The four biggest mistakes professionals make

David Morley is Global Senior Partner at Allen & Overy. He joined A&O as a trainee in 1980 – when the firm comprised just 35 partners and one office in London – and was made partner himself in 1988. He has remained there ever since and the firm now consists of over 530 partners in 46 offices and 32 countries. In 2012, The Times listed David as one of the UK’s 10 most influential lawyers, and in 2013 The American Lawyer magazine recognised him as one of The Top 50 Big Law Innovators of the Last 50 Years. However, David is modest about his awards, telling the BDLN “today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster”. Of more significance, he says, is the FT’s decision to award Allen & Overy the title of ‘Most Innovative Law Firm in Europe’ a record four times. Here he tells the BDLN what he regards as the biggest mistakes professionals make and why innovation is so important.


Mistake 1: Lack passion for the work

“To truly succeed as a lawyer at the highest level you need to get a kick out of doing what you do. It can’t be just to earn a bit of money. I tell youngsters not to consider being a lawyer unless it’s something they really want to do.

“You need intellectual curiosity, empathy and brain power. You need to be interested in what drives people. What are your clients’ goals? Why? You have to really want to know.

“If you don’t have a genuine interest in serving clients – helping them succeed – a career in professional services is probably not for you. Genuine interest can’t be manufactured. If you have it, you’ll thrive; if you don’t, you’ll struggle.”

Mistake 2: Fail to listen

“I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper in my current role: I employ all sorts of professionals, from real estate agents to accountants, so I’ve been on both sides of the fence. When hiring you can tell quickly whether professionals are genuinely interested in what you’re trying to achieve by how well they listen. Many make the mistake of going into broadcast mode to show off their knowledge.

“However, the best people are very good at making you feel you’re being listened to, and the questions they ask demonstrate they’ve got under the skin of your ideas, problems and aims.

“The importance of listening skills is grossly underestimated.”

Mistake 3: Show a one-dimensional style

“Different clients want different things; some like an aggressive style, others prefer a more consensual approach. You have to adapt the way you present yourself and your firm to suit the situation. If you take a one-size-fits-all approach, the chances are you will only attract a narrow range of clients.”

Mistake 4: Discourage innovation

“Here at A&O we are hugely proud of our four FT innovation awards. Innovation is a critical part of the culture and identity of the firm. It’s something we celebrate because it puts you ahead of the game, especially in today’s ultra-competitive environment. Liberalisation of the UK legal market has helped to drive innovation and Britain today feels like a giant Petri dish for legal services. The market may seem unsettling and disruptive but I believe the long-term prospects are excellent for law firms that innovate around how their services are delivered.

“Successful innovation requires firms to have the right culture. There has to be a culture where people feel able to try new things without being shot down if it doesn’t work out. However, lawyers by their nature – and please excuse the generalisation – can be cautious and focused on the downside.

“That approach is sometimes right for legal advice but for business decisions it can hold you back. To innovate you need to experiment, and some experiments will inevitably fail. If there’s a blame culture, people will be scared to innovate.

“The key to overcoming all four mistakes outlined above – especially 1, 2 and 3 – is to have a genuine interest in people. After all, the law is a personal business – between clients and lawyers, and between colleagues.”

Article written by BDLN Editor-in-chief Matt W