The culture-driven law firm

The era of the free-agent lawyer, and the law firm lateral hiring frenzy that it spawned, is drawing to a close. The rise of the culture-driven law firm is at hand.

It’s going to take me a while to explain how I got here. I’ll try to do this in two parts.

1. Followership in law firms

This all started when I came across a provocative article called “Leaders need followers: tips for team performance“ by Australasian legal consultancy FMRC Legal. The thrust of the article is that successful law firm management hinges on followership — lawyers’ ability and willingness to align their personal values and goals with those of the firm. I first came across “followership” in the law firm context in a 2005 blog post by Gerry Riskin, which was in turn expanded upon by Patrick J. Lamb shortly thereafter.

Here are some excerpts from these three insightful articles that I think sum up what they’re saying.

FMRC: The values and goals of effective followers are aligned with those of the organisation. Satisfaction is gained from accomplishment. Effective followers will be committed to achieving a particular goal. … It is not the size of the goal that is important, but the commitment to achieving it that sets people apart. A high level of commitment can be contagious. Where others in the team share goals and values, these high levels of commitment inevitably build motivation and morale.

Gerry: Those who lead law firms are often experiencing more of a deposition environment than a business environment. Perhaps this is why some lawyers want their firms to be more “corporate.” … Leadership requires “followership,” which means that the more an internal meeting resembles a deposition … the less productive the business meeting will be.

Patrick: Businesses take risks; lawyers avoid them. It’s not a comfortable mix. Add in the out-dated legal structure of most firms, and you have the “herding cats” problem that has been discussed elsewhere. … “Followership” is not a normal attribute of many lawyers. In the business world, it is the norm. … Law firms should consider hierarchy: it could actually help improve performance.

Encouraging “followership” in law firms makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, because law firms are excruciatingly difficult entities to lead. Whatever most law firms pay their managing partner, it’s not enough. Lawyers are fiercely independent, resistant to change, risk-averse, self-centered, and play poorly with others. (Those of us who’ve dealt with both lawyers and pre-schoolers draw striking parallels.) Keeping the firm together, increasing partner profit, and building for the future is a Herculean task, but the obstinacy of lawyers can make it Sisyphean.

A lot has been written about how to improve the performance of leaders in law firms, but very little has been said about how to improve the performance of followers. I really believe that there’s only so much that you can ask a managing partner or firm leader to do. Unless he or she is blessed with extraordinary charisma and vision, lawyers’ natural tendency towards negativity, conservatism, and recalcitrance will drain the leader of the will and capacity to do much more than keep the ship afloat and heading in its traditional direction.

Think about it: a great many of the afflictions law firms suffer today result from a paucity of commitment to the organization and a surfeit of bullheaded individuality:

– Knowledge management struggles or fails in many firms because lawyers cannot be persuaded that sharing knowledge with their colleagues benefits the firm, and therefore themselves as well as others.

– Partners hoard work and client contact rather than sharing it with younger colleagues, with the predictable resulting rush for the door by unhappy, underutilized associates.

– Innovative marketing or business development strategies that could yield great organizational benefits are scuppered by partners whose individual biases or interests are threatened.

Unlike employees in companies, lawyers in law firms do not take orders. So if you could improve followership — if you could counteract these critical tendencies and encourage shared goals and organizational priority — then you could make the firm easier to lead.

The problem, of course, is that a term like “followership” is extremely unlikely to catch on among lawyers — as sound as the concept is, the name almost certainly would prove its downfall. Lawyers think of themselves as leaders — in their field, of their teams, with their clients, etc. Like most high-performing professionals, they associate “follower” with positions of subordination, submission, weakness and failure: no self-respecting lawyer wants to be thought of as a follower. The reality that everyone in a firm is at various times both leading and following doesn’t seem to get through.

As long as law firms are partnerships and partners can do what they feel like, followership will travel a rough road. That’s too bad, because within the concept of followership lies the key to tomorrow’s focused, successful law firm.

2. The culture-driven law firm

So, after all that, why do I think that this prevailing cultural inclination is coming to an end? Because the emphasis on individual lawyer priority over organizational commitment isn’t working.

Law firms churn young talent. Most associates bolt well before the partnership ring is in sight — they stay long enough to pick up some skills and contacts and to make a dent in their enormous student debt before leaving for more fulfilling opportunities elsewhere. The result: new blood drains away from the firm, leaving it increasingly dependent on lateral hiring, vulnerable to a collapse of leverage, and lacking sufficient numbers of young leaders to replace Boomer partners heading out the door.

Law firms also churn veteran talent. Partners change firms at unprecedented rates, accepting those offers that promise them the most money and/or prestige. The result: the partnership bond is constantly weakened, longstanding clients leave with departing talent, associates see partners leave for greener pastures and follow suit, and most importantly, the firm’s face and brand are in flux from one year to the next, no one knowing who will be the next to abandon ship. (And it’s not as if the departing partners end up much better off, some of them rotating through multiple firms in the space of just a few years, always chasing the rainbow’s end.)

