The end of serendipity

I plan to write about law firms a little less often in future, as part of a shift in the focus of my work (more about that in an upcoming post). But lately I’ve been thinking about the lessons law firms have been learning (or not) from the pandemic, and I wanted to share some thoughts about why managing and leading a law firm is going to become a lot more work in future.

To start us off, this American Lawyer article suggests that the “law firm leadership playbook” has been rewritten over the last several months. I think this is not quite correct. What’s happened is that many law firms have realized they don’t really have a leadership playbook as such — their leaders and managers, if I can extend the football analogy, are often sent onto the field without any plays at all. Consider some of the observations in the article about how much more difficult management has become during this crisis:

“…[W]e have to be really intentional about reaching out and making sure people are OK, mentally and physically. It’s not something any of us have ever trained for …  [I]t requires a lot more responsibility and time of our current leaders.” The remote environment … “has taken a big toll… because of the new demands of virtual management. [Managing partners] spend significantly more time managing.”

You’d have thought that managing is, you know, what managing partners do — it’s right there in the title and everything. In reality, of course, most managing partners are not trained for the role — they’re “managing” temporarily and part-time, keeping their practice running on the side with minimum lights and power until they can return to their real job full-time. This is a feature of law firm management, not a bug. Low-intensity management is standard in law firms because lawyers don’t like being led or managed. Actual leadership and trained management are not part of traditional law firm culture.

What if you had a pandemic and nobody came to be managed?

A consultant quoted in the article makes this connection more explicit:

“There’s a lot of concern out there about firm culture and what the glue will be that holds a firm together when people are not running into each other in the office, particularly with engagement and retention.” … In the past, a leader’s job could often be accomplished “just by bumping into people during the day, but now it has to be a lot more deliberate—and some are not up to that challenge.”

Now, what’s interesting is that the way law firms have gone about managing the firm and building culture is remarkably similar to the way in which they have gone about developing their junior lawyers: putting everyone together in the same space and hoping they run into each other in a constructive fashion. Consider the following claims made about the challenges of professional development when everyone’s working from home:

I’ve heard all these concerns expressed by managing partners I’ve spoken with — when people aren’t around each other physically, when junior lawyers can’t cross paths with senior lawyers and pick up work opportunities, how will they learn? How can they develop their business and professional skills? How can they absorb the firm culture, and how can that culture flourish if we’re not all together all the time?

But the answers to these questions, while obviously important, are less significant than the unspoken assumption upon which the questions are based — that the only way to really train and manage and acculturate lawyers is to have them show up in person and brush past each other many times a day.

Maybe that’s true. But if it is, law firms have a problem, as illustrated by this AmLaw article about the fundamental changes coming to legal workspaces post-COVID. A commercial real estate company’s survey of law firm personnel that asked people where they now want to work produced some noteworthy results:

Somewhere between 50% to 80% of [staff] would prefer to work completely remotely, although they may not get their wish. Even a majority of partners have said they wish to be in the office between zero and two days a week. Associates, likewise, appreciate the flexibility of working from home but also value the human interaction, collaboration and training they get in the office; 30% to 40% would like to come in less than two days a week. 

We are not going back to the “everyone in the office at the same time, all day, five days a week” law firm. Whatever its merits and demerits, that model has run its course, and something different will take its place. When it does, law firms will have to find new ways to train junior lawyers, manage senior lawyers, and build and maintain firm culture. More specifically, they’ll have to do these things strategically and intentionally.

Many law firms, it’s becoming clear, have been substituting mere physical proximity for planned and purposeful efforts to build culture, teams, and professionals. They’ve been content to set lawyers to work side-by-side in the same physical office and assume that culture and development would just follow automatically, like shy teenagers mixing at a high-school dance.

Pursuant to our rules about spoilers, we will not actually reveal the end of “Serendipity.”

In a word, law firms made serendipity a core element of their culture. They hoped that random encounters generated from the shared use of narrow office corridors would render unnecessary any efforts to actually exercise leadership or develop professional skills or build firm culture. Let lawyers be who they are and work as they like — culture will happen naturally. Let juniors attach themselves to partners and follow them around — they’ll learn the ropes on their own. (And if the juniors most successful at attracting partner attention happen to be overwhelmingly white and male, hey, what can you do?)

