG can help differentiate a law firm from its competitors. No matter what large firm lawyers think, with five or six exceptions (e.g., Baker, Kirkland, Skadden, Covington, Williams & Connolly, Boies Schiller), most GCs and CEOs have enormous problems distinguishing one "large" firm (i.e., 250 lawyers or more) from another. Clients are beginning to see them as generic. An SPG, done the right way, might make the right law firm stand out.

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Julie E. McGuire, Visionary.

[Updated 8-17-12]

Posted by JD Hull at August 17, 2012 11:54 PM

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