What it comes down to is that too many firms are treading water in terms of talent — they pump in talent through one entrance while it bleeds out another. Management can’t spend the necessary time or attention on innovation and long-term planning because dealing with the talent churn consumes too much energy.

The unmistakable lesson of the last decade of lawyer turnover is this: you cannot win the war for talent when all you have to offer is money, because that’s what everyone else is using. If all you really have to offer prospective talent is cash, then you’ll attract lawyers who care deeply about cash — and you’ll always be vulnerable to a competitor with more of it. Ten years after lawyers began switching firms in earnest, most firms are no further ahead than when they started.

I think this reality is slowly dawning on some law firms, and they’re starting to look for another real differentiator that can not just draw in the right talent but keep it committed to the organization. (Many firms still cling to the delusion that they really are different and stand out in the marketplace: if their talent churn rate hasn’t dispelled that notion, half an hour’s conversation with law students certainly will.) How can a firm organize itself so that it wins the war for talent before the battles even start?

This is where I come back to what followership promises: a law firm culture in which every lawyer’s goals, values and objectives are aligned with those of the organization, and in which everyone is committed to the best interests of the firm because their own interests are tied closely to them. In such a firm, lawyers willingly acquiesce to giving up degrees of independence in service of building an organization to which everyone contributes, from which everyone benefits and of which everyone can be proud.

The followership culture in this sense reflects the well-known “one-firm firm” philosophy described years ago by David Maister:

The one-firm firm approach is not simply a loose term to describe a “culture.” It refers to a set of concrete management practices consciously chosen to maximize the trust and loyalty that members of the firm feel both to the institution and to each other.

The key relationship is that of the individual member to the organization, in the form of a set of reciprocal, value-based expectations. This, in turn, informs and supports relationships among members — who often do not know each other personally.

Everyone knows the values they must live by and the code of behavior they must follow. Everyone is commonly and intensively trained in these values and protocols. Everyone also knows that if an individual is in trouble, the group will expend every effort to help him or her.

David compares the “one-firm firm” favourably with the US Marine Corps and unfavourably with what he calls the “warlord” mentality that prevails at many law firms today. It’s that warlord culture that both perpetuates and results from the instability at most law firms. Warlord firms — those with a surfeit of free-agent lawyers looking out for number one — cannot break away from the pack. But a unified firm, where followership principles operate and team commitment is the primary objective, can and will stand out.

I already know the objections to this idea. Lawyers will never willingly sublimate their own selfish desires to the “greater good” of a firm. Lawyers don’t trust each other enough to believe that a partner won’t betray the partnership and bolt with the precious knowledge that’s been shared. Lawyers just want to “lawyer” and don’t care about all this leader-follower-training-mentoring stuff. Firms don’t deserve lawyers’ commitment and loyalty after repeated instances of chopping associates and “de-equitizing” partners to maintain profits. These are all perfectly valid objections, and they’ve all contributed in one way or another to the free-agent culture and strategic paralysis in the legal industry today.

But these are self-defeating objections — it’s evident on the face of it that these behaviours and biases hamper law firm growth and talent retention. It’s time for something new — a law firm that takes organizational commitment seriously and recruits people not just for skills, which are abundant in the talent pool, but also for their willingness to work, share, build, train and innovate as a team. Partnership in such a firm is extended carefully, judiciously, and with the expectation of permanence; associates are brought on with the promise of real participation and the requirement for patient commitment. The firm protects its people in hard times and asks for reciprocal loyalty in good times.

The next truly great law firm that arises is going to look a lot more like this than any of the mega-firms currently dotting the national and global landscape. I really believe that this is the organizational model that will succeed in the extremely demanding environment into which the legal industry is now proceeding. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t come easy. But it will happen, because it’s eventually going to be clear that nothing else really works.


  1. David Maister

    Well argued! Thanks for the citation. Keep the faith and spread the word. David

  2. Mary Abraham

    From your lips to God’s ears! Thanks for a terrific post.


  3. Stewart Levine

    I agree completely, it’s all about building culture. I commend you all to read Ira Chaleff’s excellent book “The Courageous Follower.”

  4. Priscilla

    This proposed organizational model seems to possess at its core something fundamentally moralistic. The ‘one firm approach’ alsmost acts as a form of censoring prospective members.
    An idealistic approach in which I am all for!.

    Question: Any existing firms known to be aligning their members with this approach?

  5. Priscilla Efedua

    Some may argue this approach is too idealistic, runs counter to the reality of movement within law- firms. So the ‘one firm appraoach’ in actual fact could not possibly happen on a scale large enough to re-define the culture of law firms!.

    How would could this refuted?

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