Across my desk the other week came Magnetic Museums: The Art and Science of Engagement, published by the American Alliance of Museums.

Having no clue why the volume was on my desk, but in deference to a longstanding friend whence it came, I opened it up and saw that it sets itself a perhaps improbable task, to identify, using rigorous criteria, “museums that were thriving and growing in spite of the challenges of the last decade.”

For museums, what were those challenges? Essentially, the economic ground shifted under their feet, and not for the better. Endowments plummeted in value, returns on investment dwindled to negligible levels, tourism and leisure markets contracted with the recession, and competition among cultural institutions for philanthropic donations increased. As the authors put it, “Old business models stopped working and many institutions found their relevancy declining.”

I decided to keep reading.

In late 2009, the authors issued a call to colleagues in the museum field that asked: Are there any institutions out there that seem to be doing better than others? They received more than 50 suggestions.

A quick digression, as context for “sizing” the museum sector.  There are more than 17,500 museums in the US, employing 400,000 people, with revenue of $21-billion/year. There are about 850 million visits to museums each year in the US, more than attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million).

To winnow down the 50 suggestions they received, the authors spent over two years refining their methodology, doing background research, and delving into the available data around the finalists. They ended up with six museums that made the cut as “magnetic.” And they developed a definition, which follows, with my translation into Law Land:

Magnetic Museums [law firms] are high-performing organizations that deliver tangible cultural and civic [client] value, and achieve superior business results, through a commitment to service, engagement, and empowerment of others [their lawyers and professional staff]. They are distinguished by powerful alignment around a compelling vision and the lasting [client] bonds they create through meaningful experiences [exceptional service] that enrich and strengthen their internal and external communities [the esprit of their lawyers and staff and their reputation among clients, peers, and competitors].

As the authors themselves say:

Take the word ‘museums,’ substitute the word ‘organizations,’ and we believe that the general principle holds. Becoming ‘magnetic,’ we learned, starts with creating alignment at the center of our operations by engaging and empowering those closest to your organization in the pursuit of a compelling vision of the future. It means investing in people, forging deep relationships, and activating powerful networks and communities. It means creating real value for your customers and constituents by being responsive, relevant, and meeting real needs. Becoming ‘magnetic’ means building trust, loyalty, and support by consistently meeting or exceeding expectations.

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve heard all this before, I know, this is what law firms are supposed to do.

That’s precisely my point.  These values are universal.

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