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A ClariLegal interview with Sheila Murphy

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

We recently had the privilege to speak with Sheila Murphy, President and CEO of Focus Forward Consulting LLC, and Chief Leardership & Talent Officer at WOMN, LLC. Both organizations are dedicated to helping individuals and businesses achieve new business performance goals and higher career success. Sheila also serves as a consultant to the financial industry with Bates Group. Previously, Sheila served as a legal executive at MetLife for 24 years, ultimately serving as the company’s Senior Vice President and Associate General Counsel, where she focused on litigation, regulation, and risk mitigation. At MetLife, Sheila also served as an executive sponsor for the company’s U.S. Women’s Business Network, was a member of the U.S. Task Force on Diversity, and co-chaired the company’s Legal Affairs Academy, which provided developmental opportunities to the company’s legal and compliance professionals across the globe. Prior to MetLife, Sheila practiced at the law firm of Thacher Proffitt & Wood.

We specifically asked Sheila about her work at Focus Forward Consulting. At Focus Forward, Sheila works with legal professionals at all stages of in their careers, but especially mid-level attorneys. For those at law firms, this often translates to senior associates and non-equity or newly-equity partners in law firms looking to increase their business, enhance their customer service skills, or plan their next career moves. For in-house attorneys, this means those individuals wishing to move away from being individual contributors to roles in upper management and executive positions where they can have greater impact on the organization. Sheila coachs her clients with their career development; in particular, one of the aspects of career development that she focuses on is ensuring her clients to better understand their value question – what value are clients of the firm or internal stakeholders looking for? what value can one provide to his or her company or firm? how does one go about facilitating conversations about value? To be successful as an attorney you must understand your value propositions and others must know it and appreciate it.

We began the interview by asking Sheila what value meant to her. Sheila deeply believes that adding value means moving one’s organization forward. People who add value “aren’t contributing just to today’s needs but are forward-looking in terms of strategically aligning an organization for what the future may hold”. For lawyers and legal professionals, Sheila believes that one way they can add value to their firms and organizations by developing talent— i.e, preparing for the work force of the future. Sheila notes that lawyers have not been historically good at this in past, instead often acting and being rewarded merely as individual contributors bringing in business for the firm. As a result, Sheila says that lawyers often may be less focused on the long-term needs of their organization, such as talent. Sheila argues that by devoting time and resources into developing talent, one leaves an organization in a stronger position than it is today; by developing a diversity of talent, one even adds greater value – as organizations with diverse talent outperform other organizations. In addition, by developing strong teams, senior attorneys can focus on higher value adds for both their clients and the organization. Sheila maintains that “firms and organizations that learn how to harness innovation and strategic thinking will have a competitive advantage in the future”.

We also asked Sheila how her understanding of value has changed throughout the various roles in her career. Sheila begins by noting that her understanding of the concept of value changed as she took on increasingly senior roles. Specifically, Sheila says that, when she was in more junior roles her focus was on providing value to clients and internal stakeholders. Sheila notes that this was a narrower focus, since as she took on more senior positions her perception of value broadened as she began to “connect the dots”, not looking at “just the advice you’re giving on this matter or what you’ve been asked to look at”. Sheila argues that, at a management level, one must begin to look strategically at how to provide value to one’s organization, preparing the company or the law firm’s clients for the future – being able to advise clients when a “change is going to impact every single type of deal you have or how technology can make you more efficient”.

However, Sheila argues that lawyers can provide greater value to clients or internal stakeholders by taking a more holistic approach, which means becoming better positioned to provide customer service to or serve internal stakeholders and propel clients or companies to future success. Sheila notes that this approach involves asking “do you have the right specialties, are you using technology such as AI in the right way, are your processes efficient, are you looking at lean methodologies, are you looking at what may be coming in as competitive threats? Are you advising your clients on trends and insights?”. Sheila argues that lawyers that strategically view these items provide value that is often not recognized in traditional law firm structures. Conversely, Sheila contends that an “eat-what-you-kill” approach in the legal industry serves as an impediment to value and moving forward.

