UK firms are going to have to get much smarter. We cannot continue to pretend that the laws of modern business success do not apply to us.
That means looking at what practices at and professional service providers home and abroad do to grow and develop new business. We need some sort of bench-marking to find out the best possible professional practice and apply it to the various parts of our business.
Legal practices have to provide legal advice, but they also need to understand the human resource techniques that can get the best out of their staff.
They have to understand the processes of selling, targeting, marketing, client care, training, general management, financial awareness, and business planning. In all these areas, best practice can be helpful. It means looking not just within the UK, but, increasingly, beyond the UK.
If we were interested in developing a divorce practice in the UK, for example, it would make a lot of sense to ask how they do it in the US, where divorce litigation is much more prevalent.
It may also be that a particular firm is not active in an area it ought to be – environmental law for instance. But the penny might drop if they were to speak to a US practice.
It means thinking about what can be learnt from commercial organisations. When Hanson took over Imperial Tobacco, its chief executive despatched employees worldwide to investigate tobacco factories and discover the best way to make cigarettes economically.
Look at how successful BT is in marketing its products at the moment. It appears to be inspired by the marketing ideas filtering through from its tie-up with MCI.
So why shouldn't a law firm look around for the best marketing firms internationally, and try to gain inspiration from their methods?
Marketing will be of growing importance to UK practices, just as it will be for foreign firms, which increasingly have the ability to provide services within the UK or services to UK clients.
The UK must look around, see what foreign lawyers are up to, and make sure they are not being left behind. Some firms, of course, are already addressing much of this agenda. But too few have yet taken it on board in any systematic way.
One obstacle is the lawyer's traditional reluctance to go along and ask a competitor or a potential competitor: "How do you do that?"
First, there is a feeling that they will not be given the information. Second, there is a fear that asking the question will be displaying weakness and ignorance. And there is a general reluctance to be exposed to that sort of dialogue out of a fear of feeling inferior.
But part of the business of running a firm is good marketing. If you feel you are not good at this, the inferiority will come to the surface anyway.
In our case, we have been looking around at the way major operations brand themselves. In our rebranding last May, we replaced all our materials, including stationery. All our documents are now produced in accordance with formatting guidelines.
Does it work? Liam Kane, chief executive of the Scottish Daily Record, has recently expressed admiration at the confidence of our new branding and marketing materials. Coming from one of our major clients – one heavily involved in marketing – is extremely encouraging.
From a firm in the US we have picked up the idea of having a partner who is responsible for maintaining and developing a business relationship with a number of clients.
We are also finding that chief executives involved in the client care exercise are themselves spending time in consultative meetings designed to develop the relationship. We have also imported the idea of a management training programme for all our lawyers which covers client care, sales and marketing over a two year period.
All firms should be scanning the most professional service providers in the world and be looking to see what they are doing to develop themselves in each of their core areas. It is better to pick two or three to concentrate upon.
It seems to me you need an expansionist approach, combined with humility.
Unless you are looking at international best practice, and are listening to the experience of the pace-setters, you cannot be at the forefront of whatever your service discipline is – and you are never going to get there.