Talk of focus is just tunnel vision

Focus. For those of us of a certain age this may well bring back memories of a certain Dutch rock band from the early 1970s. However, in more recent years it is a word applied to law firms in enough articles and consultants reports to make a significant dent in the Amazonian rainforests. To survive, let alone succeed, we read, a firm must have focus. Without it, the mantra goes, we risk ruin, particularly if the firm is medium-size and not one of the club seeking the holy grail of being the premier global law firm.

What does it mean to have focus? If it means being specialised as a lawyer then it is accurate but, dare one say, rather obvious. Clients naturally demand not only a lawyer with a depth of knowledge in their subject, but also one who knows their business or personal circumstances thoroughly. In these days of information overload, these expectations alone require the lawyer to be focused in that sense.

However, the advocates of focus do not stop there. It is the firm, not the lawyer, which is to have it. What then does that involve? Knowing what you are good at? Sticking to the knitting? No, the call for re-engineering is heard. If the firm is not focused then make it so, even if it involves radical change.

Is there not a lesson to be learnt here from history? Does anyone remember the late 1980s? Times were good, the economy was strong and various well-known firms made decisions as to the type of work they should retain or jettison, which they soon came to regret. The much-vaunted recession of a year ago may not have arrived, but it would be a brave strategy, to say the least, for a firm with strengths in various areas to choose now to slim down that portfolio.

As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of focus for focus' sake, particularly when the concept is then used to question the future viability of medium-size firms. If your firm has a good name, acknowledged strengths and is in a position to capitalise in growth areas I do not believe sleep should be lost worrying whether this exhibits enough focus.

Of course, resources must not be spread too thinly. Naturally, decisions about a firm's future direction must be consistent with past and present strategies as well as being taken after thinking through carefully what the future may hold.

Are these merely worthy aspirations you wonder? Am I talking “motherhood and apple pie” here? Well, the evidence of successful medium-size firms is there for all to see and shows no sign of being an idea that has had its time. Success comes from being able to offer a personal service at an experienced level and that can and is delivered by the successful medium-size firm on a daily basis.

So, the next time that a firm is criticised for a lack of focus, ask the question “what does that mean?”. As for the long-heralded demise of the medium-size firm, to paraphrase the words of Mark Twain, who read his obituary in the paper: “Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.”

Grant Howell is managing partner at Charles Russell.