How a Danish law firm used creative to boost billings
This article is an excerpt from In The Shower with Picasso, Sparking your Creativity and Imagination, by Christian Stadil and Lene Tanggaard. The book explores how creativity is far from being a mystical, rare luxury and skill, but something that every business is capable of sparking. Stadil is owner of the sports and fashion brand Hummel and Tanggaard is professor of psychology at the University of Aalborg, Denmark. If you like the excerpt, you can buy the book here.
We visit the LETT legal practice on a hot August day. LETT has more than 350 employees, with branches in Copenhagen and two large Danish towns. The firm’s Copenhagen office is on City Hall Square, and we have got an appointment on the spot with business development manager Michael Valentin and trade organization manager Øyvind Fagerstrand.
As we enter the building housing the law firm, there is no way of sensing that we are on our way up to Denmark’s most innovative lawyers.
Though everything looks a bit grey, the view is pretty, and the coffee is exceptionally fine and strong. Michael Valentin has been at the centre of the legal practice’s transformation and has sought to turn the practice into a sort of consultancy, with more focus on sales and on-site work at customers’ businesses. Michael describes it as a question of being first movers, of resisting the traditional professional culture and breaking down the barriers between sales and marketing disciplines on the one hand and “pure” legal work – the company’s traditional business area – on the other.
The interview thus represents a story of how one can lead the way when creative processes concern working on developing the business itself and not just on something that could be pleasant to have in addition to that which already exists (for instance, pool tables, soft pillows, or a pottery club).
In 2010, the LETT law firm was voted Denmark’s most innovative legal services provider by the Association of Danish Law Firms. The company won the award – and the DKK 125,000 prize – for its project on “Corporate Branding for Personal Sales”.
The office has offered all partners individual coaching sessions focused on sales. This has been a voluntary scheme, and initially one partner who wished to participate was sought from each department. The idea was that, if this individual had a good experience, he or she would act as an ambassador to the other partners.
This is thus a story of how growth in the legal sector can be achieved via sales if one systematically trains lawyers to consider the needs of the customer and to think proactively relative to the market.
The courage to be creative
Michael begins the interview by stating that creativity is not the kind of thing with which lawyers normally concern themselves and that it has a hint of long hair and sandals about it. Nevertheless, he says:
“In ten years, law firms will need to look completely different, with less focus on legal issues and more on solutions. That’s why it’s enticingly necessary for us to actually try to be creative and clamber down from that judicial pedestal. And my advantage is definitely that I don’t see myself as a lawyer. I simply use my own experiences as having been a customer of lawyers. You could call it user-driven innovation.
“At any rate, I could see that things could be done differently,” he continues and he is convinced that, in the future, law firms will need to reach out beyond their safety zone for customers if they wish to prevent them from choosing competitors instead. “I make a lot of use of my experience as a customer, where it’s the solution that counts.
“And it’s been hard work even if it looks easy on the surface. And we’d never have achieved anything if it had been based on teamwork from the start. So I had to make the first move and show the lawyers step by step that we could get better at doing things differently. When the process gradually began bearing results, then the lawyers also got that faith that it could be OK to get stuck in for the next phase as well.”
Creativity cannot always be constructed from the inside but sometimes requires that new perspectives on the work be provided from an alternative source. In this case, the perspective is that of the customer. As Michael emphasizes, the primary problem is that customers want solutions whereas lawyers are preoccupied with legal matters. He also stresses that teamwork would not have been effective in the introductory phases: the lawyers would presumably have been too good at this, and ideas would have been shot down and rejected on the basis of good arguments. As a result, it was necessary for the process to show early results. Everyone wants changes to be attractive, and in the world of law firms, attractiveness rests in bringing in business.
Too many lawyers spoil the work
It is interesting to hear that teamwork is not always the way forward when it comes to creative processes. Teamwork can ensure co-ownership and a diversity of perspectives regarding a problematic situation, but it can also prevent progress and act as a hindrance in those phases when the necessity of change is not particularly obvious.
“We’ve worked both bottom up and top down with our creative process. Many of our partners have had all sorts of things on their mind, but there comes a time when we just need to put a hold on some projects and say, ‘OK, now we’re moving on.’ But it’s all about starting to deliver results. Then they can see what it’s about. Here it’s about numbers – you need to show them first. We also made use of auto-communication in the form of success in media stories and advertisements so we could contribute to internal pride. Then the lawyers could suddenly see themselves out there: ‘Hey, that’s us.’ I wanted them to be more outward looking. The lawyers represent a monoculture. As the saying goes, they’re married to each other and to their work.”
