I recently attended my obligatory NALSC fall symposium in Manhattan connecting with my other fellow legal recruiters and law firm consultants. The last speaker was the lovely and insightful Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. Upon conclusion of her presentation, we had a fruitful discussion about law firm leadership, culture & values and stewardship. As we got closer to the holidays this idea came to mind in our conversation.
Just like in the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens where Scrooge was visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future… What if the management committee of your law firm had similar experiences? What would they learn or confirm?
1. What would you learn from the ghost of your law firm’s past and how they looked at stewardship?
Now I know many firms these days do not simply originate from a couple founding partners but could be comprised of several marriages and founders from more than one firm. Even still if you were taken back to meet them, do you know what they believed in and wanted as far as tenets or values? Was it simply about prestige and money or something more? Could you speak intelligently to the requests of old management and new management throughout the firm history as the baton was passed? Was this an easy or painful transition? Could you speak to the consistent or varied evolution of the law firm’s culture, compensation and treatment of individuals? Does this align with values or personal gain? Would you be happy and excited to see these ghosts or nervous to learn what was expected of future generations?
In this process of considering the past context, grounding yourself in your firm history would assist in establishing a stronger environment of stewardship, firm culture and ownership.
2. What about the ghost of your law firm’s present?
Again if this ghost were to visit you (& your management team) and reveal what’s your current state of your law firm, would you be shocked? Say this ghost could take you to private conversations with partners, associates, staff, retired partners and clients, what would you hear as a bug on the wall? Do you currently have feedback loop systems in place so that you are informed and not “shocked”?
Also is your management committee sticking their heads in the sand and riding out the economy till they pass the baton and retire or seriously considering the implications of the New Normal and its affects on most if not all corporate focused law firms?
I think for many law firms they would like to hire this ghost annually to make a regular appearance and help provide valuable intelligence. Unfortunately in the case of the Christmas Carol and this notion of stewardship, we are looking for sober thinking.
In considering the present context of this analogy, accountability, transparency and courage make way for a strong position in stewarding the people and resources through the historical moments of this changing legal industry for law firms.
3. And finally, the ghost of your law firm’s future?
Magic balls are in short supply today, but if you were taken to the future of your firm say in 25 years based on your decisions now, what would you (& management team) discover? Would your institution still be around? Would it be reaping the benefits of wise decisions now? Would it still be holding on to the same values that steered the firm from the beginning? Were people and resources stewarded well? Does the firm brand still retain its current value?
What is the law firm of the future? Is your current management planning in this context? Where will your existing client base be in 25 years? Your pool of talent? Your infant leaders? Your new clients? Will your current values survive the leadership changes over time? Are you 10 years behind and have not caught up with the current technology trends accelerating your competition ahead of you?
Law firms are tainted with short-term thinking, practices and culture. Regarding stewardship, they could learn much from corporations in the US and Japan who have plans that extend beyond one generation. One simple practice law firms could consider is a form of retained earnings set aside annually as opposed to dispersing all the profits every year.
In my opinion, the practice and value of delaying gratification would be necessary among others for stewarding a law firm’s future.
The notion of stewardship within a law firm could carry a complex healthy reflection of past, present and future context. These are all important in weighing the effect of daily choices of management upon the resources and people within this institution and the clients they serve. During annual budget meetings, consider adding a component of reflection that may include this notion of stewardship.
Consider reading an interview of the Joseph Shenker, chair of Sullivan & Cromwell, reflecting on stewardship and the history of his law firm.
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