How Law Firms Can Leverage Data for Competitive Advantage and Implement Strategies for Sustainable Growth with Marcie Borgal Shunk of The Tilt Institute
Welcome to Season 2 of On Record PR. In this episode, Gina Rubel, the founder and CEO of Furia Rubel Communications, went on record with Marcie Borgal Shunk, president and founder of The Tilt Institute.
The Tilt Institute specializes in helping law firms shepherd significant transformation. Marcie trains and coaches leadership teams and emerging leaders to create dynamic plans, shift mindsets and motivate action. She is an ALM Legal Intelligence Fellow, a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management, and a frequent speaker on legal industry trends.
What is The Tilt Institute and what do you do?
At The Tilt Institute, we help leaders leverage data for competitive advantage. We help law firms build analytical skills and analytical capabilities. We also work with leaders to help them then use that data to transform their firms, whether it is a cultural assessment that helps them baseline where they are and then create change across the organization to create a more inclusive culture or to create a less toxic culture. We tackle practical situations like increasing employee retention, which can tie into culture or it could be using data for market positioning for strategic planning. There’s data available to law firms today. There’s a real opportunity to leverage data at a higher level.
Gina: As a former practicing lawyer, one of the things I try to do is always take this type of information and make it analogous to the practice of law. You’re building the argument based on evidence and teaching the law firms how to implement change based on the evidence. Would that be true?
Marcie: That would be true. One of the things that gets lost when we’re talking about data, especially when we get to the place where we want to apply data, is all the facets of leading change. The ability to make change based on data is about the ability to connect with people at an emotional level. When you think data, you think hard facts, right? And you miss that whole piece of being able to connect with people. If you don’t have the best business case in the world, if you can’t connect with those people and make an emotional argument for why they want to buy into something, you’re not going to see that transformation. I worked in organizations that produced expert witness testimony. For the litigators out there, think of it this way: you can have the best case in the world but if you don’t connect with the jury, then you’re not going to win the case.
Gina: I love that we think that way and that you help empower law firm leaders to have those skills internally from a leadership perspective. One thing I know is they didn’t teach us leadership skills in law school.
Marcie: No, in fact, we did a study last year with LawVision. We co-produced a study and we spoke to professional development leaders across Am Law 200 and the Global 100 law firms. One of the things we learned from that study is that just about a third of law firms are providing leadership training for their partners and what they’re doing averages to about 11 hours annually. It’s dismal when you look at it across the industry. That’s an enormous opportunity, especially going through what the industry is about to embark on over the next few years, which is significant transformation.
Where does your love for competitive intelligence and data come from?
I love puzzles. I’m curious. And one of the things that motivates me generally is constant learning. It’s an ongoing need to be looking at something new. I think it’s part of the reason that I’m a consultant and I’m not internal within a law firm or a legal organization. It is what drove me to pursue sociology, which was my area of study, which is about organizations and groups of people and how they interact with one another. It’s all linked together, and this curiosity and passion for learning inevitably pushed me towards data and using it to ultimately come up with more factual pieces of information that I could use to create an advantage, to get ahead, or to even win an argument if it came down to that.
It’s the beginning of 2021 and we’re not out of the pandemic yet. Vaccines aren’t yet widely available and law firms have seen great change. What changes in law firms do you think we’ll see after the pandemic?
There’s going to be quite a spectrum at this point in terms of what we see coming out of the pandemic. We have seen tremendous change in 2020. We moved almost overnight into an environment where everybody was working remotely, and flexibility is something that lawyers, staff, people across the industry have suggested that they like. In fact, I was speaking with a professional development leader at a Am Law 50 firm who said that they had done a survey across the entire firm and asked specifically if people wanted to go back to work full-time in the office. Only 13% indicated that they wanted to go back full-time to the office. That’s a significant change. This is a global law firm. If that’s true across the industry, then law firms are going to need to find a way to be more flexible. That said, I don’t think we’ll see such a transformation that all law firms are going to be remote 100% of the time.
There’s going to be some firms that throw people a bone and say, “Hey, you can work from home one day a week,” and that’s going to be their vision of work from home. There’s going to be others that have a more flexible approach. Maybe they even go on a lateral hiring spree and bring people in where they don’t have offices to secure top talent. There are many different directions law firms can head in. I don’t think we’re going to see a one-size-fits-all approach. We’re going to see quite a spectrum, probably leaning towards the more conservative. Unfortunately, in my opinion, I believe law firms will attempt to get back as close as they can to where they were before.
