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Guest post: ‘Culture’ wins yet another victory over business judgment (or how to actually have a law firm strategy)

Here’s Scenario One: you’re in an executive committee or practice group or departmental meeting at your law firm, and the question arises for discussion why one or a handful of your partners are engaging in activities which, from the firm’s overall perspective, are clearly marginal: the activities could be pursuing a particular client or lobbying to hire a lateral or continuing to devote all their energies to growing the marginal practice area.

And how do you know it’s ‘marginal?’ Because, mirabile dictu, your firm actually has a strategic plan that is (a) current; (b) vibrant and powerful; (c) crisp and clear in its mandates and priorities; and (d) understood by one and all. (Please bear with me and suspend disbelief if necessary.)

What happens next?

If you’re like the vast majority of law firms, nothing happens. More precisely, there’s an extended discussion about the marginal activities where the flow of the conversation can be summarised as:

  • We need to refocus the energies of this group to activities that we’ve all agreed are important to the firm by virtue of our strategic plan.
  • Well, who’s to say these pursuits couldn’t lead to things that are important to the firm?
  • Besides, they could be valuable in their own right in the short run; lord knows we could use more revenue right now, wherever it comes from.
  • And another thing: what else would Bob and his group be doing if they weren’t doing this? This is what they like to do and you know they’re not particularly talented or enthusiastic about the firm’s key priorities.
  • It’s not within our culture to tell partners, really, what they can and can’t be doing – if I wanted to work for a corporation, I would!

With the dismally predictable result: nothing gets done, no one sits down with Bob, the marginal activities continue to be pursued, and ‘culture’ wins yet another victory over clear business judgment the moment its blessed name is invoked.

Here’s Scenario Two: you’re at a partner retreat, or reviewing the firm’s (actual) strategic plan, or explaining what makes the place so special to a potential lateral or client, and you conclude with the emphatic summation that ‘We’re very much a one-firm firm!’

  • All for one, one for all.
  • The client can be assured of absolutely getting the best lawyers for their matter.
  • Artificial lines between practice groups or offices or absurd distractions such as origination credits don’t matter; we do what’s best for the firm and the client in the long run.
  • We have a common vision and we live it every day.

This is short and sweet, and there’s nothing to belabour.

But in real life, Scenario One trumps Scenario Two every day of the week.

So much so that if you as much as invoke the vision of Scenario Two you would, if your firm were a public company, be skating close to a disclosure violation.

So don’t kid yourself. If Scenario One occurs at your firm, you may be many things but you are not a ‘one-firm firm’. In fact, I have a name for what you are, and I invite you to use it with clients, laterals, and indeed your partners.

Your firm is a hotel for lawyers, or maybe a co-op for lawyers. You share a roof, some common expenses, and an address. For now. Until we change our minds.

Is this what you really want?

Then next time you’re in the midst of the Scenario Two conversation, make sure it has a different outcome.

Suppress the scepticism about doing anything whatsoever differently. Recognise that autonomy has its limits if being in this all together means anything.

Talk to Bob, for god’s sake.

And talk to him like you mean it, because for a change, you do.

Bruce MacEwen is president of Adam Smith Esq, the legal research and consulting company