One Thing You Should Never Outsource

“Outsource it all,” I proposed in a recent article.

The response was giddy. Lawyers approached me from around the globe with a gleeful look in their eyes (or in their emails). The conversation at my workshop in Las Vegas got particularly animated when the issue came up.

I do, in fact, believe you can outsource it all. That includes everything from finance to technology to marketing. It also includes the legal work. It’s all fair game if outsourcing is your approach to growing your business.

Most of the work can be handed off

The idea of outsourcing it all energizes some lawyers. Their questions reveal the electricity coursing through their veins as they fantasize about a life without employees or, possibly, direct contact with clients.

But the idea quickly leads to lots of questions. Which work should be outsourced? Which work should be retained? How do we find people whom we can trust to do the work properly? How do we monitor the work and the fulfillment of our promises to clients?

The starting point is to let go of a small piece of work. Find a marketplace like Upwork, draft the specifics for the tasks required, pick a vendor and give outsourcing a try. Your first experiment will be bumpy–that’s how you find the flaws in your system. That’s progress.

It’s pretty easy to identify the work that ought to be outsourced. When the assignments are rote and generic, they should go. When the work involves the delivery of a commodity, it should go too.

When you can document the system and use that information to consistently produce a particular outcome, then it’s clear that the work can be handed off to someone outside of the law firm and handled at a distance.

But some work is special, different, worth keeping

Some work is different, though. Some work defines you. It’s the thing people talk about; it’s the the reason they come to you instead of your competitor. Sure, you can hand it off, but you run the risk of sub-optimal results. You run the risk of losing that element that keeps people referring to you, coming back to you, or saying nice things about you.

Don’t outsource your secret sauce.

Abigail Ybarra worked for Fender guitars from 1956 to 2013. She hand-wound guitar pickups that found their way into instruments for people like Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, among many others. Winding pickups is something that can be done, and often is done, entirely by machine.

But guitar players, like audiophiles and wine connoisseurs, are a picky bunch. They claim to be able to hear, taste, and smell things that others can’t.

Are Abby’s pickups better than the ones hand-wound by other people? Maybe, maybe not.

Are they better than pickups wound entirely by a machine? Maybe, maybe not.

But what’s clear is that the pickups she has touched are coveted by guitarists around the globe. They get into bidding wars on eBay for sets of her pickups. They write articles in magazines and on blogs about making sure you don’t get duped into buying fake sets that aren’t really wound by “the queen of tone”.

The most macho shredders go weak at the knees for the chance to own pickups wound by this diminutive grandmother from Southern California.

Whether you believe the hype or not, she has the secret sauce. And Gibson, Fender’s biggest competitor, may have had all kinds of fancy and expensive equipment and techniques, but they didn’t have Abigail Ybarra.

There are some special elements of your business that are tricky to define. They’re hard to explain. They’re the things which require some of the special–personal–art you and your team bring to the work you do for your clients.

What’s your secret sauce?

There are elements of your business that can’t be written down. These special things defy description–there’s some magic involved–and when you try to draft written instructions, it’s hard to describe just how to say “abracadabra” and wave the magic wand. There are things you do that need to be done by the people inside your team who do them so well now. They know the magic trick. They know the secret of the secret sauce.

The secret sauce might be one of many parts of the business:

1. Client connection

It might be the special connection that you and your team develop with your clients. Our profession is all about trust. Building it, keeping it, and using it to resolve disputes is a powerful skill set not easily handed off to others. Of course, trust can be built with systems, promises, and reliability, but you may be doing something more than that, and the intangible nature of it makes it difficult to put into words. Connection might be your secret sauce, but it might be something you truly can write down, pass off and successfully outsource.

2. Ideas

It might be the ideas flowing from you and others inside the business. Innovation is hard to outsource. Doing things differently can be a powerful advantage in the market. Ideas impact all areas of the firm. The ideas might relate to the legal approach in cases, the marketing of the firm, the management of the team, the financing of the business, or the design, pricing, or compensation.

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Some folks are idea-generation machines. That’s a special skill and it’s not easily found in others. Some lawyers have so many ideas they’ve got to outsource the projects they dream up. But it might be that finding someone to keep generating the ideas proves challenging.

3. Personality

It might be the personality and culture of your team and the impact that culture has on clients. Every business has a personality. Clients feel it when they walk in the door or call the office. The personality of some businesses is sterile and anonymous. If the personality of your business is something special, unique, and powerful, it may prove hard to outsource to others.

4. Special people

It might be that you have incredibly special people doing the work in a way that can’t be replicated by other people who don’t have the magic. It might be that your team is more than the sum of its parts. It might be the synergy your team creates when you come together with the right client to solve the right problem.

Some lawyers are great at assembling a team of people who collectively add way more value than they would individually. Finding, recruiting, and keeping the right people together is something that is hard to explain and definitely hard to write down.

5. Intuition

It might be an intuition you have for tapping into the core of the problem and seeing the solutions. Some lawyers see things others don’t. They get to the root of the problem quickly and easily because they see it right on the surface while the rest of us are still getting organized. They feel the right things to say, and they say them. The solutions to complicated problems seem simple to them. That’s a powerful secret sauce.

6. Community connection

It might be the connection you bring to the clients or the referral sources or the judges or the community. Some folks have an instinctive, automatic, reflexive skill for creating relationships. These folks are likable, approachable, and generate goodwill wherever they go. The connections they make generate business for the firm. These connections result in alliances that strengthen the business. If this is your secret sauce, you should probably keep it inside the business

7. Management of people or projects

It might be the excellent management of people and projects demonstrated by the business. Managing tasks from inception to conclusion is, as we all realize eventually, harder than it looks. Some businesses are good at wrapping matters up and finishing. Some struggle to check much of anything off the list. Why? It’s hard to say, and it’s harder to write down.

People and project management usually ties back to a disciplined, orderly approach to solving problems. Many firms get things done some of the time but they struggle to stay consistent. They lack the discipline required to keep things moving forward day after day, year after year. It’s tough.

If you and your team find that you’re excellent at finishing, you may also have found your secret sauce.

8. Leadership

It might be the personality and leadership you bring to the business. It might be that you’re capable of generating the passion in others that inspires them to keep working through tough challenges. It might be that your leadership stems from excellent judgment that is respected and trusted by others. It might be that you have an intangible quality that makes others want to march behind you even when the odds seem long and the challenges are great.

9. Vision

It might be the long-term vision you hang on to, keep alive for your team, and bring to the forefront of every decision. Outsourcing the vision is nearly always a bad idea. Of course, some of us struggle to formulate any cohesive vision for the future at all, so outsourcing might be the only option in that instance. But it’s your business and you’re the one whose requirements it ought to meet.

Save the magic for yourself

Your magic–your secret sauce–is the big value you bring to the world. Don’t give it away. Outsourcing magic nearly always goes badly. It’s hard to replicate that special thing you bring to the business and the impact it has on the team, the clients, and the market.

When you find yourself struggling to explain it, when it feels like it’s not logical or orderly or systematic, then it might be magical, and that’s probably something which shouldn’t be outsourced. That magical element is the thing to keep doing. The outsourcing of all the rest frees everyone up to deliver even more magic.

Outsourcing is awesome. It leverages you and your team. It creates the opportunity to scale the business up and help more and more clients. It gives you the chance to focus your time on the work that really matters.

When you find your incredibly special people doing work that can’t be written down, then you’ve discovered the secret sauce. That’s what should never be outsourced.

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