Gina: It’s interesting that you should say that because I don’t think they’re going to be able to get back to where they were before. I believe that’s going to be an uphill battle. I’m not just going to say millennial generation; Gen X is going to fight that, too. Gen X isn’t going to want it from my experience and the people I’ve talked to in Gen Z certainly won’t want it. Most of them will have gone to college and perhaps even law school virtually. It’s fascinating to me to see what that’s going to look like and how it changes the economic playing field.
Marcie: No question. There’s a lot regarding the economics of working from home from the overhead perspective, but there’s also going to be the competitiveness for talent in a way that we haven’t seen before. Law firms will need to considerer their work-from-home policies, which will be a competitive differentiator and not necessarily in one direction. You’ve got people who want to be in the office who think there’s a better development opportunity in the office, or who want to be in the office because they like the simplicity and the ease, and they don’t want to change. Or maybe they don’t have a good home environment that is conducive to working productively. All these reasons may factor into their decision making when they’re deciding whether to join a firm. I think we’re going to see some interesting shifts on that side, on the talent side.
Gina: Talent acquisition and retention is going to play a big role in my opinion, and it already does. Then you must think about that, not just from that perspective, but also the diversity and inclusion and retention perspective, the retention of diverse attorneys is going to be so important.
Are you seeing any diversity data related to work-from-home issues?
You asked me about changes for 2021. I mentioned work from home as the first one, but the other big shift that we saw this year was social unrest. From that perspective, we’re looking at an environment where this is part of the dialogue now. And for perhaps the first time ever, I believe that law firms and law firm leaders have acknowledged that this is not an issue to be addressed by a subsection of the firm, but rather one that needs holistic, comprehensive change. This is the underlying shift that needs to take place.
I told a story on a podcast the other day, and I can’t talk about this topic without thinking about this story. As I was sitting in a room with a firm, we had done this vast strategic analysis of the firm and it included a cultural assessment. In the cultural assessment, people anonymously shared, women predominantly, that they felt the culture was toxic. They felt uncomfortable. They shared some specific stories of things that had happened. As part of the board meeting, we were discussing some of these stories. In fact, we called an all-hands-on-deck because it was outside of the scope to have this come up. I recall sitting in the room talking about how we were going to address these cultural shifts and needs. The chairman suggested that we set aside a separate table for the women to talk about these issues. And I think that that has, in some ways, historically been the vision.
I don’t know if you saw the ALM article this week. It essentially asks if the law firm management even cares about diversity.
For a long time, diversity was separate from everything else that we’re doing. Law firms didn’t make it a strategic priority. And it’s been brought into the boardrooms in many respects and is now part of the conversation. They are asking how to shift the fabric of who we are to create a more inclusive environment. That involves everybody taking part, and it’s not going to happen through a training program. It’s not going to happen by tracking metrics on who we’re hiring. It’s much deeper than that.
Gina: It can no longer be about going to get that RFP. Buyers of legal services are asking about diversity, inclusion, equity, and law firm culture. Firms need to create a sense of belonging in the bigger entity, not just in the little groups within the entity. It’s great to know that The Tilt Institute, with your leadership, is there to help law firms make those changes and identify the problems. Hopefully, when people say they’re uncomfortable, law firm management will understand that it’s a real issue. That’s how they feel. People are coming to you for a reason — because they want to make change– but they don’t know how because they repeat that which they’ve been taught. Create a women’s committee and put them over there. That’s what’s been taught for so many years, so we must reteach and relearn.
Marcie: Right. And it’s true in almost any facet of the business. There is research that shows the innovation committees don’t work; innovation committees don’t work because innovation happens across an organization. You can’t just designate a group of people to tackle a problem. It needs to be much more inclusive.
Is there anything else you see as important changes for law firms after the pandemic?
One significant piece of that is going to be related to what the recovery looks like. A lot of the economic leaders are talking about a K-shaped recovery. Certain industries and sectors are going to spike back and come right back. Others are going to have a longer, more challenging return or recovery. That’s true of law firms as well. I anticipate 2021 and beyond will bring a whole slew of mergers and acquisitions because some firms are going to come out of this and they’re going to be stronger. They’re going to have done the right things during the pandemic. They’re going to have had the client outreach and connection. They’re going to have strategically invested instead of just doing cutting for the sake of saving money. It’s almost this offensive versus defensive strategy – some have been making selective investments to keep moving forward, versus those who’ve simply hunkered down to protect themselves. Those who’ve hunkered down to protect themselves may be at a disadvantage coming out of this. I anticipate that and won’t go so far as to say they’re necessarily going to all the dissolutions and rescue mergers, but I do believe that some firms are not going to be as strong coming out of this and will struggle to recover.
