Is stewardship the most important function of partnership?

The opening lines from Wikipedia:

“Stewardship is an ethic that embodies responsible planning and management of resources. The concept of stewardship has been applied in diverse realms, including with respect to environment, economics, health, property, information, and religion, and is linked to the concept of sustainability.”

I have always had a strong sense that, if professional practice is to make a lasting impression, it has to manage its resources for successor generations. Indeed, a lot of firms rely upon their founding year as a marketing tool: “Founded in 1868″, and sometimes the fact that one of the partners has succeeded to the practice of their forbears.

For a lot of private clients they like the security of knowing that a generation of partners are invested in the practice, which in turn means that the practice has invested over the long haul in the community.

I have no doubt that the founding partners were concerned to build a sustainable business. For many, much like the farming community, being in professional practice was a calling. But I wonder now if many partners have an eye on the future?

One issue in particular stands out: the lack of capital investment.

Premises were purchased on the back of bank borrowing.

IT systems suffer from severe under-investment.

And people development is non-existent.

Partners take too much for granted. They are accustomed to taking more and more out of the practice. How many of them have saved for a rainy day? Any investment is not exceptional. It is merely to keep the good ship ‘profit’ afloat.

Can you imagine the partners going into their monthly meeting and asking “How much are we putting away this month?” Yes, provision is made for claims or one off exceptional items but not funds earmarked “stewardship”.

We all know the system is broke. The modus operandi is to hang in there and hope that we are mid-way through the 7-year cycle and come 2012/13 things will start to pick up. Partners will be riding the storm in the hope that the good times roll in again.

Very soon the market will change, most likely forever. Some firms will prosper but others will sink. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear that a firm is (genuinely) investing for the future. And better still to build a sustainable practice and not one designed for the here and now!

I recognise the risk and reward equation and law is no different. I am not suggesting that partners put their neck on the line for nothing, but even for the most cynical I wonder how their marketing would change if they started talking about delivering a sustainable, client focused practice and not just their profit?

The Big one for me is the lack of stewardship of a firm’s staff. In particular, those tasked with ‘fee earning’.

I have talked before how my time in legal practice ended up feeling like a sales job: WIP, targets and new client wins. And with that came high attrition rates. Much higher than I would ever have expected. How many times have you heard the expression “You are only as good as your last result”.

So many lawyers were shown the door because they couldn’t cut it, meaning they weren’t billing enough. Very few of those people would have been considered for any other role in the partnership or better still how much of the perceived failure was the fault of their principal or the partnership? It may be a gross exaggeration but I take the view that partners lost interest. There were a few people who had given up – more so on law than the firm – but by and large the majority went on to another firm to do the same thing all over again.

Like product development where there is an inbuilt obsolescence, firms are conditioned to believe that there will be a % of people who leave. But I do wonder how that would be different if they had invested time and money to ensure that everyone could honestly say they were fulfilling their full potential?

The point is if all your lawyers were challenged to be the most of anything, to continually push the boundaries of their expertise and knowledge would a firm be quite so content to see them leave?

Stewardship touches every part of the practice and more of the decisions should be taken with the next generation in mind. Guiding principles and values would be my starting point. Something that transcended the profit motive, and espoused a view that clients could relate to.

Summary

Think stewardship not spin.

Look for the long view and manage your resources for the future.

Talk to everyone about their contribution over the long haul. Leave that short term, month-to-month, talk behind.

And appoint a stewardship Tsar if you want to integrate this seminal topic into your practice.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~

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