If the foregoing scenarios describe your firm in whole or in part, start thinking about how to build culture, management, and professional development systems intentionally and strategically. Some suggestions:

Culture: Every good article about intentionally developing a great law firm culture returns over and over again to two fundamental features: your firm’s purpose and its values. Why does your law firm exist? If its purpose is only to make money for the partners, it will always struggle to draw and keep good people. If it’s only to carry out whatever clients want, it will never stand out as truly superior or praiseworthy.

And then, what values animate the firm? Choose the ones that matter above everything else and make clear to everyone their primacy — where necessary, by requiring anyone (and I mean anyone) who violates those values to leave immediately. Force the issue of culture and values: Don’t make hazy declarations of good intentions while letting people do what they like. No good culture ever developed laissez-faire.

Leadership: The first rule of lawyer management has always been, you do not talk about lawyer management — never suggest to lawyers that they are obliged to follow a prescriptive set of rules about how to go about their business. But lawyers’ emotional frailty about being managed is unprofessional, and law firm leaders and managers must stop coddling it.

Tell lawyers what you expect of them, and hold them to it. Don’t let star lawyers attain diva status. Require people’s participation in difficult conversations. But most of all, legitimize management and leadership as essential standalone roles. End the silly tradition that leaders must also bill work and bring in clients. Hobbyist leadership is over. Law firm management is real, hard work. Treat it that way.

Professional Development: It’s not a coincidence that the pandemic has slowed associate development and left junior lawyers adrift. A crisis reveals an organization’s true priorities, and many firms have made very clear where their newest lawyers rank among their concerns. But it also reveals that, lacking physical proximity, most firms simply don’t know how to train new lawyers.

In future, a mix of online training, creative team-building exercises, and continuous mentoring will complement in-person experience on those occasions when your people can’t gather physically. So take this opportunity to reconfigure your suddenly available office space into a dedicated professional development centre. It’s nice that you really want to get back to the office. But “the office” isn’t going to be what it once was.

This is obviously a huge challenge for law firms — but it’s also a great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Most aspects of law firm culture and infrastructure evolved inadvertently, through everyday practice, decades ago. They seem random and irrational because of how they came about, making them especially ill-suited to the 21st-century (post-)pandemic world. This is a chance to put aside all those old ways of doing things and replace them with smarter policies and practices — deliberately designed, expressly intended, and systematically rolled out.

You inherited a law firm model that was built almost by accident. Bequeath to your successors a model that was assembled very much on purpose.

Re-personalizing law firm culture

I was contacted the other day by someone who had run into a challenge while drafting a partnership agreement for their new firm. Specifically, they were struggling with the conditions under which partners could be removed from the enterprise. The firm’s initial approach to the issue — which was giving this person pause — was that a partner’s failure to maintain the standards of partnership (defined almost entirely in financial terms, which is a whole other story) would be a violation that triggered removal from the partnership, like an “Eject” button on a cartoon car seat.

I thought I would share with you a modified version of my response to this person, partly because so much of what’s gone wrong with law firm culture is neatly encapsulated here — but also because it’s worth a reminder that you have the power to envision and develop a different and better type of culture in your own legal workplace.

What this proto-firm is experiencing is a subconscious desire to automate the process of partner expulsion — to move it a safe distance from the lawyers, so that they don’t have to handle the distasteful task personally. “If you don’t meet these targets, you’re out” is the message most law firms send to their partners these days — but the targets themselves aren’t as important as the unforgiving, cause-and-effect ultimatum, which delegates the decision to remove the partner to an impersonal, “objective” standard. A physical and emotional distance is maintained between the expelled lawyer and the remaining partners. It’s not personal — it’s strictly business.

I’d like a word about your billables, Sonny.

Sometime over the last few decades, the de-personalization of partner relations became a cultural feature of most law firms. Maybe it grew from the expansion of partnerships from tens of lawyers to hundreds or even thousands, rendering any kind of “personal touch” very difficult in practical terms. Or maybe it arose from lawyers’ own personality quirks — our off-the-charts lack of sociability, or the deep aversion most of us feel to open conflict (which we dress up as a desire for “collegiality”). It certainly hasn’t helped that many firms now treat their own lawyers primarily as sources of revenue, rather than as human beings with lives of their own — why wouldn’t those lawyers replicate that attitude in their treatment of their own colleagues?