We also asked Sheila about how clients, customers, and stakeholders have defined value to her throughout her career. Noting her time in legal executive roles, Sheila says that internal stakeholders define value in legal services as strategic thinking with a focus on solutions, honesty, and having a full understanding of the client’s or the company’s business and being able to deliver advice in a concise manner. Sheila says that this involves looking at not only the legal issues but also the ethical and reputational issues an organization may face.

We asked Sheila for her thoughts about how value is communicated in the legal industry and between lawyers and clients. Sheila begins by noting that in the legal industry, there is often little understanding about what clients value, what a client’s business model is, or what the client is seeking from a firm’s services. Sheila notes this occurs when lawyers fail to have the value conversation up-front and can be exacerbated into the next matter or engagement when lawyers also fail to conduct post-mortems to determine whether the client or internal stakeholder was provided with the value they sought. As she coaches her clients, Sheila says that client services focused on the delivery of value can be a way to distinguish oneself in career or business performance; she argues that attorneys who seek to rise up the corporate ladder need to exhibit a deep understanding of issues outside the strict scope of one’s legal advice, although that is a concept that really isn’t taught in law school. Sheila notes that the concept of value comes up in her coaching when she talks about client service and how the attorneys she works with approach the topic of value; Sheila tries to coach her clients to make conversation about the delivery of value part of the daily routine.

We asked Sheila whether she thought there were tools that were or could improve communication about value. Sheila begins by noting that attorneys need to spend time at the beginning of a matter or an engagement to determine what value means for that matter or engagement. Sheila also argues that both internal and external teams should be utilizing project management tools during an engagement or project, with a project manager ensuring that all stakeholders are on the same page. Sheila notes that billing or budgeting software can also be helpful in facilitating the value conversation, since it can spur a discussion between counsel and the client over how counsel is handling or staffing a matter. Finally, Sheila reiterates that having a post-mortem/wrap-up conversation is critical, since it can serve as a learning experience to help attorneys improve their efficiency and delivery of value. It also can ensure that you maintain a client.

Finally, we asked Sheila for her final thoughts about value. Sheila argues that lawyers can fail to appreciate that, to create value for clients or stakeholders, it is necessary to invest time to develop oneself and one’s team. Sheila advocates that attorneys need to make an effort to get out of their comfort zones and learn new skills and knowledge; however, Sheila notes that various personal and professional obstacles, which she terms “saboteurs”, can make it difficult to push through to reach the next level of career or business success. A coach can add value by helping you conquer those saboteurs and appreciate that by valuing to others- you can further your own career success because clients want to work with the attorneys who bring the greatest value.

Disclaimer: The statements of the interviewees in the Value Article Series are opinions and observations of a personal nature and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and policies of their respective employers.


About the authors:

James Johnson is principal attorney of First Venture Legal, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based law practice focused on corporate and transactional law for very-early-stage startups. James assists entrepreneurs and small business owners with corporate formation and structuring, contracts, commercial law, employment matters, and early-stage fundraising. His practice utilizes alternative fee structures to deliver value-based service to early-stage ventures.

In addition to practicing law, James works with ClariLegal, focusing on building out its innovative platform and spreading the word of ClariLegal’s mission to reduce cost and complexity in legal vendor selection and management for law firms and corporations.

Cash Butler is the founder of ClariLegal. A seasoned legal technology innovator, Cash has over 18 years of experience in the legal vertical market, primarily working in eDiscovery, litigation & compliance. Cash is an expert in legal vendor, pricing and project management.

ClariLegal is a preferred vendor management platform for legal services that improves business outcomes. Made for legal by legal experts. We match corporations and law firms with preferred vendors to manage the work through a fast and complete RFP and bidding process. ClariLegal’s platform allows all internal client segments to improve business outcomes across the board – predictability, time and money. Learn more

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