Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Lonely Snowman

I had a conversation with a lonely snowman this week. Visiting the North of England, I met this forlorn figure, a white silhouette marked out alone on the wintry horizon, his frosty cheeks smudged charcoal grey with tears as he bemoaned the loss of this friends and remembered good times past. 

Captive in his icy garden on a hill, he turned wistful as he regaled me with stories of the friends he used to make in bygone times, over the fence in the next-door school yard.

“A new snowman would appear every winter day"he told me, "the children's busy hands creating in the snow every break time, and before and after school. We’d chat over the fence, the children running rings around us as they pulled their sledges, played sliding games on the ice and had snow ball fights that lasted until their little fingers turned numb in their wet mittens. We found it impossible not to smile, their excitement was so infectious. The sound of those mischievous little people laughing and playing in the snow brought on a glow warm enough to melt even our icy hearts.”

But the playground is deserted now, not a snowman in sight, despite inches of the white stuff, perfect for building with. Even the children have vanished. So where are they now? I ask. Why are you all alone?

“I blame the elf & safety killjoys!” he rages, his white face momentarily flashing red. Keep calm, I urge him. If you get too hot under the collar you’ll melt!

“The schools have not only banned snowball fights, but they now insist on keeping the children indoors when it’s icy out. Can you believe it?! They are so afraid of being sued for accidents if the children slip or trip.  But what about their childhood? They are missing out on what could be some of the most magical moments and memories of their lives. And what’s to become of me? A sad, lone snowman. The only one for miles around!”

I am so moved by his plight that I resolve to find a way to connect him with other snowmen again.  They are far fewer now, scattered sparsely across the landscape, but there must be some snow-cial media platform that could help put them in touch, surely? Ideas anyone?

And as for keeping our children safe, don't get me started!  What is this ridiculousness about a health & safety risk?  In robbing our children of such a key part of childhood fun, surely the far greater risk is in denying them a very basic human right! 

Don't listen to the killjoys.  Let's make the most of the festive fun.  'Tis the season to be jolly after all.  Merry Christmas everyone!  Happy Holidays!

              The Conversation is taking a break over the festive season,
                                        returning 12 January 2014

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Jo Worby

Jo Worby is one of those rare people in business who is more interested in talking about other people's success. She is also rare in being a female managing partner. She has developed ambitious plans for her law firm, Maidstone-based Brachers, since taking on the role and a lot of them are focussed on engaging the people in her business.

"A strategy has to be delivered through the people in a firm.  The legal profession is arguably facing its biggest challenge ever in terms of the changed business environment in the post-Legal-Services-Act world, with new types of competition in the form of Alternative Business Structures that lawyers have never had to face before" [new types of legal business often referred to as "Tesco Law" that are a far cry from traditional partnerships]. "We need people to adapt as we reposition upstream and focus on higher-value-add services and our sector specialisations, away from the volume businesses challenging high street firms. And we want our people to be excited by this challenge. There would be little point in me deciding on a new direction for the firm if nobody bought in to that. We simply wouldn't move very far forward. The key in my view is to involve everyone in the journey from the very outset, so we all share in the plan, all pull together in the same direction and all share the pride when it is successful."

And successful it most definitely has been, with Brachers involved in the most headline-grabbing deals, redevelopment projects and other initiatives this year in its chosen region (Kent and surrounding counties), including many that in previous years would naturally have gravitated to London firms: the sales of Kent Pharmaceuticals and Cambridge-based Digital Healthcare, also a key role in the high profile regeneration of Betteshanger colliery to create a world-leading green technology and R&D park, to name just a few. It's been a good year for Brachers.

Jo's emphasis on bringing everyone in the firm along with her, everyone working together on a shared vision, puts me in mind of a study shared on Twitter this week by Bird & Bird's Keith Hardie, revealing how seldom employees know their employers' strategies. The Towers Watson Global Workforce Study was profiled on the website of the International Association of Business Communicators in an article headed "Strategy minus Communications equals Suicide: what's the point of creating a strategy if nobody gets it". A subject very close to my heart as a communications professional: communication is absolutely vital to strategic success.

