Learning from lawyers

denny crane

I recently had the intriguing experience of requiring the services of a lawyer. I say intriguing not because of the legal matter (which was a bit of basic conveyancing) but because my firsthand experience confirmed the commonly held view that lawyers speak a different language from the rest of us.

My lawyer not only crafted the documents I needed in advanced legalese, she structured them in an impressively unsystematic way. Cross references abounded: this general condition would refer to that specific condition would refer to this schedule would refer to that accompanying document. I felt like Alice, trapped in a rabbit hole with no escape.[1]

Is there a lesson in this?

A lawyer’s job is to navigate the tricky waters of the law on behalf of her client. She uses her knowledge and experience to represent his best interests at all times. But a lawyer is also a service provider, and as such must manage her relationship with her client, providing clear communication and defining the scope of her involvement. These technical and management obligations coexist as they do for any professional.

While I suppose my legal interests were well protected, I was not well serviced. Thanks to her use of jargon and an impenetrable document structure, my lawyer did not empower me to contribute to the legal process. I never even felt like I had a handle on my own documents. I wondered how, despite these shortcomings, the legal profession (or at least my limited experience of it) can occupy such an unshakeable position of authority?

Hot on the heels of this question was a stint of self-reflection. In contrast to my legal experience, I like to think the architecture profession by and large addresses the minimum requirements of client service as a matter of course. And one of our core skills is the ability to resolve complex briefing requirements into simple solutions. Yet our authority is under constant siege.

armour

Is there a correlation here?

I suspect the answer is yes, and it starts with the issue of complexity and simplicity. I think my lawyer was not unable but unwilling to distill my complex brief into a simple document.

In the hands of my lawyer, words, sentences and paragraphs all grew longer and more convoluted. She wielded opacity like a tactical nuke, and not by accident. You see, my humble legal document was in fact performing two jobs: first was the job I was paying for, which was to protect my interests. Second was its hidden job, unspoken but powerfully implied, which was to protect the entire legal profession.

For lawyers, legal jargon is in fact a highly effective armour. As it’s a language that only they speak, they have rendered themselves guardians of the legal process. And since it’s a language they collectively, systematically and continuously use, they have created a positive, self-generating cycle. Each time one lawyer writes a sentence as long as a paragraph, another lawyer must step in to interpret it. Every single action perpetuates more need for legal services, not less.

And the true stroke of genius? The legal profession insists all this is in the interests of its clients. It has created such strong demand for its services, the buying public is willing, even begging to pay it for them.

But wait, there’s more. You might not believe it, but this is not the only way lawyers protect themselves. Here’s a brief list of some of the other ways they do it:

  • A barrister cannot be sued for more than two million dollars.
  • Documents used in litigation cannot breach copyright.
  • Barristers cannot be sued for defamation for anything they say in court.
  • And best of all, a barrister is immune from litigation in court. That is to say, a lawyer’s client can not sue her for negligence while she is representing him in the courtroom, even if she were to start swearing at the judge in Klingon and arguing for the other side.

untangling

Architects, by nature, are not so cunning.

On every one of our projects, we balance and clarify complex design briefs. I often tell our clients that this is one of the most important services we offer, and think proudly of it as akin to the untangling of a giant knot of ropes. Randy Deutsch even suggests that  the “problem-solving power of integrative thinking” is one of the architecture profession’s most formidable skills.[2]

But by making clarity in the built environment our business, we open ourselves up to competition. I’m not suggesting we change who we are, but we do need to do more to help ourselves.

Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? There are conveyancers and legal assistants, but there is no confusing them with the real McCoy. In architecture meanwhile, we have any number of competitors: draftspeople, project managers, design and build companies, building designers, even volume builders. We may not think they’re playing in our league, but the buying public can’t tell the difference. To our own detriment, we have never attempted to mark and then defend our territory.

What can we learn from the lawyers?

The legal profession is in a unique position to affect the legal landscape in which it practices. Many of the aforementioned protections were initiated via case law, that is a judge has decided in favour of a lawyer during a trial. Since around 90 – 95% of judges are promoted from the bar, this means the profession benefits from protection bestowed by itself.

We may not have such an enviable reach, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have other options available to us. We are, after all, the preeminent experts on the built environment. What do we know or do that we can use to help ourselves?

