Experienced and passionate consultant Susanne Pugsley lifts the lid on consulting to professional services firms and shares some hard-won advice.
The generosity you extend to your peers and suppliers over your years in-house will stand you in far greater stead when trying to build a business as a consultant than cosying up to the lawyers you work with.
After Covid, the workplace looked very different and the changes it brought continue to dominate most workplace discussions. Many marketers in the professional services sector decided that traditional working practices were not for them. They want more flexibility, more control over their destiny and the joy of working for many different clients rather than a single entity. And so, the ranks of consultants have swelled considerably since 2020.
Having consulted since 2010, I have seen trends, changes, and peaks and troughs in the legal marketing consulting arena. Back then, I laboured under the misapprehension that it would be easy to be a consultant.
When I decided not to return from maternity leave and to go out on my own, after my first child, I was convinced I knew everything I needed to know. I had a great network of contacts. I had strong skills and a wealth of experience. Surely it was going to be simple to do the job that I loved for a variety of clients on a project basis.
I had a rude awakening.
I was soon to realise that my little black book of contacts was not much use. They were all lawyers that I had worked with and who were happy to give me great references, but none of them had the gift of actual work. Ironic since it had been my main topic of teaching for lawyers wanting to build profitable relationships to bring in work and I had failed to apply it to myself.
Those I had considered my competition when I was in-house were in fact my future clients, namely the other marketing and BD directors. Those who used to be paid by me for their services were now my target referrers so my suppliers of everything from print to PR became the people I needed to be close to.
Nowadays I meet with a lot of consultants starting on their journey from inhouse to outhouse and I always start by asking them some very basic questions. Who’s going to support your IT requirements? Who’s going to run your finances? How are you going to set your pricing, and once you have sent that invoice who going to chase your bills? As once you are out alone you often have to do all these things yourself.
Clients rarely pay their bills on time so be ready to chase them down – which can take time. If your Teams or Zoom or other systems fail it is on you to fix them, fast, with no handy service desk to help you.
Sometimes it is useful to hunt in a pack or team of consultants and many consultancies offer centralised services like billing and IT but they will take a cut of your income. Finally, how are you going to pay yourself? Salary or dividends? Most firms won’t employ self-employed consultants due to risk so you will need to be a limited company which requires paying corporation tax as well as NIC and PAYE etc. Once you start to be successful you will also need to VAT register, which makes accounting even more fun.
Who will buy?
Apart from these logistical questions, I also ask the most important question – who are the buyers of your service?
When I left the comfort of working inside a law firm all my contacts were lawyers and I had assumed that that would be enough. But I had missed the fundamental point that lawyers would not be the ones who would instruct me. It would be my peers, suppliers, competitors, and all those who work in marketing in professional services are the ones who would hire me or recommend me. So be very aware that the generosity you extend to your peers and suppliers over your years in-house will stand you in far greater stead when trying to build business as a consultant than cosying up to the lawyers you work with. Your network is everything and as we all know it is all about who you know not necessarily what you know that counts.
Don’t get me wrong, going out on your own is liberating and the autonomy to choose when and where you work and select the projects that excite you is invigorating. Be ready for the fact that not all projects will go the way you expect.
Just because you are now consulting, the challenges that you will face working in professional services do not change. Often they are made harder because you’re not on the inside; you don’t have access to all the information, and you have not been there long enough to know the politics. Although not being immersed in the politics is a definite benefit – the ability to be objective and to bring clarity from the outside is valuable, but you will still be classed as an outsider looking in.
Culture trumps strategy
All the key benefits of being an employee, being covered by employment law, and the benefits that wrap around you are not available to you as a consultant. Although it is a good idea to ensure your contract gives some cover here. I’ve come across situations where, as a consultant, you are left out in the cold. Toxic behaviours and cultures in firms are no surprise to anyone who works in this industry, but a salient lesson that I have learnt when selecting the project is to find out the attitude and culture before taking it on.
Working with a client with a positive work culture is a joy. Clear guidelines, training and communication are key. These are not that common, but a firm with a solid internal comms strategy and intranet will it much easier to deliver quickly. Be warned that pointing out the gaps in culture and communication, whilst recognised, will not make you popular.
Top tip – access
My top tips for any firm wanting to employ a consultant to work on a specific project or on an interim basis is, firstly, to think clearly about what you want to achieve and how you plan to manage their integration into your firm.
IR35 caused a lot of fear in the industry around what equipment you could give to a consultant and what would lead to the HMRC determining that this person was in fact an employee rather than a consultant. This led to some firms refusing consultants access to key tools such as CRM or the billing system or key data.
I know one firm that refused access to email or to have a firm email at all, saying it would hold them out as an employee, which essentially led the consultant unable to complete their tasks. Left out of the system, they were unable to set up meetings, create any rapport with the people in the firm or even find them.
Top tip – induction
Secondly, and many consultants may rail against this, it is essential they have the same induction as an employee.
I used to laugh when I was told I had to have a full induction sometimes for a project that was only due to last for six weeks. But once I had worked with several firms where I wasn’t given an induction and had no way of navigating my way around the firm and its systems, I realised what a fool I had been. This becomes vitally important with hybrid working patterns as you cannot guarantee the people you need will be in the office every day.
When people increasingly no longer have static desks, trying to track them down for meetings and conversations, with no understanding of how to find them, where they sit and where their information can be found on the system is challenging. This is often made harder by poor internal communications.
Top tip – reporting and measuring success
Thirdly, reporting and success factors. Setting out the parameters for success at the start of the journey is vitally important. Document and determine the points you will measure, keeping in mind that all too often this will not be clearly articulated by the client.
Regular check-ins and meetings with key stakeholders are also vital to ensure that the project is on track and delivery targets are being met. This is not to say that the goalpost won’t shift dramatically during that time, but my advice is to make sure that those changes are documented, and the end goal amended.
It is important to know who the owner of the project is and whether that owner has the buy-in of the board, the senior management and the financial backing to deliver it. Too often consultants can be hired by a partner or department without the full knowledge or backing of the partnership which means the project is not likely to succeed. These projects are usually the brainchild of inspired and entrepreneurial partners, but they have not taken colleagues, particularly marketing and BD teams, with them on the journey and therefore are not supported.
Key delivery stakeholders will often include finance, IT, HR, risk, operations and all the departments that marketing and business development rely upon. If the financial and commercial imperative has not been communicated, then the other business services departments will not be as receptive to supporting the goals of your project.
The cultures in professional services firms have evolved over the years, some in a good way and some less so. We all can name a firm with a perceived bad – and good – workplace culture, but until you set foot inside that firm you will not know the truth of it.
As an employee, you have recourse to HR processes. But as an external consultant, you do not have that luxury and you can often find yourself isolated and alone. Building a community around yourself – or joining one that exists – with like-minded or similar-level peers in the market cannot be under-valued.
So, in this new world of work, consulting is a great way to work for both yourself and some fantastic firms. My advice, stick to the key objectives and have a plan to avoid the pitfalls, back it up with good communication and documentation and a bright consulting future awaits you.
Susanne Pugsley is a passionate and pragmatic business development specialist in the legal sector and beyond. She started Pugsley Sidwell Business Development (PSBD) in 2010 after a decade in law firm marketing and business development for a range of firms from global UK headquartered, US firms, national firms and regional firms so her range of experience spans the very large to the very small and can adapt and tailor services to fit any size or requirement.
She is known in the sector as a fixer of problems, a true change manager who has helped many firms and individual partners in both the law and accountancy to create workable strategies to realise their business development and marketing goals. Susanne can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.