Bas Groot and Sietske van der Werf are Halsten’s commanders-in-chief. Halsten is the answer to a puzzle that was opened more than twenty years ago. At the time, Bas started working for a Zuid-as law firm. After six years, he switched to the field of corporate legal counsel as a sole and independent proprietor, studying after hours for his Master of Science degree in business administration. Sietske started with a large HR services provider and has acquired experience in business development, HR, and recruitment. Before Halsten, both Bas and Sietske had built up their own companies in the legal market. Halsten was born from the merger of these companies, also bearing the fruit of work experience and insights gained in more classical law firms, business administration, HR, and corporate legal departments. Eliane Koelmans became a co-shareholder in 2019, before which she worked at Spigthoff as managing director and at Boer&Croon as a partner, with responsibility for the office organisation but also active in the areas of business law and M&A. Eliane has brought much know-how and experience aboard regarding organisations of professionals. At Halsten, Eliane is responsible for the continued expansion of the M&A practice, but behind the scenes, she is also closely involved in the operations.
The puzzle and its pieces
Starting in the manner that is typical for lawyers – it’s what we do, after all – with a reservation: what follows is sometimes generalising and probably incomplete. All readers are hereby encouraged to contribute constructively by sharing their insights and experiences with us!
The provision of services, flexible capacity, and know-how come first and foremost. The traditional forte of law firms, of course. Clients are often very satisfied in that regard, but believe that the rates are expensive and that the old-boy network is too distant, both literally and figuratively. The rates and working methods create obstacles, and advice is often requested reticently or too late. Those are missed opportunities: precisely at the dawn of development, it is important to consider every aspect of the organisation. The technical, commercial, financial, and marketing aspects and the like, of course, the legal aspects. Every aspect is key to success. That is why easy access to legal experts and lawyers is important: doing away with obstacles and inviting their thoughts. This can also make negative experiences avoidable. No one likes to discover after months of hard work that feasibility is an issue because a certain aspect was overlooked… This piece of the puzzle – the most important piece, in our view – is the question of how the provision of services by and flexible capacity and the know-how of legal professionals can be combined with lower obstacles (in terms of rates and otherwise), literally and figuratively closing the distance to the client and its organisation.
Knowing all of the organisation’s ins and outs, and sharing responsibility for making and implementing decisions. Continuity, a quick call, or an exchange of thoughts. A pro-active approach to issues, even without being asked if necessary. The legal department is an important hub for organisations: the ultimate centre-point. But a day only has so many hours, and both opportunities and disappointments clamour for priority. An organisation cannot work at peak load all the time, however, in terms of either issues or capacity, and must have sufficient qualified FTEs in its legal department. The second piece of the puzzle for organisations with legal departments is how to ensure, given the limited availability and how this department works, that it is available where and when it is needed. Put differently: seamlessly attuning to the organisation’s dynamics but not overburdening the legal department to focus on the area where it can add the most value at any given time while ensuring that it does not needlessly delve into matters of a legal substance that are relevant only seldom.
In addition, some organisations are not large enough yet or are set up only temporarily or for a specific project, meaning that having its own legal department is not justifiable. Therefore, the third piece of the puzzle for organisations without a legal department is the question of how to ensure that the in-house way of cooperating with legal experts is and remains continuously available, even if there is not much need for it at times or if the project will only last for a certain period.
All in all, several puzzle pieces on the demand side from either the client or the organisation. The other side has its own puzzle pieces, from the perspective of the people who do the work and the means for doing so.
Legal work is challenging. Not only because of the continual substantive developments but also because it can be difficult for these staff members to balance their work with their private lives. Above all, they need to determine their perspective – as specialist or generalist, expansion in terms of experience and possibly new clients and markets: their actual career options. Time is sometimes needed to find the appropriate level of work or to truly make a difference regarding the chosen objective.
Talk is easy, which is why regarding the following puzzle pieces, we will emphasise what we believe is valuable, once again in using classical law firms and in having your own legal department.
As legal counsel working in a legal department, you are at the centre of the organisation; you participate in the decision-making process, and an email with a simple ‘yes’, ‘yes, provided’ or ‘no’ will suffice. The organisation knows that its legal department is home to a broad spectrum of know-how and experience and might involve a lot of delving and pondering. Still, even when this is not self-evident, their recommendations are adopted. When you are busy, when other dossiers have a higher priority or when there is an emergency at home, the organisation understands this. However, when you are needed, everyone knows they can count on you because you contribute to long-term success. The fourth piece of the puzzle, therefore, is how to incorporate the advantages of close cooperation with in-house legal experts into our structure, enabling us as service providers to offer these as well.
