Dear Law Firms, Go to Business School

by Vault Law Editors | March 21, 2011

  • My Vault

Life is so unfair, dear lawyers. You spent years locked in a law school library trying to block out the laughter and chatter of the nearby business school’s happy hour or “networking” (aka beer-drinking) events. Three years of your life evaporated in a blur of yellow highlighters, Nutshells, and loneliness while your MBA friends focused on teamwork and collaboration for two years with no Socratic scars to show for it.

And now you’re being told to be more like them—that you know squat about running your law firms? Oy vey. But maybe you should . . .

According to James Bailey, Ave Tucker Professor of Leadership and director of the World Executive MBA at GW Business School, law firms have seen profits and demand drop dramatically. Bailey suggests that the down legal market calls for law firms to “rethink their leadership and begin acting like businesses.”

So does that mean that law firms should start throwing weekly happy hours and emphasizing teamwork? Well, maybe. But Bailey has five concrete proposals for law firms:

1.Executive Treatment: Lawyers know the law, not how to run a business. Bailey suggests law firms work with corporate experts in developing business strategies. (Although Bailey doesn't mention ethics, attorneys and law firms should be sure to comply with all ethics rules when involving non-lawyers).*
2.Bye Bye Billable: You’ve heard it before (but in case you still have some wax in there)—get rid of the billable hour.
3.Consolidate: Be the Target of law firms, and offer your clients everything in one place.
4.Hang On Tight: Focus on retaining your talent.
5.Compensate Accordingly: Partners’ earnings should be based on the success of their practice areas not their performance.

Interesting ideas. And Bailey raises one point that I think is absolutely critical in our current economic climate: attrition. With demand down, it’s easy to shed your associates and cut perks to maintain partners’ bottom lines. Everyone else is doing it, and if you ever need more associates, tons of lawyers will bang down your door to claim the positions, right?

Perhaps, but is scooping up just anybody the way to build a successful law firm? Or should firms focus on hiring the best, grooming them for success and implementing strategies to retain them? I think the latter. A firm is only as good as its attorneys. When a law firm associate grasps the firm culture, develops relationships with clients, understands the history of a case and has pride in his or her firm, the firm will be better off—both reputation wise and work-product wise. What messages do a swinging door of attorneys and a bunch of disgruntled alumni send about your firm (hint: they do not scream that you care about your associates)? Sure, partners may take losses in down times, but won’t maintaining your top talent be more valuable in the long run?

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*Revision Note: The Constitutional Daily raises an important point that the ethics rules prohibit certain types of non-lawyer involvement in law firms. While each state abides by its own code of ethics, the Model Code of Professional Conduct, section 5.4 states the following:

(d) A lawyer shall not practice with or in the form of a professional corporation or association authorized to practice law for a profit, if:
(1) a nonlawyer owns any interest therein, except that a fiduciary representative of the estate of a lawyer may hold the stock or interest of the lawyer for a reasonable time during administration;
(2) a nonlawyer is a corporate director or officer thereof or occupies the position of similar responsibility in any form of association other than a corporation ; or
(3) a nonlawyer has the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.

Bailey doesn't specifically state that law firms should give corporate experts ownership, management positions or officer / director roles. Nor does he encourage law firms to allow business experts to "direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer." He suggests that firms "create executive teams" to "think more strategically about the broader economic climate, industry trends, client needs and internal policies." Any firms considering creating business teams should explore whether such teams comply with the firm's ethical duties and ensure that the firm and its attorneys fully adhere to all ethical obligations.

Another issue, according to the Constitutional Daily is the following: "[n]o non-lawyer partners (1), no non-lawyer officers (2), and no non-lawyer managers (3). Good luck retaining talented businessmen without being able to offer them any true responsibility or a shot at becoming partner." The inability to offer management or ownership positions to corporate experts may pose a challenge to law firms seeking to follow Bailey's advice. Perhaps a better solution would be to bring in business-savvy consultants to discuss business tactics.

Whatever business strategies law firms implement, they should always be aware of and abide by their ethical duties.

The Washington Post Source
Constitutional Daily
Model Rules of Professional Conduct

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Filed Under: Law

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