Looking at law firms through the windows of an Airstream

Published on: 
Published on 1/29/07

Often the best lessons in life are those that we never anticipate. I've been reminded of that in recent months as my wife and I decided to purchase, refurbish, register and take trips in a vintage Airstream trailer. The entire process has given me insight into issues of law-firm management like few other experiences in my life.

These are some of the most important conclusions that I've drawn from the process:

  • When we had to choose between a new or a vintage trailer, it reminded me of the plus/minus calculation that law firms do to decide whether to hire a lateral lawyer or a recent law school graduate who must be trained.

    The lateral hire is a known quantity (for better or worse), involving less near-term risk but also perhaps needing more effort to maintain. The new graduate requires lots of time and expense to train, but theoretically should be with you for the long haul. Every firm's answer will be different as to which option is better.

  • My wife and I made a lot of decisions about how to refurbish the Airstream as we went along. It was only afterward that we realized how helpful a plan would have been.

    Like married couples, lawyers are notoriously averse to planning. They are motivated by practicing law, not by thinking about how to practice it effectively, efficiently and profitably.

    Yet, a firm that does not decide what kind of practice it wants will wind up with one reflecting whatever walks in the door. Serendipity and whim are not the best paths to success. Set short-term and long-term objectives; stick to them until such time as empirical evidence suggests changes should be made.

  • Whether it was an issue of driving techniques or inspection practices, reflection and teamwork were the answers every time we had a disagreement about the Airstream ... but not always the first or the obvious answers.

    Law-firm partners, like married partners, can't assume that they are on the same wavelength. Unless there is continuous open and candid communication, and buy-in for the path chosen by the firm, sooner or later there will be dissolution.

    If something goes awry or is a variance from the plan, determine what future action needs to be taken rather than worry about fault or blame. Otherwise, the discontent and bickering will reach a crescendo that requires the break-up of the firm.

    Perfection is seldom possible, so don't use that as your standard for evaluation.

  • When we became concerned about the money we were spending to refurbish the Airstream, I put it into perspective by looking at how much the shared experience has added to our marriage.

    It reminded me that, as an associate, I had asked the managing partner if I could make a business development expenditure. His reply was that the amount did not worry him - one new client could add far more revenue to the firm than the expenditure could cost.

    Law-firm members should never forget that what they put into their collaborative effort often determines how much they receive, in financial rewards and personal satisfaction.

These lessons have a basic theme: Law firms are ultimately a group of people who work to achieve common goals. A trailer, and a law firm, will go nowhere without the proper effort.

This Coach’s Corner Article is listed under the following categories: