As the global financial crisis roiled across Europe in the late 2000s, smaller European countries like Portugal were among the hardest hit, a fact Lisbon-based law firm Vieira de Almeida (VdA) knew unfortunately well. The firm saw some clients with financials in free fall and others close their doors altogether.
“Those were really hard times,” says Paula Gomes Freire, a partner in the firm’s Banking & Finance practice. “The financial crisis made us realize that we needed to do something very different – that we needed to be driven by a different force to build a stronger culture.”
That force, the firm decided after much examination and internal reﬂection, was innovation. Instead of hunkering down and waiting out the financial storm as so many others were doing – using mass layoffs and steep cutbacks to try to survive another day – VdA took another path. The firm launched the Lighthouse Project, a strategic review of the firm, top to bottom, that lasted several years and reformed the firm’s approach to technology, staffing, workﬂow and business development. The underpinnings of the Lighthouse Project were the core values considered strongest within the firm: teamwork, follow-through and a willingness to experiment with new ventures.
“At the time, innovation was clearly perceived as one of the drivers that could get us out of the situation that we were facing,” says João Vieira de Almeida, VdA’s managing partner, adding that the partners decided early on that it was crucial to keep the team together and avoid large-scale layoffs. “I think culture plays a major role in all of this.”
As client work remained very slim in those crisis years, the firm used the time to reinvigorate its operations; as the crisis abated, VdA found itself in a much better position to address the other issues facing the firm, such as a generational divide among its lawyers and the client-led push to use technology to reconfigure all facets of legal service. In 2013, when the firm surprised some of the largest global law firms in Europe by being named “Most Innovative Law Firm in Continental Europe” by Financial Times, it may have been less of a surprise to those inside VdA. In 2015, the firm was named the “Game Changer Law Firm” by FT, and last year was again named “Most Innovative.” Clearly, for a comparatively smaller firm in a smaller European country, VdA had hit upon a successful model.
“Keeping the momentum is a big part of the Innovation Forum.”
– Margarida Saragoça, Business Development and Clients Director, VdA
The Forum, Saragoça explains, is a group within the firm – she is a member – that has helped push new ideas and processes, making sure those ideas are given a chance to develop and be implemented. “It’s a big effort, actually,” she says. “We are the ones making sure that the entire firm is focused on innovation.”
The Innovation Forum and its earlier incarnation in the Lighthouse Project were both focused on the same thing: moving innovation to the forefront of how the firm was run and staffed, how it worked and, perhaps most importantly, how it interacted with clients. And the firm has done this in a myriad of ways, large and small, from introducing the innovation focus to all employees at a firm-wide annual meeting, to elevating innovation to the value level and having it printed on the firm’s key cards, to creating an “innovation profile” for each lawyer. These efforts were aimed at building innovation into the firm’s day-to-day language and empowering all employees to think creatively about how they do their jobs. There were workshops, initiatives and programs all designed to demonstrate to all how the firm envisioned innovation as its centerpiece to success.
“I think innovation was a strong driving factor for promoting our internal culture and for getting people around a topic that allowed us to gain momentum during the crisis.”
– Paula Gomes Freire, Partner, VdA Banking & Finance
Gomes Freire added that making this strategic shift during the financial crisis had its advantages. “If you are willing to look outside the box, you can find alternative ways of providing your services, and that has helped, for sure.”
João Vieira de Almeida explains that innovation was just one of the strategic drivers that firm leaders decided would help VdA out of the crisis. Another is teamwork. “Teamwork is a basic part of our culture and played a huge role during the crisis, but it has been here forever,” Vieira de Almeida says, adding that too often soft terms like “culture” and “teamwork” get dismissed, but they really have an economic impact on the firm as well. “It affects the way we work, our relationships as partners and associates, and during the crisis it helped us stick together,” he says. “From there, we began a recovery which gave us our best years ever.”
That culture also helped the firm deal with another problem that arose during the crisis – generational pressure. When Vasco Vieira de Almeida (João’s father) launched the firm in 1976, during a time when many of Portugal’s leading law firms also were formed, it created a legal market that now, 40 years later, sees many of those firms’ original partners nearing retirement. “With the generational aspect, the major challenge was providing the younger generation some hope that the firm will still be around in two years’ time,” says João Vieira de Almeida. “Being able to pass a message on to the younger generation that we would overcome this – that was a major challenge.”
One way they conveyed that message was by reorganizing and modernizing how the firm’s Human Resources department operated within the firm, especially around how the firm was making decisions on hiring and promoting. The firm overhauled the whole system, Vieira de Almeida describes, changing how lawyer evaluations were done and career paths were outlined. VdA also hired an HR consultant who added a lot of value by updating and streamlining the department, he notes.
VdA also created a Leadership Group of practice and department leaders that also included the firm’s support staff, empowering those individuals to play a role in the firm’s strategic direction. “Right now, the group is composed of partners who are board members, plus four or five executive directors who are support staff, so it is a very close relationship,” he adds.
Also, the firm did have one advantage over its competitors – it was the first Portuguese law firm to create a Business Development unit, which it did in 2007. It is still the largest business development department in the country’s legal market. “What we have done is try to make the client the center of all our work, in conversation and mind-set,” says Saragoça, adding the purpose is to get VdA’s people more involved in their clients’ businesses and challenges, allowing the firm to form a broader picture of clients’ needs. “It’s very collaborative work, and it was very well-accepted,” she adds. “Sometimes there was room to get more involved with clients, and sometimes not. But overall, it’s about getting the client’s business in our mind.”
The firm continues using innovation to further its client-centric strategy. For example, it recently fine-tuned a business intelligence system that was developed about three years ago and disseminates the intelligence through dashboards available to all partners. Also, the firm is beginning to track its cross-billing levels, which is an enormous undertaking, Saragoça explains, but will pay huge dividends in determining how the firm shares profits, allocates resources and locates additional opportunities.
Now, years after the dire times of the financial crisis have ebbed away, Vieira de Almeida says he is greatly optimistic about the firm’s prospects. “When all this started many years ago, we were very young. We had this dream of doing law differently,” he says. “It’s very clear now that we’ve made it. We can all go home now, and the firm will still be around with the people that have joined.”
“It’s great that we can look back and see that we have been able to do that.”
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