Why managing by committee is holding law firms back…

A new outward-looking approach and an acceptance of the traditional partner model’s limitations are needed for law firms to thrive today, says Mushtaq Khan…

Change and the legal sector are not the best of friends. Lawyers are a conservative bunch on the whole, and what’s more, the way we usually structure our firms almost guarantees that innovation is the exception rather than the rule.

Yet I would argue that the law firms that can’t – or won’t – embrace genuine change will face serious challenges. And that’s because client expectations have fundamentally shifted over the past decade and continue to evolve rapidly.

The traditional law firm is ill-equipped to deal with these swirling winds of change because, simplistically speaking, partnerships usually result in design by committee. There are many partners and all their varied opinions must be taken on board. The resulting decision, designed to please everyone, inevitably lacks innovation, thrust and direction. Potential visionary leaders get lost in a forest of debate and firms remain trapped in the sticky weeds of conventional thinking.

The situation is exaggerated further because organisations tend to recruit people they feel most comfortable with. More often than not these recruits share a similar background, education and interests. This limits the gene pool and leads to even more one-tone thinking.

To escape this trap, law firms must take a fresh approach.

Capitalise on people’s passions

Currently, at the traditional law firm’s heart is an expectation that employees and partners are jacks-of-all-trades. Naturally there is pressure to earn fees, but as people develop they are also asked to take on managerial and leadership duties. On top of that, business development and marketing are expected, too.

The professional services industry is unique in asking its individuals to be masters in all these areas. Take the pharmaceutical industry for example: are chemists expected to market the drugs they create?

The reality is that many brilliant technical lawyers have no interest in marketing. Similarly, rain-making business development professionals often have no passion or aptitude for technical work.

So the legal sector must ask itself: is there a need for greater segmentation? We must embrace the truth that individuals have certain skill sets and passions, and these cannot be replicated by ‘up-skilling’ courses.

Rather than asking people to spread themselves thinly across the three fundamental areas of fee-earning, management and business development, they should be allowed to flourish in the area they want to focus on. That will ultimately have more benefit to the business.

What is more, equal weight and status should be given to each of the three fundamental areas. Fee-earners’ contribution to the firm is the most easily recognisable and valued in many law firms, but equal value should be placed on the rain-makers with the skill to get out there and regularly win new clients, and on the managers who brilliantly marshal their troops. Business development professionals and people managers must not be seen as ‘overheads’.

Time to encourage diversity

Recruitment is another area where a fresh approach is needed.

Clearly it’s important to attract the best talent. But it’s also critical to tap into a diverse pool of talent.

I’m not talking about diversity for the sake of it, or because there is a moral obligation – although that is a good reason – I’m talking about diversity because it makes business sense. Recruiting people from varied backgrounds brings new skills and insights into organisations. Those who’ve had to struggle harder – perhaps they’ve had to work while studying or risen up from a tough background – often show impressive hunger. If you can harness that, support and nourish it, it can be very advantageous for the business.

Let’s face outwards and embrace change

Overall we need to stop looking inwards, be more open to learning from other professions and sectors, and embrace genuine change. We must be more self-aware and recognise that the traditional partner model can smother innovation unless visionary leaders are empowered and design by committee is curtailed. We need to segment more and allow people to thrive by working in roles aligned to their passions, not dilute their effectiveness by asking them to take on tasks that sap their energy.

Mushtaq Khan is president of Birmingham Law Society