Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Too many reasonable men? What ails law firm leadership

As two of the most highly regarded leaders in the Square Mile – David Morley at Allen & Overy (A&O) and Chris Saul at Slaughter and May – prepare to hand over, it’s an apt moment to reflect on the state of leadership at leading UK law firms. It’s not clear that what emerges from the profession is all that flattering.

Governance has professionalised and become more technocratic, yes. There are more senior non-lawyer managers, though given the industry’s propensity for paying for top dollar for mediocre support staff with ill-defined authority and accountability, it’s debatable that this is a yardstick of success or sophistication.

The question in law firm governance that is increasingly obvious and yet largely ignored is exactly what it takes to effectively run a globalised law firm with hundreds of partners and more revenue outside the UK.

The profession achieved dramatic change during the 1990s through visionary and strong-willed figures who achieved dramatic pivots towards globalisation. Are there the equivalent figures today to Howe, Salz, Tudor-John or Knowles? Perhaps the reality of running far smaller, London-based institutions means such strong figures with huge relationship capital could achieve far more.

Perhaps the reason for the renaissance among the City mid-tier is that their structure recalls the leadership dynamics of the Magic Circle in the ’90s.

It’s tempting to draw on George Bernard Shaw’s refrain about unreasonable men driving all progress. These days everyone is so reasonable in law firm leadership and so many City firms drift along hardly changing. Managed always, seldom led. But it doesn’t seem that neat.

Morley was the most effective leader of his peers over the last decade – and A&O has been the most clearly led of London’s big four during that period – but his secret appeared to be the ability to combine bursts of the hard, strategic decisions without being regarded as ruthless. ‘Kind of like Teflon,’ laughs one of his admiring former partners. ‘They could do those big restructurings quickly and he was still just good old Dave.’

You can argue that it has little to do with the individuals – it’s simply not possible to lead global law firms as coherently and nimbly as in their earlier incarnations. This suggests the partnership model has reached its effective limits despite its many enduring strengths, hampering effective decision-making and strategy.

Should elite law firms walk down one of two paths, either shrinking to remain high-end, focused partnerships or alternatively ushering in a new structure to finish the globalisation they started? It’s hard to say because there has been so little serious debate of any alternatives.

Yet a number of major firms – among them Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Ashurst – are going to have to prove they have a compelling game plan for what law is going to look like in the 2020s if they are going to again thrive. It’s a cliché of the industry to say that leaderships at law firms have never had more power. To this long-term observer of the profession, they’ve never seemed to have had less.