Consultants Take Flight

<i>Services available to law firms have diversified, with several new entrants vying for business in marketing and communications as well as business and professional development, and with seasoned veterans refocusing their offerings. What are they selling and why are law firms buying it?</i> <br/> <br/>Adam Pekarsky jumped off a cliff last summer. He resigned from his partnership with Korn/Ferry International, a global executive search firm, and started The Pekarsky Group. One of his new company's first mandates was recruiting talent for Ogilvy Renault LLP's Calgary greenfield. <br/> <br/>But recruitment is just one of the services offered under the umbrella of The Pekarsky Group's People Matters practice. Others include retention, succession planning and career counselling, while People Matters is one of three “legs” of the company's business model, complemented by Client Satisfaction and Student Services.
Adam Pekarsky jumped off a cliff last summer. He resigned from his partnership with Korn/Ferry International, a global executive search firm, and started The Pekarsky Group. One of his new company's first mandates was recruiting talent for Ogilvy Renault LLP's Calgary greenfield.

But recruitment is just one of the services offered under the umbrella of The Pekarsky Group's People Matters practice. Others include retention, succession planning and career counselling, while People Matters is one of three “legs” of the company's business model, complemented by Client Satisfaction and Student Services.

For the former Director of Western Professional Development and Recruitment for Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, it was an ambitious agenda, but one that some high-profile people in Calgary appeared to have faith in. Pekarsky was barely officially open for business when he got the mandate for the Ogilvy Renault build — via direct recommendation from Scott Rusty Miller, former Petro-Canada Vice-President and General Counsel and now Managing Partner of Ogilvy Renault's new Calgary office.

As Pekarsky was discovering that jumping off a cliff was indeed exhilarating and (one assumes, given the Ogilvy Renault mandate) profitable, a Toronto counterpart was already soaring. Ross Hendin launched Hendin Consultants in 2006, with offices in London and Toronto. “I had more desks than I had staff,” he quips. Four years later, the situation isn't much different. Hendin Consultants is Ross Hendin — plus a considerable international network of crisis communicators, analysts and contacts Hendin employs and deploys as clients require.

Hendin's offerings are, at a glance, vastly different from Pekarsky's. There is no recruitment platform here, no interest in students, recruitment, outplacement or client-satisfaction audits. Hendin's the guy you call when the press is ripping your reputation to shreds — when your CEO or marquee client is in jail (or heading there).

Hendin does other things, too – international communication campaigns, global introductions, rebranding before your existing image is in the toilet – but taking a company's icky issue and, as he puts it, “reframing it, refocusing it in a way that works for the brand or business.” That is what Hendin does best.

Public relations with a dollop of hot sauce, if you will.

Pekarsky doesn't do PR (not officially, anyway). He doesn't do ads, Web strategies or tactical media placement. His first big-name client hired him not for any international contacts he may have made during his time at Korn/Ferry, but for his domestic – nay, ultra-local – value.

Yet he and Hendin have more in common than a cursory examination of their business models suggests. And it's not just that they share Ogilvy Renault as a client — Hendin has worked with the firm's lawyers on behalf of clients who needed some challenging crisis communication. Nor that both are young (Pekarsky not quite 40; Hendin younger yet, in his early 30s), aggressive and ambitious.

What really binds this Toronto political-sciences grad with a Calgary recruiter – the former having started his career running a talent agency; the latter having practised as a securities lawyer before managing to sell an Ogilvy Renault Calgary gamble to a former partner at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP – is their non-sacrosanct attitude to the business of law.

The two of them see no sacred cows: only opportunities to be exploited. Each of them has recognized an unexploited niche in the Canadian legal landscape and pounced on it. They're selling services no one dreamt of offering up to law firms a decade ago – even five years ago – and they're not alone. Pekarsky and Hendin are part of a growing industry — one that, apparently, is thriving in a still uncertain economic environment.

And the law firms are buying, despite near unprecedented budgetary scrutiny.

Shift in Perception

It's a sign of the times, says Allison Wolf, President of Vancouver-based Shift Works Strategic Inc. She started her career as a marketing professional at the Beijing office of the global law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, and moved with them to New York, then Washington, DC, before coming to Vancouver to work for the predecessor firm of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP and, subsequently, Vancouver litigation boutique Harper Grey LLP. Then in 2004 she jumped off her cliff, getting her executive coach certification and focusing her practice exclusively on the legal profession.

“It was practically an unknown in Canada at the time,” Wolf recalls. “While executive coaching has been an established profession, in the early 2000s there weren't any lawyer coaches — certainly not in Canada.” Today, although it can't be said that every lawyer has a career coach, everyone's heard of a colleague who has hired a coach — often with an accompanying story of career success.