The study surveyed 32,000 employees worldwide and rather alarmingly found that only 34% said they could articulate their company's strategic goals. And when those 34% were asked to articulate those goals, 51% got them wrong! O dear. So if so few understand their companies' strategies, how on earth can they be expected to implement them on the ground effectively??

For Jo, it's not just the people inside the business that pre-occupy her, but elsewhere too. She once described Brachers' business to me as "legal expertise delivered through people and for people" and this speaks volumes about her approach. "As a partnership we need to concentrate on getting the relationship bit right", she tells me, "...relationships with clients, with staff..and with each other. And this emphasis on relationships needs to be shared by everyone in the firm. We need to listen closely to what our clients are saying to us to understand what is really important to them. Equally, we need to listen to staff and colleagues, perhaps even listen to ourselves a bit better, to understand what motivates us all to do our absolute best in and for the business. If we can unlock these secrets we will be able to put so much more in to achieving our common goals.

"We have some clear financials goals too, so it's not just about the soft stuff. These are essential for achieving our growth plan in the ever-changing legal landscape. Honing our services around where we know we add most value to clients is central to this, hence the importance if listening to them! They tell us it's our deep sector expertise and also the level of engagement with clients that delivers them the most value-add. We are known for being highly creative in the way we apply our legal expertise to find solutions to clients' commercial problems...and at the same time for having stringent supervision and management controls to sanity-check this creative thinking. A compelling combination, as one client put it.

"So we know what clients prize in our work for them. And we need to keep feeding this back to everyone in the business, making sure everyone is crystal clear what makes the difference from the clients' point of view."

This chimes with another conversation I had this week, with Riverview Law's @Jezhop who talked to me about "Moments of Truth": the interactions in the customer experience that are the most important to them.

2013 has been a stellar year for Brachers under Jo's leadership. Given her skill for inspiring and engaging those around her, the future for Brachers looks even brighter.

We all enjoyed another classic from Legal Cheek this week, who shared with us his bizarre find of the US divorce attorneys named after iconic indie band Joy Division and using the strap line (of course) "Love will tear you apart".  His Twitter pic of the firm's logo, and suggestion that more firms should be named after bands, was retweeted over 250 times within the first few hours of posting, sparking the inevitable Twitter repartee including such choice gems as "Do they go to court and ask for a new order?"  Nice one @jezrobson.

So come on then, what other bands do we think should be commandeered as legal brands? Insolvency specialists Dire Straits? Wills and estate planning boutique Megadeath? You must have played this game before, so let us know your best selection.  
Are you all set for the release of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues? With three teenagers in the family it's big news in our house and we have our VIP tickets booked for the release date at our local Vue. 

I've particularly enjoyed the creative promotional campaign for the film, from the Movember-perfect posters at the start of the push (see pictured); to the viral video of the four 
lead actors' a capella rendition of Afternoon Delight at the Sydney premiere. (If you're a fan of the first film you'll understand the significance); to the inspired tie-up with Virgin trains, bringing Ron Burgundy's voice to a series of special onboard train announcements, brightening up the daily commute for legions of work-weary passengers in the week running up to the release.

Just hope the film can live up to all this wonderfully inventive hype. I'm optimistic. Should be a perfect way to fire up the festive family fun :)  Ho ho ho.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Chris Swart

I was interested to know HFW partner Chris Swart's thoughts on the sad passing of Nelson Mandela, given his South African background.  I discovered only recently that Chris studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar [for those of you that may not know, this is considered by many, including Time, Yale and Associated Press, to be "the world's most prestigious scholarship"] "...  and that his family were leading opponents of the apartheid regime [his father was one of the founders. with Helen Suzman, of the Progressive Party] and Chris and his brothers left South Africa in the 1980s in difficult circumstances. As a student leader at the University Natal in 1980 Chris hosted what was then only the second Free Mandela campaign protest meeting in the country, at the very beginning of that campaign with Bishop Tutu and his daughter Zindzi.  Since 1990 Chris has returned to South Africa regularly and currently spends several months a year there.

