Monday, June 26, 2006

NOT for Sale!

When I meet with executives and attorneys to talk about how our firm has a positive, supportive culture with eight core values which are living and breathing I am often asked what I would do it we were approached by a firm who wanted to buy us out. I know where they are going with this question, because history shows that companies that grow by merger and acquisition often merge themselves out of being able to differentiate and are victims of what I call the "lowest common denominator effect." Our industry has seen extreme M&A activity in the past 15 years that has caused just that, which explains the difficulty that firms are having in differentiating their services from other firms as well as the perceived commoditization of legal services (after all, this business is about people). Just look back at the historic marriage of Coopers and Lybrant with Price Waterhouse. Coopers was larger by far than Price Waterhouse and Coopers had a positive and unique culture than was second-to-none. Price Waterhouse had a very competitive and distrusting culture. When they combined, which one of the cultures do you think infected and spread in the new organization? Of course, the negative one. This is the lowest common denominator effect at work. That being said, our firm is being built on a better way of doing business starting with a team of people who are happy, team-oriented, business savvy, and supportive. They are counting on their leaders to make decisions that preserve the culture of the firm they are integral in building. My first duty, above all, is to the great people that make Exemplar what it is today and which will no doubt continue to shape its future. For them and for you, I put the sign out in our yard that Exemplar is "NOT For Sale!" Money cannot buy the teamwork that happens when delivering on a complex client engagement, or the interest we take in advancing the personal lives of the people that make us "real." Perhaps the most important lesson is that money cannot buy the most important things in life . . . the things that make all of the difference. Money certainly can ruin it. As guardians of the vision, it is our promise not to lose sight of this reality as we continue to grow and expand.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Pour Your Heart Into It: How Exemplar is Building the Firm of the Future One Customer at a Time.

I was on the phone last night with a colleague at until about 3am talking about philosphies and principals that have shaped the Exemplar that exists today and that will continue to guide our future. She was exmplaining that her reasoning for joining Exemplar was, in part, because of the way I have "poured my heart and soul" into the business of building a better law firm than exists today. I also learned that another colleague was asked in an interview last week what the best thing about Exemplar was, to which she responded "Our People." I am reminded of the book "Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time," where the story of Starbucks is told from the beginning. I often reflect on the role and significance of passion in business. Before Starbucks, the coffee market was fully commoditized and there was no premium market for the beverage. The story of Starbucks is one of passionate businesspeople who poured their heart and soul into building a premium business in an commoditized industry that was suffering from intense competition, low margins, and a failure to competitively differentiate. As an interesting aside, I hosted a couple of European engineers at my home last week and after tasting coffee in America (not Starbuck, but Dunkin) they commented that "the reason American coffee is so terrible is because it is not made with any passion." Are you beginning to connect the dots? The legal industry is a maturing market that is facing more competition than ever, is perceived my many as a commodity, and suffers from a failure to competitively differentiate in the areas that made the great companies like Starbucks the success it is today (service, quality, and consistency across the organization). It is the passion for the product that keeps Starbucks customers (including myself) coming back again and again to pay premium prices for the Starbucks "experience."

I recall a critic arguing that people only care about price. If that were true, I probably would eat Sbarros "cardboard tasting" pizza. I was told by a famous author and dear friend of mine that "It is possible to make pizza so cheap that nobody wants to eat it." I cannot agree more. I went to a true Italian restaurant and watched a lifelong chef make a pizza from scratch. . . his playful and happy demeanor as he flipped and spun the dough in the air. . . his attention to every fine detail . . . his determination to make that round lump of generic ingredients into a masterpiece. . . I will tell you from the bottom of my hear that when I ate that very pizza I could taste the smile on his face, the passion for his product, and the heart and soul that turned mere dough into a masterpiece. When I go to Starbucks I "experience" the passion in the product, and it is because of these truths, so telling about life and the role of passion in business, that I am driven to pour my heart and soul into Exemplar. With passion I have never felt more fulfilled and driven to create an Exemplar Experience that will keep customers coming back for more. I look forward to having our customers fill in the blanks on the warning label in our engagement letter: "Warning, the passion in this legal product may cause . . . ."!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The True Meaning of Success

Success is an interesting word. We all seem to understand what it means, yet everyone I ask to define it uses a different description. As pioneers of a new model, albeit intuitive and proven in business, I recall lawyers asking questions about whether or not the model will be a success. This has prompted me to think deeply about the meaning of success. I cannot help but to think that the "success" as defined by the people posing the question is quite different from the definition from within the walls of Exemplar. The corporate legal industry tends to attract and retain destination-oriented talent (money, success, power). This model is perpetuated by firms that compete for talent on price and incentivize competitive individualistic behaviors, making the journey pure misery, but the destination a gold mine for the few who make it up the "up or out" pyramid scheme. Over time, journey-oriented attorneys leave seeking more fulfillment, meaning, and a better working environment. Since Exemplar is a journey firm, it would be incorrect to define success in destination-oriented terms. To the rest of the industry success may be defined as reaching $3 million in profits per partner or having the highest billable hour rates or even billable hour "quotas." Without a doubt, Exemplar has a different definition of success. For us, success is embracing the best practices that earned corporations "Employer of Choice" awards, setting the standard for customer service in a service industry where service is know to be lacking, creating a world-class work environment that puts the incentives in the right place and motivates the right behaviors, by leveraging our diversity of talents, knowledge, cultures, and interests to approach and serve markets that are inaccessible to a traditionally organized law firm, and (most important) making sure that every day our people wake up in the morning they know that there is no other place they would rather be serving clients than at Exemplar. By destination-oriented metrics Exemplar may have a long way to go, but by the metrics that mean everything to our people that get up every day and do what they do, sucess is not nearly so far. To some, we have already arrived.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Hearts and Minds of Our People

This week at an interview with an attorney candidate I distinctly recall a comment that he made about our people at the end of the interview. It was the end of the business day and, one by one over a 20 minute period, several of our team members passed by the conference room as they were leaving for the day. As usual, all passed by with a smile, a brief introduction to the candidate, and we exchanged our best wishes for the evening. The candidate told me that he hasn't seen so many happy people together in a very long time. I think deeply and often about why we wake up and do what we do every day at Exemplar. I think about the challenges of market leadership, understanding quite well that it involves swimming upstream (after all, only dead fish go with the current, right?) There are so many easier paths to take than to set out to change a paradigm. Why do we do it? Because of the hundreds of letters we get from people saying how refreshing it is to see a firm that cares enough to face, head on, the problems in our industry. . . because of the bloggers who write about how long they have been waiting to see such a change. . . because of the acknowledgment by Supreme Court justice, Stephen Breyer, that the billable hour system has "in many ways . . . diminished the practice of law," saying "I can't think of a more important problem facing the profession.". . . because of the hundred' s of attorneys I have met who know how an environment that frees you from accounting for your life in 6-minute increments is life-changing . . . because of in-house counsel and legal consumers who tell us regularly that they support what we are doing as a firm. To everyone out there who "gets it," it is because of you that our people have made a choice to dedicate their careers to this mission. You are everyday in the hearts and minds of our people. I somehow believe that we all set out to find true meaning in what we do as professionals. With the vision of Exemplar and your support, we are never more than a heartbeat away from the "true meaning" we seek . . . the kind that puts smiles on the faces of our team members when the arrive at the office every day and depart in the evening. That is a kind of happiness which you cannot buy, and which we will never sell.