A recent Harvard Law School case study, “Vieira de Almeida (VdA): Legal Innovation Pioneers in Portugal,” examines how a Lisbon-based law firm came of out nowhere to win the Financial Times’s 2013 Most Innovative Law Firm in Continental Europe award. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, VdA grew by double digits—as did many law firms around the world. Then, the global financial crisis hit, strangling Portugal’s economy and causing law firm after law firm to cut costs, reduce staff, and apply lower standards for new work. For most, this seemed like the prudent thing to do. However, VdA did very little of that, instead launching a major strategic reform program aimed at wholesale change. The gamble paid off. While revenues dipped slightly in 2011, they had recovered by 2012, and 2014 was the firm’s best year ever. The case study, written by Nathan Cisneros, Lisa H. Rohrer, Reena SenGupta, and Karina Shaw, examines VdA’s approach to dealing with this crisis through what the firm dubbed the Lighthouse Project and considers the role of firm culture and leadership during times of change.
Given the focus of this issue of The Practice on marketing and business development, of particular interest in this story is VdA’s shift toward what the case study calls “systematized business development efforts.” While the Lighthouse Project, which was formally revealed to the firm in January 2010, was firm-wide and touched on every person and every department, one of the core proposed (and adopted) changes revolved around the firm’s organization structure and business development function. As the case study lays out via a real-world exhibit that the firm provided to the authors, “Guideline Six” of the Lighthouse Project was titled “Investing in Business Development.” Its stated goal was:
To improve skills at an internal level in order to allow lawyers to be more aware of business opportunities (regarding current clients and new clients); to implement active client acquisition policies; and to support all actions taken by the leadership team toward fostering clients to clients.
How did the firm accomplish this goal? Through interviews with the firm’s leadership and internal data provided by VdA, the case authors write:
The firm merged several departments into a single top level client facing unit, the new Business Development & Client Division. It blended business development, knowledge management (with legal and technical expertise), and billing & collections. The new division used all three developments in tandem to proactively locate and track new business opportunities, gather specialized knowledge on client needs, and teach VdA lawyers project-specific skills.
Margarida Saragoça, who headed the newly merged division, reiterates this perspective, telling the authors:
Combining business development with knowledge management enabled us to immediately embed knowledge teams in a project should a pitch for new business move from opportunity to engagement, this building on existing momentum of relationships and expertise. Integrating the billing department with business development enabled the firm to actively work with clients to find novel ways to package, price, and bill out services.
Moreover, whereas much of this support was previously being provided by nonlawyer professionals, Saragoça notes that “before…it was a straight line from lawyer to the support team. Now, instead of a straight line, it’s a client-focused organization.”
Putting this together, the case study offers rich detail on how innovations in marketing and business development can help firms stay ahead. Coauthor Nathan Cisneros notes, “We came to understand that VdA’s approach to the Lighthouse Project was emblematic of the firm’s values: a strong emphasis on teamwork, a willingness to try risky endeavors, and a commitment to carry ideas through to completion. The case study shows that the process by which firms develop their strategic vision is just as important to its overall success as the vision itself.”
What is a case study?
A case study is an educational tool that allows students to analyze a factual situation confronting an individual or organization. Case studies, which are historically accurate, address topics such as the evolution of an organization’s business model, cooperation within teams, a corporate lawyer navigating his turbulent career, or a difficult merger between two law firms. Cases are not meant to provide definitive answers but instead to show multiple points of view and highlight the complexities and ambiguities of particular situations.