So how does he feel about the death of Mandela? Could he put into words what this exceptional man meant to him and his family and his experience of South Africa?  How does he see the post-Mandela future?
"Growing up in an anti-apartheid family in 60s and 70s Nelson Mandela was mainly a mythical figure, (though I used to listen avidly to accounts from Helen Suzman of brief meetings with him on Robben Island), and we did not expect him to be released in his lifetime.  At the same time he was demonised as a "terrorist" by the apartheid government and this was ingrained in the belief systems of most whites.  What he achieved in directing the negotiated end to apartheid (again much much earlier than expected even in the 80s) ; a peaceful transition to democracy (which seemed impossible for most of the previous three decades); establishment of the rainbow nation upon a foundation of reconciliation, which he embodied, as well as massive economic growth and regeneration, is remarkable beyond description and certainly the beyond even the remotest expectations I or anyone else had prior to his release.  
"Whilst he endured 27 years in prison we are fortunate that he had nearly 25 years to establish his legacy after his release.   My impression is that it is now thoroughly ingrained in South African society; his sad passing has been anticipated and factored in for some time and I do not expect much, if anything to change in South Africa as a result of his death.  Crises will come and go, but the country and its people will endure as they always have. It will remain a stunning, fascinating and dynamic  part of the world."

I've known of Chris's market-leading commodities expertise for some time (he heads the
Commodities team at HFW and is a very well known figure in the industry).  But his professional biography, whilst detailing his legal and market expertise very well, gives hardly anything away about his colourful background.

When I spoke to Chris, he had just secured a highly unusual freezing order against a number of Syria's leading business figures on behalf of the world's biggest commodities company. It is believed to be a legal first, in that the application for the freezing order was granted on top of a government sanctions order already in place.  His successful court application was a real coup. As a legal marketeer I was interested to know the story of how he has got to this point, ie how he has developed such a formidable practice and team.

Before his time at HFW, Chris headed the shipping team at legacy firm
Lovells which he brought with him when he moved to HFW in the 1990s.  He is famous for re-shaping the team and its expertise since then into a commodities practice which now leads the market.  I asked him to talk me through the transition.

After I joined HFW, it became clear not only that the firm needed to broaden its base from shipping and insurance, but that the very nature of shipping and commodities businesses was changing.  Our clients' interests and opportunities were broadening and we needed to understand this dynamic, respond and anticipate the next stages of these markets' development.  Whereas once shipping was limited to the transportation of goods around the globe, now our clients are involved in all aspects of international commerce: from the extraction of raw materials; to the multimodal transportation of those physical commodities to ports; to the shipping of those commodities around the world; to the regulation controlling their sale in end markets; to the commercial deals surrounding the various elements in this end-to-end process and the associated insurance, finance and derivative products that have grown up around it.  This is what was behind my drive to expand our legal practice from shipping to commodities and HFW was an excellent platform from which to do this. My partners and colleagues all have intimate knowledge of the different aspects of international commerce and so we are able to offer a very joined-up approach. The last couple of decades has told a story of changing opportunity. Our pedigree in this part of the business world, and our detailed knowledge of the markets concerned, means we have been perfectly positioned to add significant value to clients’ activities."

Genning up on the history of Rhodes Scholarships I read "For more than a century, Rhodes scholars have left Oxford with virtually any job available to them. For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military, and public service. They have reached the highest levels in virtually all fields."  Chris Swart has been able to call the shots in his career quite clearly. Given his areas of interest, and given what I have learned over the last seven years about this excellent firm and its dedicated and thoughtful approach to its very specialised markets, I'm not at all surprised Chris has found his natural home at HFW.
The highlight of the week has to be our Christmas party in...drum roll...Paris! On Wednesday we all took off on Eurostar for a #KysenDayOut in the City of Lights. We had our celebratory lunch at Cafe Marly facing the Louvre (the world's most visited gallery I am told). A well deserved trip for all the Kysen team, all of whom have worked incredibly hard and effectively this year. (And I'd like to point out this was less expensive than taking everyone to Manchester, which would have been equally lovely in its own way).

