Legal Marketing Blog

Why oh why is it so difficult for law firms to operate like really smart businesses?

Posted by Jennifer Iverson

An interesting WSJ article today, Making a Partner is More of a Business, brings me to a pause, hmmmm.  

It is true, choosing to become a partner is a life, career, financial and business decision. Every aspect of operating a law firm in general should be done with a smart business mind at the helm. I for one would never board a cruise ship if the captain was actually a passenger who had been on a lot of fishing boats and thought she would give the driver’s seat on this big cruiser a spin.

Unfortunately, many law firms continue to function as if stuck in an early 90’s time machine. Many of these are led by managing partners who are litigators and not by savvy MBA trained, highly experienced, executive directors. Just like the passenger at the helm of the ship, those litigators believe that, “If I can win a multi-million dollar trial…I can surely run a multi-million dollar law firm.” Seriously?

In spite of this led-by-a-litigator approach, many of these firms remain profitable, are hiring, and have a reasonable number of satisfied lawyers. More baffling, is that they could and would be more successful if they functioned like a streamlined business led by a CEO. Someone who is making sophisticated short and long-term strategic decisions. And who is a true leader in every sense of the word.

It really is a head shaker. Minus the MBA leader in charge, hours and hours are typically spent in business development, marketing, practice group, and other operational meetings attended by a gathering of partners. While the clock ticks away, thousands in billables are wasted, including by the partners conferencing in from other offices who hear nothing but shuffling lunch containers and inaudible conversations. Only a small gaggle of the meeting attendees provide meaningful input, many of whom are non-lawyers.

Do not get me wrong, getting groups of lawyers together to discuss important issues and bond over lunch is a good thing that I have always supported. Over analyzing systems, approaches, and good ideas for a second, third and fourth time while painstakingly reviewing data-heavy reports, to then decide on minimal next-steps and wrapping up with a follow up meeting date – something I have never supported. I have been an invited party goer to these groundhog day events (on countless occasions). Realistically, meeting attendees know that nobody is going to bust-a-move backed with some real action. That supposed follow-up meeting will be rescheduled a few times, months pass, interest fades, and the in-depth report becomes outdated. Nothing happens.

I am convinced there is something about the process of holding a meeting on a hot topic, creating a report, then holding a follow up meeting to analyze that report, again, makes some law firm leaders believe they are actually doing something. When, actually, they are still doing nothing.

So yes, I agree that deciding to become a partner is a business decision, hiring and conscientiously integrating a lateral, are all good business decisions towards a bright and happy firm future. It just does not seem to flow that way in many law firm settings. It is clear that the successors in the legal industry will be those law firms and lawyers who function day after day like smart businesses. Those firms that strategically choose who should become partner, who should be cut loose (yes, even partners), who should be hired, what opportunities to embark on, or not embark on – these are the business-rich law firm winners where becoming a partner makes good business sense.