As a lawyer, you start as a trainee. For three years and three months, you have a very steep learning curve in an organisation of and for lawyers. Then your performance will be assessed by your peers, and hopefully, you will be asked to join the club. Substantive quality and the intensive provision of services have top priority. Your social status and the status of the advice you give your clients is unquestioned. If so inclined, you can acquire extensive expertise or develop academically. You have career prospects: becoming a partner. Law firms constitute a classic guild system, but the results are impressive. The fifth piece of the puzzle is how to capture the advantages of that system in terms of know-how development, status, and prospects. Without the disadvantages, of course.
The puzzle, therefore, is identifying and conjoining the various advantages. The answer is Halsten. After finding and piecing together the pieces of the puzzle came determining whether the answer really works. The market for legal services is not only competitive but also conservative. That is why we limited ourselves to word-of-mouth for several years. Now we can proudly say that we have planted the flag on the moon!
How it works
Together with its culture, the structure of an organisation determines the results. A law firm must compete with other firms for partners, and these partners are compared and selected based on the profit generated each year. The structure of a law partnership can also result in a focus on achieving certain yearly profit targets. This puts upward pressure on the rates – resulting in rate increases based on comparisons with more expensive firms – and in work pressure, high margin targets, internal disputes about billability objectives and restricted investment in people and means. Therefore, Halsten is not structured as an organisation with partners: it is a company whose shareholders are not necessarily lawyers or law experts. Also, its gross margin target is determined based on benchmarks in other markets and not on what is necessary to compete with the annual profit shares earned in other law firms.
The structure of law firms is in part determined by the rules of the Netherlands Bar Association. Therefore, it has been determined in consultation with the Netherlands Bar Association that the lawyers are organised in an independent cooperative association named Halsten Lawyers and work together with Halsten based on a cooperation agreement.
Because of its structure, Halsten’s rates are determined differently. Another important factor is that we do not want to create any rate obstacles; in terms of rates, we prefer being compared to other service providers (for communication services, for example, or technical consultants, financial consultants, and the like) rather than competing law firms. Consequently, we ensure that there are no substantial differences between the legal experts and lawyers and the client’s other service providers. Those large differences are also difficult to explain, in our view. Nevertheless, there must be, and there is a different way.
At the same time, we want to offer the same flexible capacity as law firms. This means that Halsten does not work with a fixed number of hours: clients may scale up or down and can count on the team being there when necessary. This also means that we work with a team of legal experts that we employ and with lawyers that are affiliated with Halsten . After all: you can’t offer clients flexibility, capacity, and continuity if the team is not always available for the client. Therefore, we do not work with self-employed contractors, no matter how qualified they might be. The self-employed are always looking for large and predictable numbers of hours; their availability is limited (because they take holidays and work for other clients as well), and they are not set up to divide the work. Sometimes that is an excellent premise, of course, but not for what we want to offer our clients.
We safeguard the approach of providing services and being involved with the clients, as evident in the lower rates. We apply the working method of an in-house department by working with our clients often and in close cooperation. This teaches us a lot about the organisation and its objectives and makes us feel like we share responsibility, which is why we will do our utmost to achieve the client’s goals. Our internal mantra is freedom, trust, and responsibility, because of which we are all accustomed to taking our responsibility in our cooperation with clients. This is reinforced by a system of variable remuneration, and those who bear more responsibility for the performance of the organisation receive profit shares based on overall performance. A deliberate choice was made not to apply the individual’s billable hours as a standard: the standard is the contribution to the success of the organisation. The cooperative association Halsten Lawyers offers room for lawyers who have their own practice, but in that regard, everything is based on rewarding cooperation.
And last but certainly not least: the quality. We value quality over quantity and devote much time and money to the education of not only juniors but also mediors and seniors. In addition, because we work with various clients in a variety of markets, we offer opportunities and prospects for those hoping to continue to develop as either specialists or generalists.
The main theme is that we are organised and work together in a different, innovative way. With each other, and with our clients. We do Legal. Together