  • Legislating minimum design standards to match New South Wales’ SEPP 65 would be a great place to start. Holding onto the requirement that multi-residential projects be designed by an architect is essential.
  • Advertising propaganda is not the ethical dilemma it once was. Though atrociously misguided, the recent Ask an Architect billboard campaign was pithy and well-executed. This should be expanded and redirected to support the architecture profession as a whole.
  • As I’ve discussed previously, we need to thrust ourselves into the centre of any public discussion of the built environment. We should be the experts called upon by Jon Faine, Tony Jones and every other journalist in Australia broadcasting a piece on any subject from housing affordability to environmental sustainability, real estate or urban planning.
  • The Office of the Victorian Government Architect needs to be reinforced and immunised from the vagaries of the political cycle. It also needs to be funded and given great big pointy teeth, so that its design review panel can make a meaningful and widespread difference. A levy on new developments would be an easy and transparent way to achieve this.
  • We need to become less queasy about popular media. The Block and The House that 100k Built may be antithetical to good architecture, but we’re better off embracing than ignoring them. I’d wager good money that they’re watched by a large chunk of the 95% of new house builders who don’t use an architect.
  • We need to consider producing our own popular media. I don’t mean edgy documentaries, I mean good reality television or popular dramas that air in prime time on Channel 7. MasterChef doesn’t diminish the cult of chef celebrities, it enhances them; Boston Legal and Suits idolise the legal profession; why not architects?

I have heard it said that architects are the guardians of the built environment. I like this sentiment very much, but we need to consolidate this philosophy. Our dwindling influence on the building industry is evidence that good design, even great design, is not enough. We must urgently use every weapon at our disposal – political, regulatory, marketing – to ensure our place at the table is secure.


Footnotes:

  1. Some years ago, friends of mine sold their company to a US-based multinational. American legal jargon in fact puts its Australian equivalent to shame. What should have been a 40 page contract of sale grew until it filled an entire lever arch folder (plus appendices). One particularly important clause comprised a single sentence that ran unpunctuated for an entire A4 page.
  2. Randy Deutsch; How We Can Make Collaboration Work: How Architects Can Decentralise Rather than Be Marginalised; in Design Intelligence; January / February 2014. An excerpt can be viewed here.

Image sources:

  1. Denny Crane. Photo sourced from The Incredible Tide.
  2. Maximilian Armour. Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons.
  3. Untangling by Jeff Wall, 1994. Photo sourced from the National Gallery of Victoria.

The mystery of marketing

Marketing is a constant source of intrigue for the architecture profession. We don’t understand it very well, so regard it with reverential awe. Marketing, we think, is the magic lamp that will make us rich. So we talk about it all the time, we ask our colleagues in hushed whispers for the secrets of their success, we even pay good money to gain insight into its hidden truths.

I’m under no illusions about my mastery of this dark art. But after all the lectures, seminars, forums and blogs I’ve attended or read, I at least understand why there’s so much fuss:

The outcome of good marketing
=
More clients

In other words, we get more clients because more of the right people come knocking on our studio doors. And by right people, I mean people who want what we do and have the money to spend on our services. The marketing industry has a term for these wonderful people. It calls them qualified prospects.

The job of marketing then is to elevate prospects from the more generic group of suspects, that is, anyone thinking of engaging an architect.

According to Winston Marsh, whose annual seminar sessions on marketing I’ve attended, the conversion of suspects to prospects is best achieved by letting the buying public know what we do. This is more than having a website and a business card, it’s about targeting the right suspects.

So how do we know if we’re targeting the right suspects?

Well, to quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” So earlier this year, I started tracking our project leads. I picked through our old emails and pulled out key information for every prospect who has ever called, emailed or walked through our door. It was a revealing exercise, telling me for instance that after 5 years of practice this has happened 79 times.[1] And it was surprisingly easy to do. All I logged was four simple pieces of data:

  1. When each prospect made contact
  2. How she found out about us
  3. Whether we submitted a fee proposal
  4. Whether we won the commission

Since the aim of this exercise was to be systematic in understanding how prospects discover us, I established a list of ten categories that would group them according to the various marketing exercises we undertake (or others undertake on our behalf):

  • She reads this blog
  • She is a family or friend
  • She used the AIA’s Find an Architect service
  • She discovered us via online media
  • She is a past client
  • She visited a past project
  • She discovered us via printed media
  • She discovered us via television media
  • She came across our website
  • She discovered us via word of mouth

I filled in a simple spreadsheet (remember, with just four bits of information recorded against each lead) and amazingly rich information began to pour out of it. I now know which marketing exercises generate the most number of enquiries; which sources are the best at converting into commissions; and how these numbers change from year to year.

What follows is a summary of my findings, and a bit of a guide to help other young architects gain the same insights about your practices as I have ours:

Suspect to prospect

As I’ve noted previously, a colleague of ours relates the story of Peter Maddison, director of Maddison Architects, who disappears whenever the practice grows a bit quiet. He schedules lunch after lunch after lunch, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. He asks what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly reminds them that he’s open for business. Weeks or months later, when that restaurant site is purchased or new office space leased, his lunches pay off.

