Fewer, bigger, better teams

International law firm Simmons & Simmons is streamlining and developing its marketing strategy. Senior partner Colin Passmore and experienced marketers Eddie Bowman and Owen Williams talk to Neasa MacErlean.

Simmons & Simmons held a two-day meeting in London this summer for its 67-strong global M&BD (Marketing & Business Development) team. Nothing surprising in that. But what was different was the keenness of clients to come in to meet the marketers from abroad. Why did they do that? “Clients are increasingly of the view that the M&BD team is becoming progressively more important,” says Eddie Bowman, the firm’s Marketing and Business Development Director who joined two years ago from Big Four accountant EY. “Clients believe that M&BD can greatly enhance a law firm’s offering — commercial insight about a sector, dynamic thinking and fantastic project management, for instance.”

This recognition brings to fruition the widespread marketing practice of recent years for marketers to put themselves in the front line. And it fits neatly with other aims of the Simmons & Simmons strategy. For instance, understanding the commercial context of all legal issues is a top-ranking priority of the 280-partner practice. Members of the M&BD team play an active role in embedding sector focus throughout the firms. Simmons has honed this sector focus. It has four main sector specialisms (accounting for 76 per cent of revenue) while, for example, the world’s largest law firm, Baker & McKenzie, has nine. And the plan is paying dividends — with 7 and 12 per cent growth rates in the last two years, bringing total revenues to £354million in 2017/18.

The tighter focus is something which the Big Four accountants use, says Bowman and it is a model which the 22-office, 19-country firm is drawing on. Summarising his restructuring of the M&BD team over the last two years, Bowman uses just three words — “Fewer, Bigger, Better”. And, giving a one-word summary of the firm’s new 2018-2023 business plan, he says “focus”. So all this must mean that M&BD people who are steeped in their sector are seen as game-changers, relationship-makers and, all in all, vital representatives of the firm.

Picking up on the crucial role of M&BD skills, Colin Passmore says that it is “imperative to keep close to and to listen to clients”. This is not just to win business but also to set the firm’s compass. “We can’t control the economy,” he says, pointing to major uncertainties from Brexit to the wider global flux. But one area that can be controlled is the alignment with clients. “They will also be affected by these very same trends, and so we must adapt and proactively think ahead in support of their legal and business needs.”

Understanding the commercial context is also a way of retaining the most complex work that will remain beyond the grasp of software systems and other forms of Artificial Intelligence. Bowman believes that the legal marketplace is “ripe for significant disruption in all sorts of areas” but, not for the foreseeable future, in “the high end work which we do”.

To retain and develop the 67 members of his team, Bowman has set up a development programme which offers internal and external training at all levels. “We want people to have meaningful, fruitful work,” he says. “We are trying to provide them with interesting careers. And we are giving them a platform on which they have something to say.” He does not want them to be seen as assistants to the professionals, but as experts themselves and with a status and authority that match their insights and skills. He goes as far as to say: “We want our people to be brave and to challenge the partners around client engagement. We want to give our people the confidence to ask ‘why?’ …and the courage to say ‘no’.”

Simmons & Simmons, and its total of 1,550 personnel, have particular focus on packaging their services into products. Schemes such as the tax and financial services product ‘Navigator’ are international and have won awards. Anticipating the needs of clients by looking into the future has to involve considerable innovation and some experimentation. The Simmons & Simmons focus on creating products is one way of doing this. Owen Williams, Head of Practices and Markets at the firm (and formerly of Deloitte), works in this area and says: “We will continually be rolling out an agreed programme of these products across our four sectors”, referring to the four areas. (These are: Asset Management & Investment Funds, Financial Institutions, Healthcare & Life Sciences, and Technology, Media & Telecommunications.)

None of the three interviewees for this article went near claiming that Simmons & Simmons has yet found the perfect formula or the perfect implementation. Indeed, Passmore spoke of the need to ensure “the continuous improvement of our engagement with clients” – an approach which, at its deepest levels, prioritises constant adaptation and innovation over the quest for a static state of perfection. And, for his part, Bowman talks about the development of his 67-strong team as “work in progress”, rather than something fully achieved. “One of our biggest challenges is about building one team,” he says. But, clearly, the ‘one team approach’ is becoming stronger. “We are finding ways to make the global network feel a little smaller and more intimate – both face-to-face and through the use of Skype and other technologies,” he adds. The two-day meeting in London earlier this year was an important step in bringing the global team closer together.

A recent, lighter-hearted experiment, albeit with profound roots, was ‘Love Week’ in which each member of the M&BD team anonymously sent another member a gift of some kind. Bowman received a meme “which told me all the things I was doing well in my department and the things I should still be concentrating on”. His reaction? “I thought it was great. We want to try different things.” Like a doctor following her own health regime, the M&BD team can only win points with its broader clientele by accepting critiques on its own performance. As we all know, ‘Do as I do’ is a more impressive message than ‘Do as I say’.