So what I suggested to my correspondent was this: Whatever standards and thresholds the firm decides to set for continued participation in the enterprise, make sure that if a partner falls below those thresholds, that triggers not an ejection, but a conversation — a grown-up talk between the partner and the firm’s leader to discuss what happened and how to fix it.

I guarantee you that every partner who fails to meet a firm’s productivity standards has a story to tell. It’s a leader’s job to listen to that story with empathy and equanimity and to figure out how best to proceed. That the failure happened is not in dispute; why it happened is what the leader needs to address. Were there extenuating circumstances that caused the lawyer to miss a quota or target? Were there personal issues at play? Did a key client suffer a serious setback? Did the lawyer experience a productivity-draining conflict with a colleague?

Once you’ve identified the cause, you need to discuss potential remedies. If the partner has a skills gap when it comes to some aspect of her performance, she could be offered extra training. If the partner is experiencing domestic difficulties that she’s been reluctant to raise at the office, she could be offered counselling or other assistance. If the partner has simply grown tired of the work she’s doing, she could be offered a sabbatical or a shift in her career trajectory. There are as many remedial options as there are types of challenges.

But what the firm cannot do, not if it wants to retain any kind of professional integrity, is to automatically throw that person overboard because they’re “under-performing” or whatever other euphemism the firm comes up with. That’s not leadership; that’s the complete abdication of it.

None of that is to say, of course, that a leader should simply accept a partner’s story and just tell her to do better next time. There needs to be a response to a partner’s failure to meet standards, or other partners will rightly complain. The leader must decide if the problems causing the partner’s failure can be addressed, and if so, how — and if they can’t be addressed through reasonable means, then yes, there must be a system in place by which the partner can be formally excused from the partnership. But you can’t proceed to this step without having first engaged in an honest conversation and a good-faith effort to address the root of the problem.  You can’t skip the personal and go directly to the impersonal, no matter how uncomfortable you might find the personal to be.

But there are larger issues at work here than a single firm’s partnership agreement. In broader terms, the de-personalization of law firm culture has completely undermined the nature and purpose of law firm partnership itself.

It’s increasingly obvious that the partnership structure confers few business advantages on firms, so its defenders instead tend to argue that partnerships are more professional and collegial than “mere” companies. That simply doesn’t square with our lived experience anymore — firms now de-equitize partners as routinely and easily as the meanest corporation lays off employees. It sometimes feels to me, in fact, like many law firms have developed a superstition that the low-trust, high-tension, hyper-critical nature of firm culture actually correlates with (or even causes) the firm’s success — and that a kinder, gentler law firm is therefore also a weaker, less competitive one. Toxic masculinity as law firm culture, essentially.

You can adopt a partnership construct for your law firm, or not, as you wish. There are different ways to structure ownership and profit-sharing in law firms, depending on your local ethics rules. But none of them require the de-personalization of the culture. None of them necessitate the alienation of professional colleagues from one another, turning lawyers into ruthless judges of one another’s fitness and delegating the execution of their judgments to automated processes. Mad Men has been off the air for four years now. No one’s calling for a reboot.

Don Draper. Don Corleone. Coincidence? I think not.

So if you’re launching a new law firm today, or thinking about renewing the one you’ve got, start with an effort to personalize your culture. Open yourself up to the personal connections and individual relationships that naturally result from professional helpers working long hours in close quarters. Embrace the concept — it didn’t used to be a radical one — that you should trust your colleagues and should give them reason to trust you. Feel genuinely good about your colleague’s success and try to enhance that success, even if it has absolutely no financial or brand-building benefit for you. Engage with your colleagues as people first, lawyers second, revenue-earners last — not in the reverse order that many law firm cultures currently follow.

A law firm culture that has been re-personalized would never tolerate the suggestion that a partner be automatically ejected for failing to hit an earnings target. It would not permit one of its own people, lawyer or staff, to struggle and drown unaided in a rising sea of fixable problems or hidden troubles. It would put people first, always.

Think about being part of a culture like that — and then compare that to how you feel about your own organizational culture. Which seems better to you? Which makes you feel like a human being who happens to be a lawyer, rather than the other way around? Which culture would you race to join, and fight to defend?