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Why lawyers outperform consulting engineers

November 3rd, 2011 |

Since 2003 when we starting benchmarking client-rated performance, the consulting engineering firms have always lagged the law and accounting firms pretty much across the board. And it's been this way for the 9 years of data we have. What is it about the engineering profession that leads to this lower performance? And what is it that the other professions - particularly lawyers - do so well? There are the obvious things:

  • Engineers think "projects" not "clients". Professional kudos comes from being involved in big projects.
  • Power in law and accounting firms comes from your client relationships and their willingness to follow you if you leave the firm. Not so in engineering.
  • Personality-wise, engineers are more introverted and conflict-avoiding than accountants and lawyers.
  • Engineers have been giving away margin for years – and understanding your clients' needs, and delivering on them, takes an investment of time.

However, a recent conversation with a client got me thinking about another possible cause, particularly in large, generalist firms. One thing we’ve noticed is that the highest performing engineering firms tend to be smaller, principal-led firms. Now you might think that being small is the source of the advantage – but small is not always better in law and accounting. I think a bigger factor is that principals are the primary point of contact for clients in these smaller engineering firms. What happened in large firms is that, with their rapid growth over the last 10-15 years, those principals gave up much of their day-to-day client work and moved into management roles. They got “off the tools”. This has had two profound effects: 1. Skills in understanding clients are under-developed  Clients are now dealing with more junior staff, who are essentially order-takers. Few job managers with less than 6 years under their belt have either the skill or experience to uncover clients’ real needs, and to credibly offer alternatives when necessary. These are, of course, the very skills required to create unique and valuable solutions to clients’ problems. The kinds of solutions clients are willing to pay a premium for. 2. A cultural shift away from client focus As the most senior people spend less time with clients, and more time on internal management, the focus of the firm also shifts. The result? A firm that is less client-focused. If you think about it, the seniority of the people who deal with clients is a pretty good indicator of its client focus. So while many consulting engineering firms are busy creating new client relationship management roles, perhaps what is really needed is for the most senior people – from the CEO down – to spend a significant portion of their time out there listening to clients.

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