The nature of the firm, and why it matters

Jordan Furlong‘s justified question, “Why do law firms exist?” is something that isn’t just relevant to partners (or potential investors in firms). Those who support the core functions of the firm need to be aware of its implications. I’ll come back to Jordan’s question, but first I want to reflect on something else.

Thanks to the generosity of Headshift, I was able to attend the Dachis Group’s London Social Business Summit at the end of March. One of the most interesting sessions that day was the presentation by Dave Gray of XPLANE. Dave outlined his current thinking about the nature of the company, which can be found summarised in the initial post on his new site, The Connected Company.

Dave is concerned about the short life span of the average company:

In a recent talk, John Hagel pointed out that the average life expectancy of a company in the S&P 500 has dropped precipitously, from 75 years (in 1937) to 15 years in a more recent study. Why is the life expectancy of a company so low? And why is it dropping?

He is also worried about their productivity:

A recent analysis in the CYBEA Journal looked at profit-per-employee at 475 of the S&P 500, and the results were astounding: As you triple the number of employees, their productivity drops by half (Chart here).

This “3/2 law” of employee productivity, along with the death rate for large companies, is pretty scary stuff. Surely we can do better?

I believe we can. The secret, I think, lies in understanding the nature of large, complex systems, and letting go of some of our traditional notions of how companies function.

The largest complex system that still seems to work is the city.

Cities aren’t just complex and difficult to control. They are also more productive than their corporate counterparts. In fact, the rules governing city productivity stand in stark contrast to the ominous “3/2 rule” that applies to companies. As companies add people, productivity shrinks. But as cities add people, productivity actually grows.

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that as the working population in a given area doubles, productivity (measured in this case by the rate of invention) goes up by 20%. This finding is borne out by study after study. If you’re interested in going deeper, take a look at this recent New York Times article: A Physicist Solves the City.

Drawing on a study of long-lived successful companies commissioned by Shell Oil, Dave spots three characteristics of those companies also shared by cities:

Ecosystems: Long-lived companies were decentralized. They tolerated “eccentric activities at the margins.” They were very active in partnerships and joint ventures. The boundaries of the company were less clearly delineated, and local groups had more autonomy over their decisions, than you would expect in the typical global corporation.

Strong identity: Although the organization was loosely controlled, long-lived companies were connected by a strong, shared culture. Everyone in the company understood the company’s values. These companies tended to promote from within in order to keep that culture strong. Cities also share this common identity: think of the difference between a New Yorker and a Los Angelino, or a Parisian, for example.

Active listening: Long-lived companies had their eyes and ears focused on the world around them and were constantly seeking opportunities. Because of their decentralized nature and strong shared culture, it was easier for them to spot opportunities in the changing world and act, proactively and decisively, to capitalize on them.

The whole post is worth reading and reflecting on. Dave’s prescription for success, for companies to be more like cities, is to shun divisional structures, and to build on networks and connections instead. This has been refined in a more recent post into a ‘podular’ system.

A pod is a small, autonomous unit that is enabled and empowered to deliver the things that customers value.

By value, I mean anything that’s a part of a service that delivers value, even though the customer may not see it. For example, in a construction firm, the activities valued by customers are those that are directly related to building. The accounting department of a construction firm is not part of the value delivery system, it’s a support team. But in an accounting firm, any activity related to accounting is part of the customer value delivery system.

There’s a reason that pods need to focus on value-creating activities rather than support activities. Support activities might need to be organized differently.

This idea appears to be closely related to Steve Denning’s notion of Radical Management, as described in his latest book. It also reflects the way that some professional service firms organise themselves. That’s what brings us back to Jordan Furlong’s question.

Why do law firms exist? Or, more properly, why should law firms continue to exist? (One important reason why they exist is that their history brought us to this point. What might happen to them in the future is actually more interesting.)

Jordan’s post starts with Ronald Coase, but also points to a number of ways in which law firms might not meet Coase’s standards.

Companies exist, therefore, because they:

  • reduce transaction costs,
  • build valuable culture,
  • organize production,
  • assemble collective knowledge, and
  • spur innovation.

So now let’s take a look at law firms. I don’t think it would be too huge a liberty to state that as a general rule, law firms:

  • develop relatively weak and fragmented cultures,
  • manage production and process indifferently,
  • assign and perform work inefficiently,
  • share knowledge haphazardly and grudgingly, and
  • display almost no interest in innovation.

That’s an inventory of defects that would make Ronald Coase wonder exactly what it is that keeps law firms together as commercial entities.

Worse than that, Jordan points to a range of recent commentaries suggesting that things aren’t getting any better. I think he is correct. In fact, it is interesting to note that John Roberts spotted the germ of the problem in his 2004 book, The Modern Firm.

Many authors, including Ronald Coase and Herbert Simon, have identified the essential nature of the firm as the reliance on heirarchic, authority relations to replace the inherent equality among participants that markes market dealings. When you join a firm, you accept the right of the executives and their delegates to direct your behaviour, at least over a more-or-less commonly understood range of activities. …

Others … have challenged this view. They argue that any appearance of authority in the firm is illusory. For them, the relationship between employer and employee is completely parallel to that between customer and butcher. In each case, the buyer (of labor services or meat) can tell the seller what is wanted on a particular day, and the seller can acquiesce and be paid, or refuse and be fired. For these scholars, the firm is simply “a nexus of contracts” — a particularly dense collection of the sort of arrangements that characterise markets.

