The Conversation

A blog by Kysen MD Clare Rodway, capturing interesting conversations she has in the course of her work...

John Petrie

Chambers CEO and strategist John Petrie has a formidable track record of effecting change and improving business performance at the Bar. When he talked to me about the keys to leading people on a journey of change, I was all ears...

John's interview is one of a number I conducted for a New Law Journal marketing feature, due to publish mid-Feb. Watch out for future posts.

John Petrie

I was keen to know: practically speaking, how do you go about convincing people to change?  "The use of external voices can be most persuasive in making the case for change.  Feedback from clients can be particularly powerful, if collated by an independent third party to elicit franker responses.”  John, it’s been a pleasure to work on these reports with you! "Even more valuable is feedback from firms you wish instructed Chambers, but don’t.  There’s no point running an exercise if you’re only looking for comfortable answers that make everyone feel good!  It’s important to pick people who may give the feedback that’s harder to hear but essential to know.

1 Crown Office Row's Director of Chambers John Petrie doesn't like talking about just marketing. He feels it has a 'set piece' connotation that is unhelpful. He prefers the term Business Development, as this sounds like a more continuous endeavour, which includes marketing. "Success doesn't come only from one-off initiatives by themselves - seminars, conferences, e-mailouts, etc. (although they are important), - it comes from a more constant drive, talking to clients every day, having coffee with them or a drink after work, and so on. And the people who need to get involved in this continuous activity are not just those with marketing or business development (BD) in their job titles. At one time, talking to clients was definitely a role for the clerks, because barristers simply didn't have the opportunity to meet with solicitor clients direct, except at court - indeed they were not allowed to market themselves. But ever since the advent of email and mobile phone communication this has been turned on its head: today barristers' relationships with solicitor clients and prospects is just as important, if not more so. Changing attitudes so that everyone at a Chambers understands this, and works differently, needs to be a central part of any BD programme for it to succeed in the real world and not just on paper", he tells me. ""And this relationship-building work needs to be constant. Yes, events, newsletters and so forth do provide useful opportunities for contact, and can be good for showing breadth and depth of the whole team at Chambers, but they are effective only as additions to continual activity by individuals, communicating with clients and building relationships one-to-one". This puts me in mind of some wisdom I learned from legal entrepreneur Peter Rouse, who says we should think of marketing as a doing word, like 'gardening': "if you just sit at your kitchen window looking out, reading gardening books and making plans but never going outside, digging into the earth, planting seeds and cultivating shoots, you're not going to get much more than weeds!" he used to say.

John also identified how to engender a sense of ambition and an appetite for growth and change.  As a CEO and strategist, John is often brought in to organisations to effect change (including outside the legal profession) and has earned a reputation for being good at it. At his previous set turnover increased significantly during his seven year tenure, year on year. He talked to me about the particular challenges you find in a set that’s already at the top of its tree:  "People would say to me ‘We’re doing fine as we are’, but this just wasn’t good enough.  I’d say ‘Why not better?’  I had to work hard to convince people that standing still is not an option in this market – you’ll end up being overtaken.  And it’s not just about bringing the barristers with you; for change to be effective and permanent, buy-in is needed at all levels – so from clerks and the business development team as well.”  It is never about one person, it requires a team, working in the same direction and all understanding the direction of travel.

"But I think the real key, is to take time” he says.  Rush into the action phase, and any plan will topple over.  Having a clear vision of where to look for growth opportunities, and identifying markets ripe for development, is actually the easy bit.  The bigger challenge is bringing barristers and staff along with you on the journey, changing mindsets and driving a fresh sense of ambition towards a new common goal.  You can’t achieve this without taking time to understand the culture, the personalities and the internal dynamics you are dealing with, if any change is to be effective on a meaningful level, or long lasting.  Only once you’ve understood this can you put a workable plan together, that outlines where you want to get to and, crucially, how you can achieve your goals given the realities of the business and its people".

A wise mentor once told me that the simplest definition of ‘strategy’ is moving an organisation from A to B - and that understanding starting point ‘A’ was just as important as knowing your destination point B, for exactly the reasons John describes.  This will enable you to identify the key ‘development themes’ for the business, in terms of where you are likely to find resistance to change, and how you might best plan to overcome it.

"I have to say at my last set, the change management process was certainly helped by several barristers joining from other sets, where they had been responsible for their own BD. They brought a new energy that inspired others.”

John is taking a similarly wisely-paced approach at 1 Crown Office Row, believing this is the key to creating real change: Chambers took almost  a year to conduct a comprehensive and detailed strategic review, which engaged fully with all those that are part of Chambers.  Preparation for implementation of the plan has taken place, which is now starting to be rolled out.  Being a strategic plan, it will be implemented over several years, there are no marks for doing it quickly – it is about doing it well.

More haste less speed. Wise words, John.

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