Porto Planning – A Strategic And Operational Review
On 1 March 2023 Bennett Briegal passed our four year anniversary as a trading business. Both Mark Briegal and Paul Bennett have been delighted with the reception of the UK legal sector and the wider professional services sector to our specialist offering. We have been able to react to a series of once in a generation events whilst remaining profitable and serving our clients with a smile, with good humour and with effective legal and business support.
In May we took the opportunity to undertake a strategic and operational review, clearly a lot of that is confidential but we wanted to share with you, as readers of our blog, some of our Porto business planning outcomes. We tell clients to work on and not just in their businesses and we were thus practising what we preach – time away from the day to day to focus on the business itself.
The Vineyard Owner’s Lesson
We perhaps got the most significant take-away from our trip from the most unexpected of sources. Those of you who have seen the social media spoilers will know that we visited a vineyard as part of an organised tour and we heard directly from a fifth generation winemaker who spoke with passion, with insight and with clarity (in his second language) of the importance of long term business planning in every decision he makes given the cycle period for new vines is 10 years or longer and that each change therefore is significant. That resonated with us because we do not want to change much, it is going well, but the economy and the world is changing around us.
We know that over the last 15 or 16 months we have been advising larger international firms in relation to the increased focus around Anti-Money Laundering and compliance with sanctions.
We similarly note that we are advising firms that are experiencing financial difficulty because of the cost-of-living crisis and the difficulties with retaining staff.
Neither of these changes merit much strategically, but they do require training, development and a reactive practice as issues tend to be unexpected and urgent. Our client base ranges from sole practitioners based in the north of England to city practices and, reflecting over a glass of Douro white wine after the vineyard tour, we were both struck by the fact that we were tending to be pulled into short term operational thinking rather than strategic thinking.
One of our key outcomes has therefore been to create a list of strategic outputs with longer term focus and to change our operational management approach through our monthly meeting agenda to focus on covering off the operational issues but always thinking in the longer term. Our revised structure of monthly meetings is designed to take us away from our ad-hoc short term, operational focus and to create an hour a month to focus on, and not in, the business.
The work that we do tends to be bespoke and unique. Whilst we might do the same work for 100 to 120 law firms and professional practices each year, each job is unique and we recognise that having looked at case management software because of the growth of our business that we cannot enhance our client serve by using this type of “big firm” or process driven technology.
We have looked at introducing artificial intelligence technology, case management software and concluded for us and our client base it is not needed. In litigation we use key word searches and software analysis tools but the key is human added value to our work; that’s why law firms come to us and do not try to advise themselves.
Instead we spent some of our time generating a system and process utilising a spreadsheet to avoid the need to adopt a case management technology solution that was not right for us. It is not perfect but it is better than buying a bad solution off the shelf. It is more targeted towards our needs, and we have a process we can evolve which is bespoke to us and tasks can be outsourced to our administrative support supplier more efficiently. And Mark just loves spreadsheets!
We continue to make use of video conference facilities and we invested in the period prior to the pandemic and during the course of the pandemic in ensuring that those consisted of great video cameras, great microphones and decent speaker systems so we are not distracted by headsets and fiddling around as we often see others doing so.
We will continue to utilise technology where it offers something extra and enhances the client experience or the evidence gathered in terms of risk management which is where we are utilising the process and the system we developed whilst in Porto.
We are great friends, we enjoy each other’s company and we make each other laugh. We speak regularly and we talk about the key issues operationally as and when they are needed – certainly most weeks and usually multiple times per week.
We are fortunate in that we do not have to manage other people although we outsource IT support and administrative support ,so we do have to think about the wider impact to a degree. What we have recognised though is that whilst the economy was thriving and whilst we were talking daily during the pandemic, we did not need formal partners’ meetings on a monthly basis.
As the economy has shifted and as the expectations in terms of risk management from a professional indemnity insurance perspective and with the enhanced AML focus of the regulator, what we do need to do is take a monthly review not on an ad-hoc basis but in a more structured way.
We therefore developed a way of preserving our culture by not stopping us from the informal discussions, the laughter and the sharing of ideas but by recording certain material in a monthly summary. For those in larger firms of course regular management meetings are common, when there is only two of us there has not been a need but given the volume of work we have been undertaking supporting our clients we have noticed that we need that structure to aid our thinking.
We might be four years old, but it is almost as if we are a business reaching a greater maturity equivalent to a young adult given our changing technology needs and our need for structure as we get busier. We have always been busy – the question is how do we avoid being too busy; structure and order gives us a way of managing this. That is about taking the lessons of the long term from the winemaker because we want to be able to do this and to work with clients for the long term.
The structure we recognised was not about meeting for the sake of it, but was about ensuring that our minds are not distracted operationally and that we have the good order in relation to things we have dealt with informally before ,so that we have got additional bandwidth for client work seems to us to be a sensible way forward.
We will undoubtedly go on from our Porto review to focus more on ADR and more on higher value legal work, we have been turning away lower level work for some months but we are committed to supporting our client base on all matters, even if that means turning away simple jobs we could do on the fringes of our core client base.
The confidence to do that comes from time away and looking in detail at what works and what does not for us and our client base.
The importance of habits
We would reflect in the aftermath of our discussion over the course of our four days in Porto culminating in concluding that habits were important to consistency. We are a small practice with a niche client base but everything we do can be enhanced by consistency.
As in other walks of life therefore we decided we were going to adopt certain habits primarily around speaking to one another regarding the pricing of legal services and quotations and also around the management of risk so that we were doing it in a much more structured way. These are both habits that we had in 2019 and 2020 and we lost sight of in terms of our own consistency operationally during 2021 and 2022. We took our review in Porto as an opportunity to reset and to agree those habits worked and we need to consistently adopt them.
We agreed that we would revise the website and over the coming months you will see new photographs, new sections and a refresh. Nothing is broken, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, but what we do need to do is practise what we preach to clients. We preach good habits to them in terms of managing risk. We preach good habits in terms of pricing for profitability. We preach good habits that lead to client service excellence. We need to ensure our habits reflect that.
Did we really need to go to Porto to achieve this? We are both busy and we concluded that we were not spending enough time on our business as we were constantly working in it and thinking operationally.
Taking ourselves away, discussing what works brilliantly, what works sub optimally and what we can do differently required thinking space, time and minimal distractions. It also, so it transpired, needed the input of walking up and down steep hillsides overlooking the Douro and around a port museum (Fonseca) to remind us of the importance of consistency year after year and that the conditions and other things you cannot control will lead to good years and bad years and to that vineyard in the Douro Valley which would remind us of the importance of thinking about the long term implications of each and every decision.
We probably could have achieved the same things elsewhere except for the importance of that long term planning and except for the enjoyment of developing structure whilst sitting in the sun enjoying great coffee, fabulous salt-cod, outstanding wine and exceptional port, remembering the importance of collegiate working and that talking operationally is not the same as talking about the strategic needs of the LLP or our core law firm client base.
By putting our clients back at the heart of every decision we make we hope we are heeding the lesson of the winemaker to ensure we think long terms in every decision.