Sunday, 10 June 2012

Elizabeth Ferguson




How well do lawyers deal with uncertainty?  An interesting question raised by Elizabeth Ferguson of change management consultants Crelos at a very thought-provoking panel discussion they hosted last week.  The event formed part of the consultancy’s Change Mastery Series, focussed particularly on the professions and designed to drive debate on the latest theories, models, tools and techniques of change.  Well of course the legal profession needs all the help it can get in this area, given that lawyers at every level of the market and across all disciplines (barristers as well as solicitors) are facing more change now than at any other time previously.
We are all familiar with the maxim that in today’s business world "change is constant", ie that a state of change is no longer an exceptional event, but the norm.  Crelos even talk about the issue of "change fatigue", how people are becoming dulled to the idea of change as the stimulus is so constant, and how this can get in the way of innovation if not addressed.  But in the legal profession we are experiencing change not only in this sense of continual evolution, but also as "revolution" as well, following deregulation in the form of The Legal Services Act which now allows legal services to be delivered by Alternative Business Structures, paving the way for  all manner of creative alternatives to the traditional partnership structure or classic barrister offering. Indeed new weird and wonderful ABSs seem to be popping up almost on a weekly basis: we now have our first listed law firm in the UK after the merging of English stalwart Russell Jones & Walker and Australian firm Slater & Gordon; and I recently blogged about the astonishing news that haulage company Eddie Stobart is getting in to the business of law; and last week’s big ABS news was that newly launched fixed-price legal offering Riverview Law is opening in New York.  

Elizabeth shared with us some conclusions drawn from recent research interviews she has conducted among senior executives in professional services firms.  She began with the observation that many professional firms remain steeped in history and tradition, working within a culture that emphasises cooperation and a collegiate approach which has many advantages, but which is not generally helpful in promoting dynamism and transformation at pace, she says.  

"The professions contain some of the most intelligent high achievers in the world of business.  So why do they find change so difficult?  The short answer is, because they are made up of human beings.  Managing change is about far more than just changing structures: the real difference between failure and success is most often the extent to which you are able to change behaviours, ie get people to think and do things differently.  And that is inherently difficult; as famed organisational psychologist Elliott Jaques put it so eloquently, "It is precisely the uncertainty inherent in human work, the feeling of never being quite sure, that makes you close your eyes and agonise over decisions".  And this is why even the most intelligent people will balk at change, preferring to stay in denial, resist, put up walls, etc.   Another main barrier is of course "group think", that classic feature of group behaviour where individuals’ desire for harmony within the group holds them back from properly challenging each other’s ideas and realistically assessing alternatives.  If I have one message for the professions, it is to have confidence in your abilities to deal with change; you do have many of the tools: you have particularly strong skill sets in analysing data, weighing up evidence and coming to judgements. The challenge is to be brave in applying all this when it comes to your own business and your own individual position in a fast-changing market - and to know when to bring in help from the experts with some of the softer skills challenges!"

For more detail on Elizabeth’s research of business leaders in professional firms and how they see the impact of the changing regulatory and economic climate on their businesses, click here

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It's good to be reminded there's still heroism in journalism, particularly at a time when the Leveson Inquiry has brought the reputation of the media to an all-time low. Attending the Amnesty Media Awards made me think about the power of the media in a whole new light. In contrast to the jaded view of the press we are inevitably left with, watching the sordid detail of dodgy press practices that emerge through the inquiry process, the journalists celebrated in these Awards all have a strong conscience and are driven by impulses you could be forgiven for thinking were outmoded in our cynical media age: the relentless pursuit of truth; the need to tell the stories that oppressive regimes are trying to hide. And some of these journalist will risk even life and limb in this pursuit. 

Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, whom I blogged about earlier this year (26 Feb 2012 see second story) after her death by shellfire in Syria, received a posthumous award. It was collected on her behalf by her photographer colleague Paul Conroy who was wounded in the same attack that claimed her life. He limped on to the stage to collect the award on crutches and with various wires and tubes peering out from under his clothing and joked how Marie's 'infectious bravery' hadn't been such good news for him, particularly from his family's point of view.

For more information on the Awards, check out the live tweets from the event. 

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This week I've been at the Hay Literary Festival on the Welsh/English border, enjoying a wide range of speakers from  the world of books, screenwriting and music. For many years Hay was sponsored by The Guardian but these days it's supported by the Telegraph. Before I headed off for the festival a chum from the Sunday Telegraph told me over lunch that the atmosphere was rather tense the first year the Telegraph took over, a good number of literary professionals and stars even choosing to boycott their party they were so upset The Guardian had been usurped. The Guardian readership must surely be the largest represented at Hay of all the broadsheets after all. (Me? I'm not particular of course, having a professional interest in reading across all the nationals every day and favouring the different titles for different types of coverage.) I understand relations are rather better now and everyone is only too appreciative of the Telegraph's generous continuing support of the arts in these austere times. 

The hottest ticket? Hard to choose, but in my view it was 'legendary punk poet and King of the performance stage' John Cooper Clarke. Tickets sold out very quickly but we booked ours early (*smug*).  He didn't disappoint. There was lots more to enjoy. If you're interested, you can check out the lineup here.

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