The broken law firm

“I think that maybe inside any business, there is someone slowly going crazy.” — Joseph Heller, Something Happened

These days, largely as a result of paying attention to what’s really going on, I don’t run around in rage mode by dint of the brokenness that I witness in the legal world.

It would be too simplistic to say it just ‘is’, but that’s not a million miles away from my seat of attention.

But one thing that still intrigues me is the proclivity of opinion on new models and or innovation that’s about to set the legal world on fire. And yes, I’d agree if you were dealing with a completely different cohort of people — they’d have to exhibit a growth not a fixed mindset (see the work of Carol Dweck) — they’d buy into the new paradigm, but the truth is that you’re dealing with people who’ve been inculcated to cling desperately to the status quo, not just as a way of maintaining their financial status but as a result of them knowing no different.

It’s so sad. (And I don’t say those words l-i-g-h-t-l-y.)

For me, as someone who now helps to run a firm (as CEO), I don’t much care about innovation, change management and any new paradigm. No, I care desperately about developing the gifts of everyone I’m responsible for (directly or indirectly), meaning, and as grand as it sounds, I wouldn’t want them not to have the opportunity to share and develop their God-given gifts (I prefer to think of this as their Genius self). Of course, the money imperative militates against me doing everything I’d like to do — training, coaching and or mentoring — but that doesn’t mean I should allow people to wilt on the vine or dismiss them as a lost cause.

As a slight segue, I still remember a talk I did last year to a group of the great and the good of the legal world (mostly partners and a few business development people) where I talked for about 40 minutes on the subject of People First, Customers Second (I took my cue from Vineet Nayar’s book of the same name). I was told by the event organiser that I pretty much divided the room. I presume he meant there were 50% who agreed and 50% who thought I was bonkers as hell. I wasn’t sure whether that counted as a success but I was saddened to think (genuinely so) that half the room were presumably still set on espousing the Clients First (CF) mantra, even though I know from my own experience that when people are challenged as to what means — beyond doing a good job for the client (…surely that’s a given!) — they haven’t got a bloody clue. That’s not entirely fair. They do try to articulate their CF thinking, but it quickly falls away when you press them on where PEP and rankings in Chambers etc. fit into the brief. To be clear, if you’re going to stand behind CF as your sine qua non, you’d better have a clearer than clear message that goes to the root of the Why question — see the wonderful TED talk of Simon Sinek.

Back to the case in point: the brokenness of the current law firm model. As someone who’s worked in the business a long time, I’ve witnessed countless changes. Mostly these have been technologically driven. But what I’ve not witnessed is any attention being paid to the soft stuff. At this stage I’m reminded of what Tom Peters has been banging on about for about 40 years: Hard is Soft. Soft is Hard. In other words, focusing on the numbers is easy. The other 101 soft stuff is the really, really hard part of running a law firm (or any business).

Of course, the default position for any lawyer — actually I think it a lamentable cop out — is to say “I wasn’t trained in all this gooey people stuff.” Do me a favour. Seriously. How hard can it be to be nice to people, be thoughtful and to show up as your true self, and not someone who thinks they’ve got to stuff it down in case you’re found out for actually being 100% you?

And the thing is I could keep on this riff forever and I mean forever by dint of countless examples but, frankly, it gets boring, particularly when all I’m doing is pointing out the obvious. Instead, what you need (perhaps?) is a few thoughts and musings as to how a new unbroken law firm might look and feel:

  • Talk to your people. I don’t mean a superficial dialogue where your heart isn’t it. I mean talk to them deeply and sincerely. One question that I’ve always found instructive is: “What do you think?” Try using it at your next team meeting. The only trick is to shut up after you’ve asked the question and listen. Better still provide a safe space where people can tell you what they actually think as opposed to what they think you need to hear.
  • Have a plan and stick to it. When I say plan what I actually mean is a vision, a bright, breezy one that doesn’t bore people rigid but inspires them to believe that they should invest their skin in the game even though they don’t enjoy the same rewards as the other partners and lawyers. The only component you need to ruthlessly focus on is your Why (back to the Simon Sinek talk). And I don’t mean, we’re in business to make a profit. That’s a result of being in business. It’s not the business’s purpose. And before you say, we don’t have one, I’d ask you to think very carefully about the reason you and many other lawyers went into practice (see my Twitter feed on the issue — it was illuminating). The light at the end of the tunnel may have been money but I’d wager it was something more principled — e.g. doing good, changing the world, serving the disadvantaged or fighting a worthwhile cause. To be honest, a noble cause, even if slightly knocked out of shape by years of doing boring work, is better than no cause. In my case, I’d love my firm to pursue a similar agenda to Bates Wells Braithwaite who applied for and received B Corporation status. I know it may not float everyone’s boat, but I wouldn’t then have to look for some non-existent USP by dint of some new but oh-so-predictable marketing paradigm.
  • Value your best clients — treat them like friends without losing your professional discernment/judgment. When I say best, I don’t mean those that you value for how much you bill them or how quickly they pay (although we love those clients…a lot). No I mean those that you love working for because they chime with your firm’s values. Of course, if you’ve never bottomed those out — see my plan issue above — then you’re going to struggle big time. And for those of you who do have supposed values, please, please make sure you apply them ruthlessly as opposed to what I see which is that firms are just as likely to disapply them when the situation arises as they are to use them for the wrong reasons. There’s a postscript here: get rid pronto of the duff clients, i.e. those that cause grief and frighten the living daylights out of your staff, particularly the junior ones. Of course, you may decide to have a full and frank conversation but don’t’ be surprised if that gives rise to a slew of other issues that mean you probably end up where you started: with a client you don’t want to act for but have no choice.

Right, that’s enough. Seriously. I could fill a book with this stuff; you get the message.

The real point is, even though these are no more than a blinding flash of the obvious, if you’re willing to commit all your resources in making these a reality you’d be doing better than the majority of firms. Yes, you might think that an exaggeration but I don’t think so. (Do point out the exemplars who’ve got all these nailed and I’ll happily shine a light on them.) In the final analysis, it’s a choice those in power have to make — it’s their business after all — but when you’re in the groove and are making great gobs of money (or even if you’re not in the mega, mega rich camp), I can tell you from bitter experience that there’s no incentive to change. None. And there lies the tragedy because like any change management programme, the only time you see something amazing appear is either when you have a leader in charge who is seriously enlightened or you suffer a cataclysmic failing (e.g. a loss of key people or clients or a humongous ProfNeg claim) that makes your seriously rethink your business model.

Of course, I may have this all wrong (what do I know anyway?) but something tells me the new model law firm is still a long way off into the future — AI or no AI!