The essence of the distinction is that the corporation is founded on a stable aim, whereas the professional service firm is more opportunistic, and that this is reflected in the way people work. Within an organisation like Boeing, for example, everyone knows that the company’s aim is to make planes. Everything they do is focused on that aim. In a law firm, by contrast, the nature of the work done (beyond the vague aim of helping clients) depends on the opportunities presented by those clients, the capabilities and interests of the lawyers (in combination with the support available).
As a result, the law firm tends to be more individualistic and pragmatic, where the corporation is hierarchical. People within law firms perceive themselves to be entitled to more autonomy than in the corporation. (As an outsider coming to the firm from a university background, I was completely at home within an environment where everyone considered themselves to be self-employed, whereas a colleague of mine who came from a retail business was quite shocked.)
These are, of course, extreme characterisations, but there is still an element of truth in them. They explain why KM and L&D people (as well as HR people) in law firms find a different set of challenges from their counterparts in commerce and industry. If the purpose of a law firm is emergent rather than pre-ordained, and contingent on the lawyers present in the firm at any given time, where is the value in knowledge continuity or succession planning?
That said, as I suggested in my last blog post, things are going to change in the next few years (and that change will make some of the freer souls feel like the relative of Mary Plain pictured above, in the now-closed bearpits at Bern). Any law firm that hasn’t already got a strategy is going to need one, and adherence to that strategy will become more important than ever — success will depend more on people doing what they are told than it does currently.
That is not to say that the essential nature of law firms will be lost. Law is still a more agile business than the building of aeroplanes — innovation will depend on people successfully following their own creative instincts. They will just have to do that within a more corporate framework. Two blog posts I picked up on today reinforce that quite well.
The first is a note by the always thoughtful Scott Berkun on a long interview with Tim O’Reilly. Scott picks up and re-tells a story Tim tells about an early encounter with an investment banker (Bob):
Bob made a statement that really struck me, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw in it, both to agree and disagree with.
The statement was this: “You don’t fish with strawberries. Even if that’s what you like, fish like worms, so that’s what you use.”
Bob was referring specifically to finding out what the real needs of the potential strategic partners might be, since they might be focussing on something other than what we think is most important about what we have to offer.
That’s really good advice for any sales situation: understand the customer and his or her needs, and make sure that you’re answering those needs. No one could argue with such sound, commonsense advice.
At the same time, a small voice within me said with a mixture of dismay, wonder and dawning delight: “But that’s just what we’ve always done: gone fishing with strawberries. We’ve made a business by offering our customers what we ourselves want. And it’s worked!”
Until now, most law firms have been in the fortunate position of being able to fish with strawberries. Even when they pay lip service to understanding the client, many of them are more interested in comparing themselves with other law firms. As a result, the shape of the legal market has not changed significantly over the past twenty years or so. There is still scope for strawberries, but we need to be better at considering the worms our clients relish (and that requires a discipline that has not often been seen amongst lawyers. A balance is possible, as Scott makes clear:
To only make strawberries makes you an artist. And to only make worms makes you a capitalist. To make both at the same time, or some of one now and then some of the other later, perhaps makes a successful artist. Or an artistic capitalist. Or in Tim’s case, it means you’re having a successful life that has helped people like me make successful lives, and perhaps that’s the best kind of fishing of all: fishing that helps other people learn to fish.
The other blog post is more clearly relevant to law firms. Bruce MacEwen has turned his laser-sight on the competing conceptions of ‘quality’ held by lawyers and their clients.
Clients on Quality Firms on Quality Often “good enough” is good enough We need to run down every conceivable contingency no matter how remote-and extinguish it with a string cite 80/20 rule 99.99% Financial metrics, cost-benefit, ROI Professional ethics and intellectual tradition Business judgment The traditions of excellence in our firm
This is an excellent characterisation of the strawberries/worms dichotomy applied to service delivery. But whilst Bruce is generally keen to support the client perspective, he raises a valid concern.
Here’s my worry:
- You and your firm agree to a client’s request/demand that a certain matter is only worth “good enough.”
- You give it good enough-plus 10%, let’s say, just because you can’t help yourself.
- Case closed.
- Sometime later, things go seriously south with the matter formerly deemed closed.
Is good enough good enough any more?
And who’s to blame-your firm or the client-for the fact that merely sufficient legal advice has come back to bite?
Actually, you might not want to let your malpractice carrier think about this too long.
So doing things the lawyerly way could be beneficial to the client in the long run. The challenge must surely be to find a way to explain this to clients and to deliver it to a cost that increasingly price-sensitive businesses will tolerate. This is an excellent example of the difficult decisions that will need to be taken by firms, rather than individual lawyers, and where leadership and discipline will need to be exemplary for success.
And, needless to say, there is a role for knowledge management to play — how else will the firm learn from its mistakes and successes?