Studying or writing about your peer group can be a daunting and sometimes professionally hazardous task. For evidence of this, consider well-respected consultant and legal futurist Richard Susskind whose early work “The Future of Law” was met with considerable skepticism and even derision in some legal circles.
Despite the hazards, inherent in such an endeavour I could not help myself recently but to accept such an assignment that tasked me with the performance of an analysis and the development of a framework for the engagement of consultants in an industry in which I myself am a consultant. The task for which I was retained, was to study the manner in which consultants worked with clients within the industry and develop an overarching framework for the industries umbrella group organization in order to assist its members in employing their consulting dollars most effectively. This result of the project was not only a series of best practices recommendations but also a personally fascinating insight into the consulting business itself.
While the industry in question was not law, being a lawyer turned consultant I could not help myself but to consider the lessons learned in the context of the legal industry and the recent developments that have taken place in the legal consulting sphere. For those that have not noticed, there has been a considerable increase in the amount of consultants offering their services to the legal industry as of late. These consultants range from large organizations such as Hildebrandt and Altman Weil to smaller operations such as my own consulting company. Individually the consultants bring diverse backgrounds to the table from former lawyers to MBA’s to some with surprisingly little background at all. Task wise you can now find consultants serving the legal industry in a seemingly endless array of categories including Human Resources, Marketing, Project Management, Strategic Management and Knowledge Management.
Although the industry context for my study of consultants was different from the legal consulting landscape there were some basic questions asked and lessons learned that could be of assistance to those in the legal sphere looking to engage a consultant. As such, I have attempted to distill four of the basic lessons learned from the experience below. While the lessons may be basic, I have found both in other industries and in the law, these rudimentary considerations are often not contemplated to the detriment of both the client and the consultant.
To Hire or not to Hire
The initial decision of whether to bring in an outside consultant is often a difficult one and requires careful consideration. On one hand some industries in the past have suffered from “over consulting” and have spent considerable dollars on outside counsel when the task may have been best handled in house. On the other hand, lawyers as a rule tend to be very self sufficient and believe that they can handle all tasks presented to them even if they would better served by external assistance.
With this in mind an analysis of whether to hire a consultant for a given task must be based on a balanced consideration of internal competencies and economics. As a general rule if a given task could be performed better and/or more efficiently by an outside professional then it may be time to consider looking for a consultant. The weight of each consideration will necessarily be different in each context.
The lesson here is to put in the up front time to carefully consider your decision to engage a consultant. Not seeking outside assistance when it could greatly improve your business or hiring outside assistance when it is not really required can be equally costly mistakes.
Finding a Consultant
Finding a suitable consultant is akin to finding a good lawyer. In the case of lawyers perhaps the least advisable method is to randomly choose from ads in the Yellow Pages. The analogous method with consultants in my opinion is to choose based on a Google search and a flashy website. A good Internet presence is a great secondary method to confirm that a consultant is who they say they are and has expertise in a given area. Like with lawyers however, the best method of finding a good consultant is almost always through a word of mouth referral. If a word of mouth referral is not an option for you, at very least follow the next suggestion below.
The most astounding lesson for me from my consulting analysis project was the amount of consultants with a seemingly dismal track record of client satisfaction that still managed to be active in the industry. Equally surprising was the absence of a very basic step in most clients hiring processes when they engaged consultants on new projects. This very basic step is something that no employer would consider leaving out in taking on a new employee but somehow the step is missed in many consulting engagements; check references. When engaging any consultant you have not worked with in the past it is highly recommended that you ask for contact information on at least the last two previous engagements they have completed. This simple step could save a great deal of cost and effort.
Define Scope and Deliverables
Second only to the suggestion above, the lack of a properly defined scoped and set of deliverables was the most common and greatest deficiency identified in consulting engagements that had negative outcomes. It is vitally important that serious consideration be given at the outset of any consulting engagement to the scope of the project, the concrete deliverables of the project and the timeline of the project. These details must then be committed to paper.
Some of the advice offered above might seem obvious to a practicing lawyer, however I know from experience that what you advise your clients to do and what you yourself may do in practice are often two different things. Additionally, it is often the foundational steps that are the most important to a project and often most overlooked.
Like the legal industry, there is a range of quality of services that you will find in the consulting industry. Finding a great consultant however, like finding a great lawyer, can have a tremendously positive outcome for your business.