Our strategy is less boozy and, I have to confess, less targeted. We go for the scattergun approach: more is more. We put ourselves and our work in as many places as possible: on our website, this blog, Twitter, Instagram, FacebookPinterestHouzz and Find an Architect. We employ marketing campaigns for individual projects in printed and online media. We remind our friends and family that we’re architects, and encourage past clients to evangelise on our behalf. We even initiated an unsolicited urban renewal project for our street, and met with all our neighbours to promote it.

But the data speaks volumes. I now know that online media generates the greatest percentage of prospects (25%), but we are extremely unsuccessful in converting them into clients (5%). In contrast, our family and friends represent the second greatest percentage of prospects (19%), and we are very successful in converting them into clients (73%). Printed media and our website, perhaps the two most traditional avenues for marketing, together represent only 2% of our prospects and 0% of our clients.

lead origins

For our young practice, it can feel it times like we’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This data puts our impatience into perspective, and makes me feel pretty good about things. Considering all ten categories, spread out over the last five years:

A prospect makes contact once every three and a half weeks.

Prospect to client

From a business-planning point of view, understanding the next step – what proportion of prospects convert to clients – is the most important insight to gain. This helps in an egocentric way to measure how successful we are at wooing our clients, but more pragmatically reveals how many projects we’re likely to win each year and, consequently, how much money we’re likely to make.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Despite architects’ collective reputation as money-shy, the regularity of new projects coming through the door should underpin your entire financial management strategy. The key question really is: how much money do you want to earn? There’s some simple reverse-engineered math you can do here:

Salary you’d like to earn in a year = $100,000
Average fee for a project = $50,000
Average duration of a project = 2 years
Fee earned in a year from an average project = $25,000
Number of projects needed to earn salary = 4

My little spreadsheet gives us the hard numbers: we are asked to prepare fee proposals for 56% of the leads we receive, and 59% of our fee proposals convert into projects. Multiply these numbers together, and I find that 33% of our enquiries lead to commissions, or in other words:

For every new project we need the phone to ring three times.

lead conversion

If we multiply the regularity of our enquiries (once every three and a half weeks) together with our success rate in converting enquiries into projects (once every three enquiries), we discover another great bit of data:

We win a new project every ten and a half weeks.
Or
We win five new projects every year.

Growth

This is where the data starts to get really useful in terms of working out what to do next, how better to market ourselves. Back in 2010, pretty much no-one had ever heard of Mihaly Slocombe. Five years on, we’ve been published in various places and have won the odd award, so maybe we’re a little bit famous. A further five years from now, who knows where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing?

All of this means that the above information is dynamic. Some sources have grown since we started our practice, others have shrunk. Some have become better at converting enquiries into projects, others have become worse. My spreadsheet once again comes to the rescue, allowing us to track the overall growth year by year for all enquiries, for each prospect category, or for commissions relative to enquiries.

Project leads via online media is a telling example. From 2010 to 2012, we received zero leads from this source; in 2013, we received five; in 2014, fourteen; and so far this year, one. This growth has meant online media has become one of our most prominent lead generators. But conversions continue to be very poor: in 2013, the five leads converted to zero commissions; in 2014, fourteen to one; and so far this year, one to zero.

Happily, this is an isolated phenomenon for us. I think the poor conversion rate is due to the absence of trust inherent in a lead generated by online media, but this is perhaps a subject for another post.

overall growth

Overall, the picture is pretty good, very good in fact. While our successful conversion rate has always been more or less static (one in three), both our enquiries and our commissions are on an upwards trend:

More enquiries
= more commissions
= more projects each year
= more money

This means all sorts of things: maybe we need to think about taking on more staff; relocating our studio to a larger space; increasing our fees; upgrading our accounting system; engaging an office manager… All very good questions that only come about once we analyse our marketing position.

Yet despite the importance of this self-awareness, I imagine very few practices bother to gather this data.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be satisfied with intuition or reactionary tactics to ensure your practice thrives. You’ll need to base your decisions on a rational understanding of the game state of your practice. This means collecting data and analysing it. It means ensuring you have everything from accurate timesheets, to productivity forecasts, and project by project financial analysis. Importantly, it means demystifying marketing, if not the elusive secrets to marketing success, then at the very least the dynamic impact it has on your practice.

Good luck.


Footnotes:

  1. While we officially founded our practice in 2010, we received commissions for four side projects prior (while still working elsewhere). These projects have been figured into our calculations.

Image sources:

  1. Lead origins, this and subsequent images courtesy of author.
  2. Lead conversion.
  3. Overall growth.