So indeed we come to change.

Organizations’ ability to change is a function of their constitutional DNA and doesn’t often have much to do with the external market stresses  imposed on them.  Some organizations are supple and have few ingrained internal “interest groups,” vastly facilitating their agility and flexibility, but others are afflicted with institutional sclerosis through the power of vested internal constituencies self-interest.  This is not news.

But it is what makes me worry so much about law firms.

May I digress momentarily?

As a management consultant to firms, I often hear that a firm’s first priority is to increase revenue, or it’s stronger business development, or it’s higher profits.  Often.

The problem is that those goals are not actually goals, they’re outcomes.  To analogize to your own life, if your goal is to “be happy,” you’re in for a long, tough, fruitless, and depressing slog.  The route to happiness lies through the hard work of figuring out what work you’re passionate about – and working yourself into a position where you’re actually able to do it – plus finding the love of your life, plus staying fit and healthy and curious and energized and optimistic.  Achieve all those things and “happiness” will be within your grasp:  No guarantees, understand.

So with higher revenue, more powerful business development efforts.  Not goals, outcomes.

Thus did I find myself delighted and almost amazed when a managing partner I recently  met with answered the question, “What’s the greatest challenge facing your firm?” with “Getting our partners to present ideas to our clients.”  This fellow gets it.

The legal profession is a profession of ideas.  They are what count, and they’re all that counts.

But, and here ends the digression, this was extraordinarily unusual.  I dare to say unique.

So what is law firms’ DNA?

  • The individual lawyer, in cultural terms, is the over-riding unit of organization: not the firm.  This is often shamelessly or boastfully  cloaked in the rhetoric of “entrepreneurialism,” when what it really is is anarchy.
  • Our compensation systems revolve around the Sun of billable hours and origination credits of each and every individual lawyer, with hardly any regard to standards of good citizenship, the contribution of everyone in the firm who happens not to be a lawyer (a/k/a nonlawyers, a term I’d like to banish from the earth).
  • Near-total ignorance about what normal companies call business intelligence, meaning insight into where profitable revenue comes from by practice area, client, attorney, activity, and much much more.
  • And finally our profoundly antique business model of laboring in the trenches as the source of revenue.  A friend of mine likes to say that when it comes down to it, lawyers are glorified hourly workers, and that has the distasteful ring of truth.

So if we as firms are really going to change we’re going to have to change some of these fundamental characteristics.

But we can’t.

They’re not surface or recently grafted-on characteristics; they’re intrinsic to how we envision ourselves as firms and as partners within those firms.  The first one in particular.

If law firm leadership needs to alter the ship’s course, not everyone can get a vote.  In fact, it shouldn’t be up for a vote.

Your reaction to this heresy should tell you all you need to know about our ability to change.

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