“Coaching is like putting a high-powered engine on the back of a lawyer's rowboat,” Wolf enthuses. “It inserts learning into a regular business day.” And that includes an accountability piece, as lawyers report back to the coach on their progress (or lack thereof, and the reasons why).

Cory Furman, a partner with the Regina office of MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP, has worked with Wolf for about three years. “Coaching has been a very valuable resource for me in tackling some of the challenges of legal practice,” he says. He likes having “a sounding board” and an objective, critical professional with whom he can “talk things through on any number of practice-management or development issues.” His work with Wolf, he says, “has helped me significantly with some strategic decisions I have made over the years, as well as their implementation.”

All positive, “career-forward and -onward” types of decisions, by the way. And that's newer still: for most law firms and lawyers, early experience with career coaching was associated with “career transitions,” such as outplacement, says Sheena MacAskill, a Toronto career coach who, like Wolf, focuses exclusively on the legal market. But even in the three years that she's been “independent,” MacAskill has seen a huge shift in how law firms and lawyers perceive and value this service.

A former litigation partner with McCarthy Tétrault LLP, MacAskill was asked, upon her retirement from the partnership in 2000, to come back to the law firm as its Director of Professional Resources. Seven years later, MacAskill “retired” yet again, this time to start a consultancy business.

Just in time for the economic bust. Which she hasn't felt — quite the opposite. “The career-transition component of the business has been very busy,” she says. And not just with firms using her services to help transition people. Individuals who see the writing on the wall “have been coming to me and saying, ‘I need to take charge of this process before someone else does,'” MacAskill says.

That's an evolving attitude that demands a stepped-up service offering. If the boost of the bust caught MacAskill off guard – albeit pleasantly – Pekarsky anticipated it. He opened up for business in the middle of the downturn, anticipating that the demand for a “more sophisticated” kind of career outplacement would be considerable.

“There are plenty of outplacement firms out there, but what we've heard from those members of the legal community who've had to use them is that what they get there is more grief counselling than anything else,” he says. A lawyer who's plotting his or her career needs more than “hand-holding and making sure your self-esteem stays high,” Pekarsky continues. “These people need nuts-and-bolts strategizing about the next step in their career.”

Out-of-Box Solutions

It's not a novel insight. Irene Taylor of Praxis Partners built her career on it, albeit not by outplacement but by working with people law firms wanted to keep (for the most part) and make more productive. What is new, however, is that clients in the legal marketplace keep on pushing the envelope on what those “nuts and bolts” mean. The services they demand from Taylor today are quite different than what she brought to the emerging market of lawyer coaching a decade ago.

“They don't want someone to sit down with them and chat about how they can get 400 more billable hours this year or how they can get more work-life balance,” she says. “They're willing to pay premium prices for very customized, out-of-box solutions. They want someone who will connect them to networks they can't gain access to. They want tangibles: let's look at your top five business targets and let's see what we can do to connect you with them.”

Taylor's business model has taken her away from law-firm contracts to working specifically with individual senior people. Another sign of the times: although no career coach turns down individual clients, what's traditionally paid the bills are mega-contracts with institutional clients. But that can be problematic.

“When you go through the process with a lawyer, and at one point they say, ‘I've come to the conclusion I'm not in the right place,' when I was working for a firm, I'd have to say at that point, ‘Whoa, I'm sorry. I can't have that conversation with you,'” says Taylor. In an economic climate like that of late 2008 and 2009, the potential conflict between what a firm wants from a career coach and what the individual being coached needs may be exacerbated even further.

“It's the survival need,” says Taylor. The economy, the uncertainty of the market, and the fluidity of the legal landscape are resulting in “a reshuffling of firms. Some firms are doing well, others are on a downswing.” That's changing how lawyers view branding: they want it to be all about them — the individual them, not about the firm. “There's a lot of confusion,” Taylor says, “and a lot of people are saying, ‘Hell, forget it. I can't worry about the firm's brand. I will brand myself.'”

That, incidentally, was the cause of the first wave of new law-firm service providers, back in the late 1990s — branding, marketing, all manner of corporate communication tailored for marketing-reluctant law firms. Susan Van Dyke, of Vancouver's Van Dyke Marketing and Communications, joined the legal marketing world in 1995, working with, in turn, the Vancouver predecessor firm of Miller Thomson LLP, local litigation boutique Harper Grey, and then Fasken Martineau.

“When I started in legal marketing, it was a very lonely profession,” she says. “It's a very different landscape now.” Marketing departments within law firms have grown exponentially, and as these have increased in scope, sophistication and inclusion into their firms' business strategies, they've demanded increased scope, sophistication and strategic thinking from their external service providers.

