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On Models & Designs for the Modern Legal Department: An Interview with The Crown Estate’s Rob Booth

When you rose into the role of general counsel at The Crown Estate, what made panel management the right area to focus on evolving first?

The key bit of backstory on me is that I’m a reformed scientist. I spent most of my time at university studying to become a biologist before making a late move toward law. One scientific trait I definitely still have, however, is an interest in identifying the pattern or rule behind certain structures. So it was notable to me that, although I now saw the full range of law firms working for our organization, I still couldn’t quite say what unified our approach.

What we ended up doing across the broader business was embedding a series of design thinking principles. It sounds a little esoteric, but it was actually a very logical and practical solution. We needed to identify an actionable purpose everyone could get behind, validate that it was the correct purpose to pursue, and then start creating the everyday structures that would help us build up toward the goal.

Out of that actionable purpose came what we refer to as our value equation. It defines how we collect and manage value from our legal ecosystem, as a business. Once we had that in place, it was much easier to know which structures to build and levers to pull if we wanted to improve collaboration with our partners.

We’re still making iterations and improvements all the time, of course, but the big initial win was knowing that the thousand micro decisions we make over the course of a year are all pointing toward a shared set of macro principles.

Do you think that scientific training gives you a different lens to look through than most of your peers?

I should be careful not to overgeneralize here. I’m sure plenty of professionals without my academic training work from similar models. But one trait I repeatedly find in scientists, engineers, and other structured thinkers is a propensity to experiment in systematic ways. It’s more than just an openness to new ideas, it’s a desire to test, validate, and iterate as well.

At the heart of our continuous improvement strategy, for example, is something we call the knowledge butterfly. It’s a silly name for a serious concept, but we visualize our everyday decision engine as the body of a butterfly. As work flows through it, wings form as we loop back what we learn into the model. We also keep our antennae up to collect feedback from our external environment. And if that feedback is filtered appropriately across the organization, each flap of our collective wings becomes incrementally smarter.

So what does it look like when it all comes together around panel management?

If we cascade down from the top, our actionable purpose is for the legal team to create a sustainable competitive advantage for The Crown Estate. We think about that mission in measurable terms and at set intervals, like any business, but we also know that it’s not strictly time-bound. We’ll always be striving to innovate and create an advantage.

Beneath that, we have the value equation itself. The visual diagram looks like eight smaller bubbles orbiting a bigger value bubble at the center. The smaller ones represent our business units, our perspective of the thematic elements that bring us value, and the opportunities where we can share value.

We start with more traditional areas where the metrics are a bit better established, like delivering service excellence. But then we go more broadly into things like optimizing administrative efficiency, getting into the operations space and thinking about what we can do with process mapping or design thinking. Other items of emphasis lately have been maintaining business alignment – which covers key matters like inclusion and sustainability – and optimizing knowledge transfer.

We reference this tool directly when hiring, managing, and rewarding our partners. So any person who wants to provide us with services can see what we’re looking for on a single page and honestly assess how they measure up. That kind of clarity and transparency has been instrumental in forging confidence and trust in our partnerships.

Once a law firm has been selected into your panel, how do you think about setting up the relationship for long-term success?

I’d say the biggest thing we do is think through an arbitrage model. It might be a slight misuse of the term, but it starts from the notion that all our partner organizations will have value equations of their own. Whether they write it down or not, there will be things they value beyond the payments received for services provided. So we took a hard look at everything The Crown Estate has that’s of value, that could be of value to our partners, and that we may be willing to give up to create a value advantage.

As an example, one unique asset we had was an iconic female CEO. My persuading her to speak at a women’s career development event hosted by a partner law firm wouldn’t necessarily cost us anything aside from time. But that could be a tremendous value to offer the firm alongside our core relationship.

The second piece is more about how we structure the flow of information across our quarterly meetings. In Q1 the focus is exclusively internal, sharing details on what’s behind our annual performance reports and accounting. It gives our partners a glimpse under the hood and helps them better understand what makes us tick as a client.