In addition to working in the office, what else do you believe might revert to pre-pandemic conditions?
There are so many things that tend to be optimistic. There are many positives that have come out of the pandemic, like the personal connections that we’ve made. We’re all going through a difficult situation. Within firms and with each other, and with clients, now we’re doing Zoom calls from people’s living rooms, and we’ve been able to shed this facade in some ways of the formality that came before. I think people find comfort in formality, right? There may be some people that revert to the business suits and that type of presentation out of comfort and out of a sense of, perhaps even, respect. I hope that that doesn’t come alongside a return to leaving part of yourself at home, which seems to have relaxed.
Will law firms continue to invest in in-person business development and networking?
Yes. As an introvert, I’m even excited to go back to networking events. I have already had two clients asked me to be in-person in the fall out of an expectation that by the time we get to the fall, that will be something that we’re able to do. Yes, I think law firms are going to want to bring people together, particularly national, and international firms that haven’t seen each other for a year or more. I do think it’s important. I don’t think we’ll see a return to the level that we were at before. I do believe that there are certainly some cost savings that firms have noticed and realized and recognize that not all the travel that was being done was necessary. They may be more selective about when they choose to travel and not travel. I think some people and firms have figured out that you do not need to travel to develop business. You don’t need to get on an airplane every time you want to connect with somebody or every time you want to sell something. Face time is important, but it is not a necessity. Being more diligent about when, where, and how to spend those travel dollars is going to come into play.
What do you see as top priorities for law firms in 2021?
There’s so many. I literally made a list yesterday of this. I have a checklist for 2021.
The number one thing is every single firm, practice, and industry group needs to revisit is strategy. Nothing is going to be the same anymore. Whatever we did a year ago or two years ago, or whenever the strategy was last revisited, it’s time to look at it, to brush it off, to determine whether it has any relevance, and whether it needs to be revamped or tweaked in some way. That’s going to be a huge investment of time. It’ll take most of the year. We don’t have a full degree of certainty across all the sectors. We have a better sense of where things are headed, but we’re not fully there yet. It’s going to be an ongoing process, which is true of any strategy. It’s a living, breathing document.
After the podcast recording, Marcie provided Furia Rubel Communications with a sneak preview of the checklist:
The Tilt Institute: Assess Your Firm’s Preparedness for 2021 and Beyond©
Use this checklist as a planning guide or a tool to prioritize the investments expected to deliver the highest payoff in the coming year. Each firm will benefit from a unique combination of the following:
- Strategy 2021
- Anticipate talent wants/needs (e.g., remote work policies, development)
- Build an inclusive culture beyond diversity training
- Aggressively and systematically connect with clients (strategic account management, key client programs, etc.)
- Pursue lateral hires in targeted areas (not opportunistically)
- Evaluate ownership structure and alliance opportunities considering changing ownership rules in Arizona and elsewhere
- Deliver comprehensive leadership training to emerging, incoming and current leaders
- Offer leadership coaching to new and current leaders
- Deploy a data strategy and accountability model (e.g., internal clean-up, designate a single accountable individual)
- Ramp up pricing and project management teams and roll-out
- Execute and socialize the use profitability metrics for all clients and matters
- Add analytical resources (e.g., financial analysts, CI analysts, strategy analysts, HR analysts)
- Perform sophisticated analyses of client and industry trends and changes for 2021
After this pandemic, would you write long-term strategy?
I haven’t done that in a long time. I wouldn’t suggest it. At this point, the amount of time in strategy depends on what you’re doing. If you’re truly building a strategy that is going to guide what you’re doing, it needs to be revisited every 12 months. It needs to be an ongoing process. Things change too rapidly these days. There are law firms that do want a three- to five-year strategy– I also get those calls. It’s this idea of maybe considering scenario planning, which is a longer-term visionary process that helps create a guideposts or guardrails. You create guardrails as to where your decisions can go or not go in a certain spectrum. it’s useful for that, but it’s a process which requires several things. It requires research, it requires diligence. It probably requires a facilitator because it’s an advanced process. It’s not something that most law firms have done before. In fact, I was only able to find one Am Law 30 firm that had done any kind of scenario planning.
Gina: For our readers and listeners who have heard me talk about scenario planning and the crisis communications spectrum, this is a different type of scenario planning. We do it in the context of crisis planning. It’s an “if then” approach to “what if this happens and what if that happens.” In fact, we’ll now do it with, “What if there is a pandemic?” We didn’t used to do that. Strategic scenario planning is very different.
What would be an example of strategic scenario planning?
