Is stewardship dead?

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Maybe not quite, but in the context of most professional law firms with more than just a handful of partners, it’s on life support and the priest has been called in.

I honestly don’t know of any midsize or larger law firms, at least, that operate other than “to maximize the wealth of the current shareholders.” Talking about stewardship — propounding the idea that you’ve inherited something special and precious from those who came before you, that you don’t “own” it the way you own your car or your jacket, and that you’re compelled to pass on that legacy intact and improved to those who follow — that would be speaking a foreign language in most current partnership meetings. Certainly there are exceptional firms out there, but they likely operate so differently from the competition as to be exceptions that prove the rule.

I don’t think this is because of rampant employee turnover and lateral departures — they’re symptoms of stewardship’s absence, not a cause. I do think that, among law firms anyway, aggressive growth — “national” and “global” strategies meant to maximize business intake — have stretched the traditional model of a law firm beyond any coherent meaning. I mean, come on — an 800-member “partnership”? Can you seriously contend that the hundreds of lawyers nationwide or worldwide whom you’ve never met — who share only a letterhead and a remuneration plan with you — are your “partners” in any but the most formalistic sense of the word?

True “partnership” implies elements like trust, shared values, common commitments — it involves a conscious recognition that you and I hold the same approaches to professionalism and client service, and a decision to proceed together towards our shared goals. Receiving an e-mail in Montreal announcing that the Calgary office has admitted a new litigation partner whom you’ve never met and likely never will, that doesn’t cut it. Law firms that grow beyond a certain size and jurisdiction inherently can’t be much more than a loose affiliation of constantly revolving outside counsel. In this context, “stewardship” simply can’t apply.

The recent deals whereby major law firms have become the single source for a multinational’s outside legal work — Tyco and Evershed’s, Linde and DLA Piper — look more and more to me like the future of large law firms: really, really big corporate legal departments, half-inside, half-outside. That’s fine for them, but I look forward to the day when these firms no longer burn so brightly in the profession’s imagination that they set the tone and expectations for how other law partnerships are expected to define and conduct themselves.

I always tell law students to remember that large law firms are the exception, not the rule. Hopefully, stewardship still runs silent and deep among smaller firms, and will stage a major comeback as the nature of lawyers’ business associations continues to evolve in the years to come.

This post originally appeared as a comment to a post at David Maister’s blog on March 22, 2007.

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