Here’s Scenario 1: You’re in an executive committee or practice group or departmental meeting at your 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 majorityof firms, nothing happens. More precisely, there’s an extended discussion about the marginal activities where the flow of the conversation can be summarized 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 (say) 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 and vision the moment its blessed name is invoked.
Here’s Scenario 2: 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, people, and there’s nothing to belabor.
In real life, Scenario 1 trumps Scenario 2 every day of the week.
So much so that if you as much as invoke the vision of Scenario 2 you would, if your firm were a puiblic company, be skating close to a Rule 10b-5 violation.
So don’t kid yourself. If Scenario 1 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 1 conversation, make sure it has a different outcome.
Suppress the skepticism about doing anything whatsoever differently. Recognize 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.
The danger in the idealized one-firm firm model is that risks complacency, focus on short-term visions, and flexibility in responding to market and even specific client needs. To be more than soi-disant “one-firm”, the strategic plan and its implementation require an actual commitment to continuous improvement. There must be traditions that encourage robust discussion to ensure that the sort of intellectual integrity of which you wrote recently is an active ingredient in the life of the firm – not just at the level of the managing partner and the executive committee, but across the firm. It assumes that “partner” is not simply an accounting term or an honorific, but represents a lively and ongoing engagement with the essential nature of the firm.
Not talking to Bob – that is, allowing distraction from the firm’s strategy and profitability targets – risks what I’ll call “second order damage”. Instead of getting Bob in line, the firm may well end up cutting staff to save money and preserve the profitability Bob implicitly does not support. That hurts the staff who are laid-off as well as the staff who are not. Moreover, with less support, the bulk of the lawyers in line with the strategy likely become less efficient because they have to do more. Over time, that damages the firm’s strategic position.