While there are several objections to this argument, we focus on one. It is that, when a customer “fires” a butcher, the butcher keeps the inventory, tools, shop, and other customers she had previously. When an employee leaves a firm, in contrast, she is typically denied access to the firm’s resources. The employee cannot conduct business using the firm’s name; she cannot use its machinery or patents; and she probably has limited access to the people and networks in the firm, certainly for commercial purposes and perhaps even socially. (The Modern Firm, pp.103-4)

The benefits Roberts identifies are almost always missing in a law firm. The firm’s name may be less significant than the lawyer’s and there is little machinery or patents. In the seven years since the book was published access to networks and people has become infinitely more straightforward, thanks to developments in social software and similar technologies.

Joining Roberts’s insights with those of Dave Gray and Jordan Furlong, I think it is likely that we will see much more fluid structures in law firms in coming years. Dave Gray’s podular arrangement need not be restricted to one organisation — what is to stop clients creating their own pods for specific projects, drawing together the good lawyers from a variety of firms? Could the panel arrangement now commonly in use by larger companies be a Trojan horse to allow them to pick off key lawyers whenever they need them? Technology is only going to make that easier.

So that leaves the support functions. In Dave Gray’s podular model, support is provided by a backbone, or platform.

Podular platform

For a podular system to work, cultural and technical standards are imperative. This means that a pod’s autonomy does not extend to choices in shared standards and protocols. This kind of system needs a strong platform that clearly articulates those standards and provides a mechanism for evolving them when necessary.

For small and large companies alike, the most advantageous standards are those that are most widely adopted, because those standards will allow you to plug in more easily to the big wide world – and the big wide world always offers more functionality, better and more cheaply than you can build it yourself. Platform architecture is about coordination and consistency, so the best way to organize it may not be podular. When it comes to language, protocols, culture and values, you don’t want variability, you want consistency. Shared values is one of the best ways to ensure consistent behavior when you lack a formal hierarchy. Consistency in standards is an absolute requirement if you want to enable autonomous units.

Interestingly, there is often little variation between different law firms in terms of their technical standards. In some practice areas, these are dictated by external agencies (courts, industry associations, etc.), whilst in others they converge because of intervention by common suppliers (in the UK, many firms use know-how and precedents provided by PLC) or simply the fact that in order to do their job lawyers have to share their basic knowledge (first-draft documents often effectively disclose a firm’s precedents to their competitors). It is a small step to a more generally accepted foundation for legal work.

Will clients push for this? Would they benefit from some form of crowd-sourced backbone to support lawyers working for them in a podular fashion? Time will tell, but don’t wait for the train to leave the station before you decide to board it.

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5 Responses to “The nature of the firm, and why it matters”


  1. 1 D. C. Toedt 4 May 2011 at 14:41

    One big impediment to podification is the rule that a conflict of interest for a single lawyer is imputed to his whole firm.

    Suppose Lawyer A’s client becomes adverse to a client of Lawyer B in the same firm.

    Suppose also that (i) Lawyer B’s client represents more billings to the firm, and/or (ii) she is otherwise more powerful within the firm, for example because she has a bigger book of business overall.

    In that situation, one and perhaps two things will almost surely happen:

    1. The firm’s management will tell Lawyer A to break off his relationship with what firm management regards as the less-valuable client; and/or

    2. Lawyer A will leave the firm, taking his client with him.

    Podification would be a very nice development, but I don’t see it happening as long as the imputed-conflict rule is around.

    The U.S. needs a conflicts system more like the way I understand UK barristers’ chambers operate, in which two barristers in the same chambers can find themselves on opposite sides of the same case.

    It’d be interesting to explore whether existing ethics rules would allow a group of lawyers to set up as “chambers” in that way, in essence sharing space. Conflicts would have to be managed on a person-by-person basis, and files would have to be compartmentalized, but it doesn’t seem per se impossible.

    • 2 Mark Gould 4 May 2011 at 16:55

      You are right that the ethical and professional rules governing legal practice are a strong factor in the continued existence of law firms. The kind of scenario you describe was in my mind when I wrote the last couple of paragraphs, which is one reason why I put clients in the driving seat.

      Within a firm, some fluidity of management might be possible — approaching a podular form. In order to achieve this, I think the firm would have to have a different, more restrictive, approach to client engagement than is currently possible. It would probably also have to be quite a small business.

      On the other hand, a client might be able to manage its own legal function in a podular way — drawing on external resource when necessary. This depends on there being a commonly agreed backbone of standards to work with, so that no time is wasted training new members of the team.


  1. 1 links for 2011-05-03 | Ex Orbite Trackback on 4 May 2011 at 07:06
  2. 2 links for 2011-05-06 :: Blog :: Headshift Trackback on 6 May 2011 at 17:02
  3. 3 To be really productive, we need to make friends not appointments « Don't Compromise! Trackback on 27 May 2011 at 16:37
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