The aim was to convince the lawyers that sales were interesting and to do so by quite simply showing results. “You shouldn’t start with the project plan but by showing results,” says Michael. He also notes that this is particularly important for the less extroverted lawyers, who need to be able to see themselves and win self-confidence through positive responses from media appearances and customer feedback on the good stories. And over time, a fantastic response actually did emerge to what was being done.
“In the start, it was about the process of identifying our values and developing some hypotheses as to what they were. For that work, I sat down with the management, and we had this process where we worked together to define our values by slowly circumscribing them. It was quite informal but still very professional. A lot of people still get this glazed look in their eyes when we talk about values though. They need to see something first, for instance our pamphlets. It has to be concrete for them. So the point is that it’s about starting with some good results, pointing the way, and then quickly showing some more new results.”
Michael wanted to have the lawyers on board for the idea that they were selling a product to a customer. He thus implemented a message training process, grounded in the principle that, when interacting with the customer, the lawyer needs to be able to clearly communicate exciting stories about the work. This is not necessarily easy for lawyers who are trained in delving down into complex problems and who perhaps even work best with a more professionally introverted approach.
Even though we are not discussing extreme creativity here, it is clear that Michael’s ideas were new to the lawyers, who were unwilling to accept them without good reason. They needed concrete results and feedback first.
Michael explains that they also began measuring the company’s familiarity ratings, and as these increased, the lawyers were able to see that the ideas in question perhaps were not so crazy after all. Creativity is not just a matter of throwing out wild ideas but is also about realizing new ideas in a given social practice. And Michael does not feel that one can begin a creative process by presenting a project proposal. Instead, it is results that motivate and inspire – at a law firm at any rate.
Obstacles on the courseThe process has not been without its complexities. Michael admits that he had not foreseen the extent to which some of the lawyers would struggle to master it.
“But for me, it was a question of being proud of the values we actually have. We have some customers who choose us because we do something different. We have more fun. We’re informal, and we approach one another directly. It’s always been like that. The only thing that’s new, really, is that we’ve become conscious of this and use it as a sort of parameter of competitiveness.”
Creative processes can clarify that which already exists and can contribute to making existing skills and values more obvious – including those of mood and informality. The aim has also been to show that the change was not necessarily extreme but instead involved a clarification of existing values. At the same time, it is difficult to become something that one is not, so the idea of turning the lawyers into pure salespeople would have been an unrealistic goal in the first instance.
Yet Michael also stresses that the work has been challenging because the message training process and the unanticipated activity contributed to signalling that “those who go out and fetch the food are more important than those who’ve prepared it.” It has been made clear that the social and creative skills deployed when dealing with customers are those that make the difference. Those lawyers who are professionally skilled at law but lack social skills have had a harder time of it. Instead, it was only those who were interested who attended the sales courses – in the hope that they would later act as culture bearers. The balancing act thus consisted of reaching those who wanted more of a sales orientation while ensuring a place for those lawyers who were more at home behind a desk than meeting with customers – or as Michael puts it, “to create a mutual understanding between ‘hunters’ and ‘farmers’ at the company.”
Leadership of creative processes
During the interview, Michael shows a keen awareness of both the partners’ and his own roles in the process. “We’re really bad at celebrating our successes,” he says. “I sometimes felt just completely worn down. I’ve been on the verge of conking out.” Michael explains that he was sometimes basically the only one to believe in the process and that he could have used some support. Supportive individuals can be vital for truly spreading a creative culture.
“I wanted the partners to be culture bearers and to get them to understand that they were the leaders, the ones setting the tone, and that their behaviour would make our goals clear. It’s not something to which they’d ever attributed much importance. It was simply a matter of skilled lawyers becoming managers.”
So the process itself created a sort of awareness of the leadership role for both the partners and for Michael himself. He emphasizes that, if he did it all over again, he would seek to secure more involvement and co-ownership but that he remains convinced that the key is to present results and maintain a large degree of top-down management. Michael has, however, learned that he needs to ensure that those who are involved gain a sense of co-ownership over the idea.
“We don’t view ourselves as creative, and as far as I’m concerned, we don’t need to be. We’re business people who are driven by the market to think in new ways.”
Michael Valentin is in no doubt that he is a businessman who makes use of creative resources to achieve his goals. He has understood the importance of creativity in today’s complex workplaces, has diagnosed a complex problem (customer focus is too low among lawyers), and has managed to effectively respond to the demands of the future. He has also formulated a visionary strategy, considered what is possible in practice, and made important choices about how and when to involve employees in decision making. “In 2020, a law firm will be something completely different to what it is today. More customer, less client. More solution, less law.”
We have learned from LETT and Michael Valentin that leaders need to take the lead in creative work. Maybe there is even a degree of “fake it till you make it” at play.
It is about beginning to act like someone who is creative, especially if you wish to create a more creative and innovative company and organization.