Strategic scenario planning is looking at the broad, big picture. You would almost be looking at as though the world’s going to continue to move towards nationalism or globalization, and then you decide what you think from a percentage perspective, where your firm is headed. At the end you have a couple of different, typically two to three big picture concepts of, “If we head in this direction, we have nationalism, we have high tariffs,” we have this sense of being myopic, the companies being myopic in their vision– that’s going to be one potential scenario. And then you have a percentage of likelihood for that. Then you’ll build out another one. That’s globalization. Globalization may come along with free trade, right. You need to make sure there’s consistency in your scenario. And what does that look like? And then you use those to determine next steps. When that same firm is considering opening an office in Geneva or in the middle East, they come back to those scenarios and use those to help determine whether that’s going to make sense given where you think things are headed.
What competitive intelligence should law firms consider to support achieving their top priorities? What should they be looking at?
Let’s back up to competitive intelligence as a concept. I think people think of it as very different things. Competitive intelligence in the academic sense of the word refers to virtually any type of analysis or intelligence that helps inform a strategic decision. It is not limited to information about competitors, it’s information about clients, your market, your internal data, and external data. It’s all those pieces combined that yield competitive intelligence. So, with that backdrop, the most important thing I think for law firms today, given what I’ve seen, is to get their own house in order. So many firms have a wealth of information and data about their clients, the way that they do business, how they deliver their legal work, what isn’t profitable on a client level, that they haven’t analyzed.
There’s not even certainty with respect to what industries are growing in their client, where what matters are profitable, where there is potential opportunity to cross-sell existing clients. I mean, all of those, what other companies outside the legal industry called basic pieces of information aren’t necessarily easily accessible in most law firms today. First and foremost, that must be the priority. And in some ways that involves having a data strategy and having somebody who’s responsible for data integrity and all the processes like intake and conflict, with all the checking that goes along with it.
Do you have any book recommendations to share with our audience?
The one book that I always find myself coming back to is, To Sell Is Human by Dan Pink. I just think that from the perspective of useful tidbits of information with these great stories and anecdotes and all this information about how people think and their psychology, which I love. It has so many practical pieces of advice about how we influence other people. And it’s not just applicable to sales. This isn’t just about how you sell to other people. It’s how you interact with others. It’s about how you influence a situation or how you connect with people. I love it for that perspective.
I just listened to American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, which was phenomenal and opened my eyes to the plight of Mexican and South American refugees coming to the United States and what dangers they’re coming from potentially. It’s about what they’re going through just to make that trek to try to get into the United States.
Do you have any questions for me?
Marcie: We talked a little bit about coming into 2021, but there is a lot going on in the industry right now and in the world. From your perspective, thinking about the communications angle, what should law firms be doing and saying around everything that’s going on, whether it’s in the political sphere or even the DEI sphere?
Gina: I’m going to take a piece of your advice and I’m going to repeat it: get your house in order. The reason for that is just with the uprising at Congress recently. A lot of firms, for example, have come out and spoken out against it and have spoken in agreement with invoking the 25th. When clients have come to us asking what they should do, we tell them that they need to know who their players are internally to make sure that something doesn’t come back to bite them. If you have a past member of the administration who’s now a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in your firm and they’re representing individuals charged with sedition or associated with the administration, your firm probably shouldn’t be coming forward with a statement because it’s a conflict.
Similarly, law firms shouldn’t boast about diversity and inclusion initiatives if they’re not diverse. Don’t pretend. All the things you’re talking about, Marcie, all that data that you gather affects the marketing and communications of a law firm, more so than not. We often will ask our clients for data the same way a corporation would in an RFP. We ask, “Where’s the proof?” What you do and what we do ties hand-in-hand with how you present your messages, and this is going to be the same as it relates to whether you’re bringing people back to the office, how you communicate that both internally and externally, how that affects the diverse groups and the protected groups. For example, think about single parents — if schools are still doing more virtual or hybrid education post-pandemic, parents can’t easily just go back to work in the office. What’s it going to look like to support the future? How’s that going to affect the DE&I? We know that education is traditionally not the same in certain cultural groups and certain parts of the country. How are the law firms going to support the people within their firms to make sure that everybody’s being treated equally under their own circumstances?
Marcie: That hits close to home and I appreciate that. And there is data already across industries indicating that this is a step back for women who’ve taken on the lion’s share of responsibility for the home schooling pieces right now.
Gina: Absolutely. And at first, I thought it was going to be a huge benefit because, now women could work from home more easily. They could get on a Zoom call and be present. But we’ve seen the data showing us otherwise. That’s been very interesting. So, my recommendation for law firms is to get their houses in order and it ties right into understanding the data within your own house.
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