Nothing Personal

It's not personal. 

This is the current mantra of law firms with regards to their staff members, associates, and partners. 

"Sorry, first-year associate, you won't be starting work when we said you would. Come back in a year." 

"After careful consideration, tenth-year associate, we just can't make you partner yet. Maybe next year." 

"We're sorry to do this, twenty-year legal secretary, but we have to cut back on costs and so we're letting you go." 

The messages all inevitably are followed by the exculpatory: "It's not personal, it's business." 

There is no question that change is coming to the legal profession--in the way firms are structured for advancement, in the career expectations of associates, and in how work gets done. But law firms have yet to come to terms with the fact that these changes might also impact profits, in the same way that changes to the medical profession affected the profit margins of physicians. As such, in many law firms, change is embraced as long as equity partners can continue to earn salaries that will be reflected positively in the almighty profits per partner competition. (And make no mistake that it is a competition, as are most things with lawyers. Thus, we see firms stretching the definitional limits of "profits per partner" as they vie for the top spots on the "list.") 

In the resulting wreckage, personal connections are lost. Because what these firms fail to realize is that managing only to the bottom line is a short-term strategy. And while that might be okay with the megafirms that want to see their shadows cast further into the global market and higher up on The Am Law 100, it is not strategic and it ignores the reality of the changing market. Still, large law firms continue to march down this path. And that is the path that has led to the depersonalization of large law firms.

Depersonalization is what allows big-firm associates to come and go freely (no question, when the economy comes back, they'll start moving again). It allows powerful partners to take large books of business to competitors so they can make more money. And, in many of these firms, depersonalization means that quality work plays second fiddle to realization, and good citizenship and mentoring are trumped by profitability.

This phenomena doesn't stop at the entrance to the law firm. It has spilled over to the clients. The lack of a relationship-driven business model permits clients to be arbitrary and fickle. Historical relationships are traded for "what have you done for me lately" and "how much did it cost." Years of good work and great results are thrown out for the low-cost leader, or a change in the general counsel. Because it's not personal...not for you, not for anyone, not anymore.

Law firms used to be about relationships. Relationships between partners and partners, associates and partners, clients and lawyers. Law firms used to be about retention and growth of lawyers and client relationships, mentoring and development, loyalty to the institution and to each other, and respect for those who came before. Law firms used to be about trust.

That trust, however, has been broken. Witness the demise of giant firms like Heller Ehrman, Thelen, and Brobeck--all big firms that appear to have traded their culture for currency. As a former partner of Heller, I saw our firm, with its rich culture of consensus and collegiality, collapse in part because some partners thought it would be okay to trade core values and firm identity for a moment at the top of a list; because some partners favored the elusive "global reach" over more realistic ambitions; and because some partners chose more immediate returns over the history and tradition of the firm. In big firms that have survived, loyalty is too often defined by the portability of a partner's business, associates are seen (and see themselves) as fungible commodities in whom no one has a stake, and fudging numbers of women and minority associates and partners is justified, if it gets the firm to its rightful place on yet another list.

Is this bottom line/list-driven model sustainable? The answer has to be, "No." Because it ignores what law firms need to fuel their engines: associates who are invested in the firm and the future of the institution. There is no question that the new generation of lawyers is relationship driven--social networks define their reality, connecting with others and sharing experiences is their passion. Money is important, but community is more important. Loyalty from young associates cannot be bought with law firm logo-emblazoned swag and big pay checks. It must be earned by good and meaningful work assignments, team approaches, and a feeling of being an integral part of the firm.

If big law wants to have a sustainable and renewable future, these law firms will have to reengineer their models. Some are making efforts to do just that by:

--Reconnecting with clients for the broader and longer relationship.

--Looking at associates as valuable assets that have to be mentored, developed, and retained by the firm incentivizing firms to deepen their relationships with associates through active mentoring programs, investing in training, and instituting career development programs that recognize and support a nonlinear path to partnership.

--Developing a skills-based evaluation and compensation system that rewards teamwork, productivity, quality work, loyalty, and competence.

--Valuing institutional maturity, diversity, and historical contributions along with immediate returns by crediting nonbillable hours spent on broadening client relationships, rewarding partners for retaining associates and increasing diversity, recognizing the need to pass the baton through institutionalized succession planning on client relationships.

--Finding ways to truly partner with clients so that law firms and clients have shared risks and rewards by encouraging and supporting alternative billing arrangements, knowing the client's business and recognizing its needs, and seconding associates when needed.

Big-law firms simply cannot continue to trade relationships with their associates and clients for the prospect of raising profits. In fact, firms that ignore this do so at their own peril. Firm leaders need to recognize that it is relationships and culture that bind people to their firms. Because, for the best and the brightest lawyers in big firms and for the clients who want quality legal work, it is personal.

By Pat Gillette
December 2009