Susan Elliot agrees. Once a marketing professional with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, she now offers lawyers and law firms strategic marketing services via her Toronto firm, Susan P. Elliot Inc. “I started in the field by offering typical marketing services, like branding from start to finish, developing a corporate identity, messaging, advertising — all the words and pictures and strategies behind branding,” she says. “That was what a law firm could digest back then.”

Not that those services are gone. But they're now subservient, if you will, to the big picture. “There is an awareness now that marketing is a little more complex than what lawyers thought it was — it's not just about handing out golf balls with logos on them,” Elliot continues. “It has to be more strategic and sophisticated. I can go into a law firm now and when I ask them if they have a business plan, they will say yes and they will share it. And this is a beautiful thing because in the corporate sector, marketing groups don't make a move unless they're plugged into the business piece.”

Insatiable Appetite to Learn

Van Dyke, however, thinks the greatest change may well have just arrived with the financial meltdown of 2008. “I'm seeing a real openness to learning more,” she says. “One of the things I love about lawyers is their insatiable appetite to learn. They are certainly open to listening to how they can run their businesses better, how they can retain their clients better — even more so after the turmoil of the last 18 months.”

If the past decade has transformed marketing professionals from “brochure bunnies” to “professionals who can help achieve the goals of the firm,” says Van Dyke, the past 18 months have “catapulted” some of these professionals into positions of “having meaningful conversations with clients that affect the bottom line.”

One of Van Dyke's key service offerings right now is a marketing audit that's all about the bottom line. “In a climate like this, we really want to talk about how we can do more with what we have,” she says. “In a marketing audit, I go in and look at refocusing a firm's marketing resources to achieve the highest return on investment.”

One of the things she does as part of that process is identify and eliminate what she calls “random acts of marketing,” something that has a tendency to escalate when lawyers have non-billable time on their hands.

“Managing of non-billable time is critical,” she says. “Many lawyers have had more of that this past year than at any recent point in their careers.” That non-billable time can be turned into valuable building time — but that requires work, planning, foresight, and assistance from your friendly and willing law-firm service provider.

It's no wonder the surge in available non-billable time has corresponded with a surge in the billable hours of many law-firm service providers. Lawyers have had more time to reflect, to worry, to plan, to practise things other than law.

“To be successful in law, you have to recognize it's a continuing learning environment in which you always have to strive to do better,” says Janet Hoyt, Director of Professional Development at Torys LLP. “It's a lifelong career. Things change and you have to be flexible and you have to continue to grow.”

Lawyers have always recognized this on the technical side — the dullard to whom you had to sell the concept of continuing legal education got left behind. Today, they recognize the same rule applies to the so-called “softer” skills that may have been downplayed by the profession in the past.

Torys isn't a huge consumer of consultants on most fronts, says Hoyt. The exception is professional development. “I have a roster of people in and around the city, and we sometimes bring people in from the US,” she explains. “If there is anything we can do to make our people better or more effective, it's a worthwhile investment.”

The downturn hasn't affected Torys' use of these service providers. “If anything, we've probably used them more in the last two years,” Hoyt says. She doesn't make a link to the recession, but rather to the continuing need to build on people's strengths. “I've given up on trying to fix people's weaknesses over the years,” she quips. “We zero in on what they're really good at and try to make them even better at it.” Fiscal constraint means that she's less likely to bring in New York coaches — a trend that's been decreasing over the past few years anyway with the proliferation and increase in the sophistication of Canadian consultants.

One area in which Hoyt regularly deploys consultants is communication and presentation skills training. It's not just for lawyers who present papers or give speeches. Increasingly, when a team is putting together a pitch, they work through it with a presentation expert.

Younger and Older Clients

One of Hoyt's favourites in this area is Trevor Currie of Podium Consulting. Currie's been working in the business-law space since 1999. His Bay Street law-firm client roster, in addition to Torys, includes Blakes, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, Goodmans LLP, Gowlings, McCarthy Tétrault and Stikeman Elliott LLP. Currie works in a very narrow niche: presentation and oral communication. And while the services he offers haven't changed substantially over the past 11 years, his consumers in the legal market have.

They've gotten younger. And older. “Initially, the demand was most likely from the people in the transition between senior associate and becoming a partner,” says Currie. “Then, after these young partners went through the training, they realized, ‘I wish I had these skills when I was a mid-level associate.'” Currie would then be retained to train the mid-level associates, at least some of whom would then note, “There are some of these things that are applicable from day one on the job.” As a result, Currie's program is now part of Blakes' national training week for first-year associates as well as its national training week for senior associates.

A funny thing happens at the firms where all the young people get trained in presentation skills — and appreciate and apply that training. “As word starts to spread through the firm, a senior partner who has a big presentation coming decides he or she wants to improve those skills,” says Currie. And another. That snowball effect has had Podium Consulting train all of the lawyers at one of Toronto's premier litigation boutiques, all the way up to the venerable letterhead partners.

