If you believe that the merger wave is far from cresting and that
the future promises a landscape of perhaps two or three dozen truly
international mega-firms with revenues north of  $1-billion/year—but
you’re currently at less than half that level—how might you
get there from here?

Reed-Smith’s answer is "Reed
Smith University,"
a collaborative
effort with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Patterned
on executive-education programs commonplace in corporate America,
the plan calls for five different
schools: leadership, business development, technology, professional
support and law.  Interestingly, only the "leadership" division
will primarily be taught by Wharton professors; faculty for the other
four schools will be Reed-Smith partners themselves, albeit under
the tutelage of Wharton.  Fine, say you, but no big deal?  Haven’t
law firms been doing professional development since the days of apprenticeship?

Not remotely like this, say I.  "RSU" is not an ad
response to junior partners behaving awkwardly when it
comes to client development, far less to technophobic lawyers confronted
with the mandate to get seriously on board with everything from
KM to CRM to Blackberry’s.  Instead, I read it as a thoughtful,
long-term, and serious ($500,000/year in baseline operating expenses)
commitment to change the firm’s managerial culture.  Over
time, the focus will shift to the truly strategic questions management
is entrusted and empowered to address:

  • are we investing in the right practice areas?
  • are we investing in the right industries?
  • is our geographic footprint rational given macroeconomic trends?
    (Reed-Smith, recall, hails from Pittsburgh:  Not the most
    often mentioned home base for hyper-growth and innovation in the
    21st Century.)
  • are we focused on developing the optimal client base?
  • by the time they’re up for partner, have our associates developed
    the panoply of skills they will need?
  • etc.

According to Reed-Smith partners Michael Pollack ("dean" of the
leadership school) and John Smith III ("chancellor" of RSU):

“One of the most immediate things I think that we’ll be
able to see and feel, even if it’s not completely subject to scientific
measurement, is how much less time senior management is needed for
some of the day-to-day business decisions that get made in the firm,” he
"As people gain confidence and improve their skills and their ability to
take ownership of problems and make decisions, that will allow the senior
management to focus on bigger problems and bigger issues and bigger opportunities."

Smith and Pollack both suggest that RSU’s value will be recognized
as they see improvement in the way the firm’s practice groups are

Note that last prediction closely:  Improvement in the way
the firm’s practice groups are managed.
  I am becoming an
increasingly vocal proponent of the position that the proper "scale"
for analysis of a firm’s strategic and financial performance is the
scale of the practice group.  "The firm" is too large a scale,
and "the partner" is too small a scale, and both are subject to exogenous
vicissitudes not under their control.

But the astute management of a practice group, over time, will show
its true colors.  Now,  how long before competitors adopt
Reed-Smith’s forward thinking?

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