Is stewardship dead?

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.

A to Z: 26 trends for the legal profession

This article was co-authored with Mélanie Raymond, then-Senior Editor of National, and appeared as the cover story in the April/May 2006 edition of the magazine.

The legal profession is turning upside down, and many of the familiar landmarks are disappearing or bring replaced by brand-new structures. There are so many changes afoot that National’s editorial team could match each letter of the alphabet to a development that presents a threat — or an opportunity — for lawyers. Twenty-six trends, 26 letters: which ones matter the most to you?

Associé (Partnership)

It’s always been the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal for lawyers starting out in private practice It has been considered the final step in a lawyer’s transition from simply an employee to a partner. But this is all changing, thanks to systematic and generational change.

Equity partnerships (partnership without capital investments or draws), salaried associate, permanent or advisory associate — new forms of quasi-partnership are born every year. The journey to the associate level is accelerated in some firms, delayed in others. Methods vary from one firm to another, from one individual to another.

And increasingly, there are lawyers who choose to not aspire to partner status at all — for whom client development, firm management, and the additional responsibilities that go along with being a partner hold little or no appeal. Will partnership become obsolete? No, but flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.

Runners-up: Asia, Latin America Continue Reading

Looking for leaders

These days, young lawyers are often said to be joining firms and immediately expecting exciting work, handsome paycheques, flexible hours and endless compliments. Their attitude, apparently, is that they can bypass all the hard work put in by their elders and head straight for the reward, while bolting to a higher bidder on a moment’s notice. The phrase “entitlement mentality” gets thrown around a lot.

Rather than criticizing their newest recruits, firms might instead try learning to maximize what this generation has to offer: intelligence, creativity, technology skills and, yes, a solid work ethic. Today’s new lawyers are quite willing to put in the hours — but many need a good reason, one more compelling than “increasing firm profits.”

Today’s new lawyers also understand that associates are a fungible commodity in this marketplace. And when these associates read in the newspaper about senior partners switching firms for more money and more “challenges,” is it any wonder they feel inclined to follow suit?

And this brings us to the heart of this generational rift: leadership.  Today’s new lawyers — and their whole generation, incidentally — are starved for leadership. They’re seeking an actual vision for what a lawyer and a law firm could be, and they will respond enthusiastically to the keynotes of leadership: mentoring, coaching, feedback, vision, and a sense of higher purpose.

If a law firm chose to truly prize leadership, and dedicated the resources to prove it, that firm would have its choice of the very best and brightest young lawyers. It would have to turn them away at the door.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the October/November 2005 issue of National magazine.