His clientele's initially decreasing age did not surprise Currie: he thinks what he sells definitely does apply from day one on the job. The senior people's growing appetite for his services, however, was a surprise, although he thinks it shouldn't have been. “It's all about pushing strengths and investing in strengths,” he says. “There's a great halo effect that comes from being able to pull off a great presentation. We need look no further than the current president of the US. When you can speak well, people assume you can pull off all sorts of other things.” Win their case. Close their deal. Move their strategy forward.
That, ultimately, is what it's all about, regardless of which niche the service provider is filling.

For John Coleman, Managing Partner of Ogilvy Renault, giving the Calgary recruitment mandate to Pekarsky was all about closing the deal (with the desired laterals) and achieving the firm's big-picture strategic goals. “This was an intense project, very different than saying to a recruiter, ‘Please find us another banking lawyer,'” says Coleman. To be effective, Pekarsky had to “really become part of the global strategy.”

It's a trend that has spread across the recruitment field, notes Lorene Nagata of NagataConnex Executive Legal Search. While she says that not much has changed in recruitment over the years and that NagataConnex isn't expanding its scope of services, clients increasingly touch base to “ask for advice, how they should proceed in building out departments or how they should direct a person's career.” In other words, how to bring the recruiter into the strategic fold (if they weren't already doing so before).

Carrie Heller agrees. She's been active in the legal recruitment field for 11 years and running The Heller Group, based in Toronto, for five. She has seen recruitment legitimized: “Firms that 10 or even five years ago would say they'd never use recruiters, they prefer to find their own people — most of them are using recruiters now. It's accepted, it's the norm,” she says. But as it's become “the norm” among all tiers of firms, it's changed how both recruiters and law firms approach it. It's not just about putting bums in seats, or as Heller more diplomatically puts it, “just sending in candidates.”

“We really have to understand what they are looking for, both from a technical and a cultural standpoint,” she says. “We develop relationships with particular firms and become almost a partner in their recruitment strategy.” And to be a partner in the recruitment strategy, one has to have a very good grasp of the big picture and what the service provider's role in implementing it is expected to be.

That's how Hendin differentiates himself from the pack in the high end of the public-relations field, dominated by national and international firms. “I focus on strategy and implementation, and people hire me because I will integrate the strategy,” he says, across all relevant platforms.

Investing in Business Skills

Not your father's Chevrolet … er, service provider. But then, this isn't your father's marketplace either. “The law-firm business has changed significantly since the current law-firm leaders were going up through the ranks,” says Coleman.

And no one's predicting a coming age of stasis. The profession will get more complex, more competitive, and its stars more concerned with differentiating themselves with their “softer” skills in additional to their technical legal skills.

It's become cliché to say that technical skills are a given: they get you to the table, and that's all. Part two of the cliché: to get to the top, you need to differentiate yourself. Currie has been hearing that mantra from managing partners of law firms for years. But now they're actively doing something about it. “They are increasingly interested in investing in business skills to help differentiate themselves, build relationships and gain recognition in the marketplace,” he says.

Good news for law-firm service providers able to help them build those skills — but they have to deliver. “The expectations are higher on both sides,” says Elliot. Service providers now expect clients to give them more information, to plug them into the wider business strategy. In return, clients expect the service providers to deliver the goods. Or else.

Sound familiar? Law firms' clients have a similar attitude. Pekarsky's betting the concern law firms harbour over that attitude – and if they're not concerned about it, they should be – will be what really lets him take flight in 2010 and beyond.

“Client satisfaction is the next frontier,” he says. “Professional service firms tend to think that as long as the client pays the bill and doesn't complain, then they must be happy.” The larger law firms have started to “police themselves” and follow up with clients, but “it's like going to the dentist — no one does it as much as they should.”

Van Dyke agrees. She's packaging her client-satisfaction service as “Clientspeak.” She believes it will be the “next big thing” law firms will focus on. But like all new frontiers, it will take “a few brave souls” to pioneer it.

“We know clients are open to hearing from other firms,” she says. “They're not as loyal to their top two, three firms.” Indeed, the fact that they have two or three – or more – “top” firms tells you something about their take on loyalty. “And law firms are often afraid of getting into conversations with clients about why they use the firms they do, or under what circumstances they'd consider taking on another firm. They're afraid — afraid of the perceived risk of losing that work. But we need to have those conversations, and while we have them, we need to be asking ourselves and the clients how we can get more of that work.”

It's the kind of approach that has worked phenomenally well for law-firm service providers, the most successful of which have managed to perceive and create needs in their markets of choice long before their clients – the law firms – realized they even had them.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based freelance writer.