'business partnering' in legal services

A short while ago we carried out a research project to identify the characteristics of truly effective business services professionals in the legal sector. It was initially focused on Human Resources delivering their services to internal clients but as the research continued it became clear that the lessons were equally applicable across the spectrum of business services functions – IT, secretarial, marketing, finance etc.

The research was sponsored by a number of large law firms with offices in London and entailed structured interviews with Managing & Senior Partners as well as Heads of Human Resources.


What were the main findings? Some could readily be anticipated while others came as a surprise, at least at first; it is these in particular that paint some of the clearest pictures of best practice.

With all the data categorised and ordered by priority, the overall result was as follows:

Most important category:Attitude
Second most important:Skills
Third most important:Task and technical knowledge

However, it is more helpful to look on the results in terms of those characteristics that make great performers stand out – the differentiators. It is taken for granted that they already have high levels of technical knowledge and experience. It is skill and predominantly attitude that truly set the best apart.

the top three

Narrowing it down to specifics, three characteristics emerge head-and-shoulders above the rest(*). The best performers are differentiated by their:

  • Visibility. They are seen around the place, people know who they are.
  • Commitment and ownership. They will go the extra mile; it is almost as if they have a real stake in the success of the business.
  • Drive for action. They are ‘go to’ people.

So far so good and many of the sponsoring firms – and others – have been using the characteristics to help accelerate the drive toward stronger business partnering. A number also refer to the value of having a clearer language. As one person commented: ‘I knew there was a performance issue with xxx but I could not put my finger on it; now I know what it is and I have the language to address it with them’.

other results

Dive into the results in more detail and another result comes the surface.

End users of business services – senior fee earners in particular – show greater contrast in their opinions about what great performance looks like compared to HR leaders. What is more they are often more superficial in their judgements, weighting their comments as much towards factors such as status & experience etc as on personal qualities and characteristics.

so what are the lessons?

Business services in the legal sector – and it must be the case elsewhere as well – deliver and sell their services to busy, multi-tasking professional leaders. ‘Sell’ is not too strong a word either; many of the skills and characteristics needed are those of the effective ‘business developer’ & include: establishing rapport quickly; judging the moment; presenting themselves well; taking into account the commercial realities; being prepared to flex – and to challenge – when it seems appropriate.

Effective internal service is high on the agenda for many firms in the legal sector and virtually all are exploring ways to increase service orientation & partnering. Equally for many this is ‘work-in-progress’.

What is clear is that the transition is not going to happen overnight!

(*) Referenced more than 2 standard deviations (sigma>2) above the mean. Research carried out using ‘Repertory Grid’ analysis.

For a more detailed understanding of the results of the research, please get in touch using the details on our Contact Us page. Thank you.