The focus is strategic risk in Q2, our overall strategy in Q3, and then only in Q4 do we really dive deep into law firm performance. The open exchange of information, particularly from our vantage point as a very large property company with holdings in a wide range of sectors, sets the tone for all of our interactions. We trust our partners and expect them to judiciously use our insights to their advantage.

Those are just small snippets of our bigger ethos, though, which is that it has to be about the people first. As much as operations and tech are brilliant enablers, you have to see human first, process second, and technology third. All of our provisions still ultimately involve a human somewhere along the line — and they’re all surprisingly like us when we get to meet them. So we stay away from the tired trope of corporate legal departments and their suppliers as adversaries. It benefits no one.

A slightly simpler equation you often talk about is 1+1=3. What does that mean to you?

I’m a massive fan of this concept, but I can’t claim it as my own. I first came across it in Scott Page’s writings about superadditivity and it’s definitely something our team embraces. It’s a great model for thinking about the potential value created by collaboration.

The principle relies upon treating every person’s unique approach to problem-solving as being valued at 1, then putting that into team scenarios. At the lowest end of the value scale is outright dysfunction, otherwise known as 1+1=0. We see this when two parties come together to solve a problem but simply cannot get along. They completely fail to consider, much less leverage, the perspective of the other. The next level up (1+1=1) is unhealthy competition or conflict. This time the two parties come together, but a sole victor wins out and incorporates none of the other’s potential value.

Cooperation, or 1+1=2, is probably the most recognizable team dynamic in the modern workplace. Two parties combine their resources to solve something, but they spend the process divided and acting in parallel. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. You’re still generating a better result than either one of you could in isolation due to extending scale and scope. But I think when most business partners describe themselves as collaborative, cooperative is probably the more accurate label.

What I’m looking for is the level above that, where you have a structure that accentuates the benefits of both parties and facilitates a merger of the two. Not only do you get the best of both, but you also get an extra element of combined value created together (1+1=3). It’s not easy to do, of course, but it’s effectively free value.

In addition to your role at The Crown Estate, you’re also the co-founder of The Bionic Lawyer Project and an MBA candidate. So the very last equation we’ll discuss is the 24-hour day. How do you balance yours?

The crucial part of creating a value equation for your organization is that, in the end, you also have to hold a mirror up in front of yourselves. Our team performance is measured using the same criteria we use for our partner organizations. So in a shorthand way, I use the principles in our value equation to prioritize my time and decide where to make my contributions.

One key feature of our panel management system is the concept of gold-box problems versus silver-box problems. In the gold box are highly complicated and often uncertain questions that require a collaborative approach to solve. The silver box holds questions that are typically more structured, repeatable, and amenable to procedural or technical solutions.

The ideal state for me is a balance of creating models to apply to silver-box problems and working directly on solutions to the gold-box problems. I’m trying not to overserve the simple or underserve the complicated.

It goes wrong, by the way. I don’t mean to imply that I’m always some portrait of swan-like serenity at the office.

Well, since you brought it up, are there any memorable misfires that you now count as valuable learning experiences?

I’d say the early attempts I made at creating collaborative atmospheres were pretty ham-fisted. I naively assumed that if you just assembled a hangar-full of smart people and invited them to collaborate on a special project, then they naturally would. I see now why that was mad.

True collaboration can’t happen without a common sense of purpose and some supporting architecture. So since then, we’ve worked quite hard to define exactly what we’d like to collectively achieve from the start. That upfront thinking, and the care it takes to create a space where people feel safe to share their ideas, were two lessons I had to learn over time.

The other thing for me is that I was as guilty as anyone when it came to getting overexcited about products. It’s new, it looks slick, and it’s definitely going to solve all my problems. Right? Well, now we’ve become much more systematic in how we think about gathering our requirements and finding a match.

I know plenty of organizations arrived at that conclusion ahead of us — possibly after being burned by a few bad buys. But now we make certain that we’re sticking to the human, process, technology hierarchy. Because when you actually map it all out, quite often you stop at the process layer of the pyramid. You see there’s plenty of progress to be made if you shift people into the right place and send them down the right path. It’s only when we see a brilliant efficiency play that we tend to apply bespoke technology on top of it all.