Reuniting a firm divided

Published on: 
Published on 2/12/07

Lawyers who are together physically in an office environment share a camaraderie that shapes the development of a firm culture.

However, in many of today's geographically diverse mega-firms, partners are that in name only. The governance of these large firms has fallen to a very few in the organization ("the management committee"). The remaining partners often have little interaction outside their own practice areas.

Other parts of the law-firm business model - such as outsized compensation for rainmakers and the "eat 'em up and spit 'em out" mode of using associates - can contribute to a sense of alienation that shows up in high rates of partner defection and associate turnover.

Such problems are not, however, exclusive to big law firms. In any firm, unless there is continuous open and candid communication among equity partners, and acceptance and buy-in for the business plan chosen by the firm, sooner or later there will be a dissolution of the firm.

The form of the dissolution is irrelevant, whether by withdrawal of individual partners or wholesale departure and formal liquidation. The end result will be the same: The original dream of harmonious and collegial growth of the firm will come to an end.

This communication process is a continuous requirement to ensure that individual agendas continue to be in harmony with one another. In divorce practice, lawyers frequently hear the complaint that "we grew apart." This results from the failure to keep communications open and candid as time passes. Law firms, small and large, are subject to the same need to keep the communication process open, candid and frequent.

One way to accomplish this is too often dismissed or misused: an all-firm meeting or retreat. In a very real sense, firm retreats are an exercise in marketing. Marketing ultimately means developing close relationships with people to achieve your mutual goals.

At a retreat, the entire firm is marketing itself to its members - bringing together the people, ideas and resources that make the practice of law worthwhile in that particular organization.

Poor law firm marketing has been defined as "random acts of golf and lunch," and the same characterization unfortunately holds true for too many firm retreats. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Consider the bane of many law firms: how to get individualistic attorneys to create and accept a firm business plan.

Successful planning comes from the top. The primary rainmakers of the firm, the management and managing partner all must be in concert, and all members of the firm must buy in. If the partners are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, then the planning process is bound to be sabotaged and of little use.

Firm retreats are the ideal mechanism to accomplish this. Retreats literally get everyone together in the same room where concepts can be discussed, ideas and questions raised, and acceptance established. A physical show of hands can be a powerful validation of the firm's new direction.

An effective retreat can bring people physically together in a positive setting to close physical, strategic and emotional gaps. There can still be golf and lunch - after all, bonding doesn't have to hurt!

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