Observations of Professional Services Firms

Working for a professional services firm (like a law firm, or accounting practice or consultancy) is very different than working in "industry". Most people in industry work in sales, or marketing or finance and they're trying to improve the sales, marketing or finance of the company they work for.

I don't have a job like that. Instead I'm farmed out to help other companies raise their revenues, lower their costs, launch a new product, or improve their efficiencies. We don't work to directly improve our own firm's profitability (at least not yet at my level), the focus is on the clients. With being so new in this strange dynamic and era of technology, I've spent some time thinking about things I really enjoy about this type of work, and some things that aren't so desirable.

What I Like

  1. Dynamic Work. There are no routines in this job, and work changes drastically from one client to the next. You might be on a six-week project, or a project spanning two years. You could work with a health plan, a provider group, or a government agency. This certainly keeps things interesting and allows you to build a breadth of understanding while learning at a very accelerated pace (i.e. on a six-month engagement you can't exactly take two months to figure out what's going on and "find your feet")

  2. You're Independent. When we're not at the client, nobody cares where I'm working from. We have no assigned desks, and everything is remote so you can take conference calls from your home office (read: bed) or build spreadsheets from a coffee shop or be in a completely different city as long as you're connected.

  3. There's no org chart. In most companies you're part of a team who report to a manager, and a bunch of managers report to directors and a bunch of directors report to VPs and so on. Yes we have "levels" and "titles" but you don't actually report to any one person at the firm. Instead, whatever project team you're on becomes your own small hierarchy and in my short experience this has been awesome. We function more as a unit alongside the client and vendor and we strategize together how to provide the most value (hardcore consulting lingo there).

What I Don't Like

  1. There's no org chart. Yes this is also a dislike, though it's wearing off with time. The bummer about not having a manager is you don't have that go-to person to whom you can ask every single question for the first two weeks. "Where do I select my health benefits?" to "where's the nearest restroom" to "how do I request access to a certain program" to "where can I book my flights". All of this is small stuff, but in the beginning when you're starting a new role, a little unsure of the asks of that role, and have just moved countries, having an org chart might have been nice. Ultimately, once you get on a project it's fine because then you have that small team to whom you can start asking work-specific questions.

  2. It favours outgoing people. I'm lucky enough to feel confident in cold-emailing or even DM'ing partners at the firm to tell them a bit about my (weird) background and learn about the projects they usually lead. Others do not feel this way. After orientation we were encouraged to "network" by emailing and calling managers to learn about current opportunities to help with getting staffed on a projects. That's a daunting task for lots of people on their second day in a new job: with no direction, find a partner in an area you want to work - which in itself is difficult because there's no org chart saying "Bill works on health plans" - then email them and setup a time to chat. Again, small stuff, but I think they could have provided a bit more support on that front.

  3. Billable hours. For context, consulting firms' revenue is determined by how many hours of work their practitioners can bill to the clients. The more we work, the more our firm earns.... sort of. I obviously knew that I was getting into this world and I don't mind working long hours; in fact it's been very reasonable compared to entrepreneurship. The annoying part is a) logging those hours and b) caps on those hours. Our compensation at the end of the year is somewhat driven by "utilization" - the percentage of your total time at work that's spent on billable client time. However, some projects are contracted with the client for a certain cap on hours. That's when you get in a pickle. On my current project I'm only allowed to bill x number of hours per week, even though I'm almost always working more than that. I understand it at a macro level - keep costs controllable and predictable for the client - but it can be frustrating when you either rush important work, have less thinking time, or you can't bill anymore so your utilization can't improve as much as it should. At the end of the day, if you need to get work done but you've hit your cap... you're working for free.

Hopefully that paints a picture for any of you who've never worked in the client services world. Thanks for reading and I hope you're impressed that I used the word "whom" twice in this post.

Mike