The joke of the day was a news exposé that good looking diners in French restaurants get better tables. According to the Daily Mail, guests at Paris restaurants are seated following a strict "appearance policy". Our very own Cafe Marly was cited as a prime example! Where were we sat? Were we offered the best seats in the house?!

You shouldn't expect anything less from your favourite PR consultants ;)
Another highlight for me was the "Surrealism and the Object" exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, which I caught the following day. Some amazing pieces there from the likes of Man RayMarcel Duchamp, Dali, among many others.

I have always been quite taken by Duchamp's idea of positioning an everyday object, famously a urinal or spade, in a new context as a "ready made" sculpture, this simple presentation pointing out the natural absurdity in our lives. 

The surrealists' obsession with dolls and mannequins required a strong stomach at times, reaching into our memories of nightmares for a response. Best of all in my view was Dali's Lobster Telephone. Amazing to see it in real life...or in surreal life I should say.

Monday, 2 December 2013

David Johnson

Double congratulations to Weightmans' David Johnson on his appointment as FOIL President this week, as both Weightmans and FOIL are long-standing clients. He is one of the youngest ever FOIL presidents and takes up the role at one of the most challenging times the association has faced, with the upheaval and pace of change in the insurance sector showing no sign of abating. As his new role was reported in the media he stressed his determination to fight the defendant lawyers' corner, at the same time as looking to increase opportunities to collaborate with claimant organisations such as APIL and MASS. This got my attention and keen to know more, I asked to speak to him about it. 

"I'm a firm believer in the "win:win" proposition. Yes, sometimes you absolutely do have to fight, but many times in business there are solutions to be found working together rather than immediately taking an adversarial approach. It's particularly true I believe when it comes to the challenges in the insurance industry. Rather than perpetuating the "them and us" between the defendant and claimant communities, I believe there's a lot to be gained by working on the common ground. And there's more commonality than you might think: for example at the end of the day all sides want to see less money wasted in cumbersome administrative processes, less money drained from the pot by fraudsters and more money going to genuine victims so they are properly compensated according to what they deserve. So plenty we can all work together on. 

"The efficiency point is particularly key in my view, especially since we now have a new norm of fixed fees for claimants in the same way we have had for defendants for a number of years. On the defendant side of personal injury claims, efficiency has long been inherently linked to profitability because our insurer clients have insisted we work on a fixed fee basis. By contrast, claimant lawyers have until very recently worked on an hourly rate basis, so there has been no incentive in the system to keep cases simple and hours down (although good claimant lawyers have always sought to conclude cases quickly, so their clients can be compensated as soon as possible.) Now our business models are more aligned, both sides working on fixed fees (and I expect claimant law firms about to face the same "consolidation" in the industry that defendant firms went through some years ago), we share more affinity than ever before. This has got to promote a better understanding between us and be good for future collaboration.  I'm very optimistic: I can see great opportunities for ever closer working and some exciting solutions being created as a result. It falls upon organisations such as APIL, MASS and FOIL to exploit those opportunities for the common good of their respective members."

Good to know FOIL has appointed such a visionary as president at such a challenging time for the industry. I for one will be watching his lead...
Big excitement this week with the British Legal Awards. If you haven't caught up with the winners list, you can view it here. We were rooting for a number of friends: @HuronLegal, @LOD_Law, @Mayer_Brown_UK, Miranda Correia Amandoeira, Serle Court and @Weightmans.

Love how Legal Week's write-up of the event points everyone to the Twitter hashtag #BritishLegalAwards "to follow the reaction". Yet another example of how Twitter is changing news reporting.
"Selfie" is the new Word Of The Year according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here's the official definition: "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website." Love how the OED's language is still so "Radio 4" even when describing the latest social media memes.

What really tickled me was how the National Portrait Gallery jumped on the news this week to launch a campaign to "keep the world's most expensive selfie" in Britain: Van Dyck's 17th century self portrait. 12.5 million pounds is needed and the gallery is hoping to raise the money from the public: social media is playing a big part - a Twitter hashtag has been set up (#savevandyck) and 5 pound donations are being accepted by text. Love the Art Fund's comment on the campaign: "This is the only 12 million pound selfie in existence. We're bringing all the latest technology to bear on the campaign."