Contrary to the case with corporations, which all stoutly proclaim their desire (if not their nimbleness and flexibility) to build an enduring organizations, for law firms, longevity itself may not be a priority.  Maybe there’s nothing wrong with one-generation firms:

  • They can provide a respectable career and a handsome livelihood for many people while they exist
  • And, if they can’t or far more likely choose not to evolve into the future, what’s wrong with that?
  • Often it really is the case that “the world will little note, nor long remember” the former firm.
  • What is irresponsible and personally and professionally offensive is not being clear-eyed about your intentions.

What, after all, is lost when a law firm shuts its doors?  Partners and, one hopes, most associates move on to other firms or go in-house.  Business professionals and staff with transferable skills have a sympathetic tale to tell the job market, and, assuming the total volume of legal work is not diminished by the disappearance of the old firm, clients will shift their demand elsewhere and lawyers and staff will need to expand to meet it.  Call it conservation of demand for legal services, or some such.

What is really lost, then, when the organizational form goes away, but the people and the client base are left standing?

I’m put in mind of a Prof. Kingsleyesque exchange from my law school bankruptcy class.  When a student voiced sentimental reservations about the finality of liquidation, the professor interrupted:

“It’s not as though the people are taken out and shot and the buildings and equipment dumped in the Pacific Ocean! The economy puts them to use.”

So it often is with one-generation firms. 

Whether it’s because “succession” “planning” around our rainmaker friend quoted above is a herculean management challenge, whether it’s because lawyers strongly prefer avoiding awkward conversations, whether it’s because the press of daily client deadlines makes it challenging to come up for air, or whether it’s because (our suspicion) lawyers at most firms honestly don’t give a fig about the firm’s future starting the day after they last walk out the door, many law firms fail for want of effective–meaning timely, purposeful, systematic, uncompromisingj–succession planning.

Lou Gerstner, famously unsentimental, took over as CEO at IBM in 1992 and served until 2003, during which time he resuscitated and revived the iconic firm, which was among the walking dead when he took the post. In one of his many post-mortem interviews discussing his approach, he observed that the 1992 IBM had “no products, no pipeline, no vision,” and offered this harsh but realistic diagnosis::

“There was nothing that said American Express [where he’d also been a senior executive] or IBM couldn’t go out of business, and IBM very nearly did.”

Two cheers for One Generation Firms?

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