This may be an issue dominated by all things Millennial, but I am past that, so the column that follows is likely the result of age-induced cynicism. But even by the standards of the legal industry, I find myself increasingly weary of what passes for industry commentary these days.
If an alien beamed down to earth and judged the profession through the lens of what the consultancy and the ‘thought leadership’ industries said about it, what would be the lessons they would take? The law is staffed by incompetent managers. Lawyers are uninterested in technology. General counsel (GCs) are the sole drivers of innovation and progress in the profession. The Big Four accountants are tearing through law. The legal industry faces an imminent structural collapse. I could go on and the purveyors of this certainly do.
Law firms and the profession have their faults, but there are also reasons they have excelled and defied predictions of doom. Many of the supposed failings in law – and I concede this is not a strong period for strategic leadership in the industry, despite operational advances – are merely issues that plague all businesses, often a lot more than law.
So consider these contributing reasons why the profession has outperformed the economy while maintaining a failure rate most other businesses could only dream of.
They are obsessed by talent. Law firms can sometimes communicate badly with staff and fail to appreciate the contributions of some groups. But overall, they have an intensity of focus on getting great people and developing them that puts most other businesses to shame. It is a crypto-communist model where they try to turn some workers into shareholders. With some recasting, these firms should be the ideal employers for the generations to come.
They do service well. Law firms are not perfect and given the huge fees many service lines command, they rightly get blasted by GCs for the failings that happen. But make no mistake, major law firms achieve a general level of service that wipes the floor with most companies. Talk to the most successful partners – the client empathy radiates off them. One of many reasons you can detect a scepticism about the Big Four in law is that while they are lauded for slick BD, my sense has over the years only strengthened that they are transactional machines that get outclassed on service by lawyers.
The governance model works. Partnership has its short-comings – all models have weaknesses – but the owner/managed structure has endured largely because it has performed well for the industry. Will it have to evolve to stay relevant and likely work alongside other structures? Absolutely, but that is a long way from the scrapheap.
They steal ideas. The uniquely transparent and open legal market in the UK has fostered a culture in which law firms continually watch peers both to benchmark performance but more to steal good ideas and talent. That has led to a competitive market that can quickly spread good ideas. That is why the innovation that there is in law moves ten times faster in private practice than the hopelessly opaque equivalent in-house.
In essence, the vast majority of thought leadership is a thinly-veiled attempt to sell something. But given the virtues above, I guess readers know that already