Law firms, memory and history

Today is 1 May, the first day of a new year for most UK-based law firms (financially, at least). All our clocks have rolled back to zero and there should be a clear way forward into the unknown of the coming year. With that in mind, I have been thinking about history.


A couple of years ago, I spent some time talking about the use of history within organisations with Julie Reynolds. We first connected following a conference session at KMUK in 2010, in which a colleague of hers described a knowledge transfer project involving Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. I referred to this in a previous blog post, but the links I provided there are dead or dying (Posterous is about to be closed, for one thing).

The work with the Hunterian Museum (along with other museums)  focused on the ways in which objects in the museum’s collection (some quite unusual) could be used to support different kinds of conversations within businesses. This is how I summarised it in 2010:

What [they] have done as part of the Knowledge Transfer Project is to develop a set of modules aimed at developing business skills, using exhibits from the museum. Some of these are quite intriguing (to say the least). They showed us images of two exhibits they use on the ‘building confidence’ module: a set of dentures made for Winston Churchill (designed to maintain his slight speech impediment so that no-one would notice the change) and “a painted silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, from the mid-1800s. The nose was worn by a woman who had lost her own as a result of syphilis.” (Quoted from a Hunterian volunteers’ newsletter, in which there is also a picture of the nose.) She later presented it to her physician stating that she had remarried and that her new husband preferred her without it. It is easy to see how these items could spark a valuable learning conversation about confidence in a business or personal context.

Following her involvement in this project, Julie started a course in Manchester and we met a few times to discuss how her experience in curation might be used in a commercial context. She had previously worked for other businesses to help them connect with their own histories through archives and collections of artefacts. During these conversations, I quickly realised that law firms rarely refer publicly to their histories. Very few provide an ‘origin story’ on their websites and I suspect even fewer use archivists or similar professionals to preserve key documents for future use. (If you know better, please let me know in the comments or by email.) Julie had some great ideas of ways in which we might use the firm’s back-story to support some types of business development activity, but we weren’t ready for them. (The picture at the top of this post shows the imaginative container in which Julie presented her proposed ideas.)  I was disappointed that we couldn’t make it work, but I still wonder why firms have a problem with history.

After reflection, I think there are a number of different issues. The immediate one is that referring to the past doesn’t appear to help in winning work for the future (beyond highlighting juicy recent deals that might resonate with clients). When seeking legal advice, clients might be interested in the depth of experience within the team who will do the work. That probably doesn’t translate into an interest in the longevity of the firm or its antecedents. History, on this analysis, is a distraction. Another factor is that law firms are very fluid businesses. They have practically no existence separate from the people constituting them at any given moment. That means that history might be considered irrelevant, if not misleading. Finally (and back to the starting point of this post), the annual financial cycle is so strong that firms might actually sense 1 May as the beginning of current history, and so anything before that date is pre-history. (I think this last factor is actually diminishing for a number of reasons.)

But what is the impact of the anti-historical attitude amongst firms? The most significant for me is that without organisational memory, the firm has to fall back on personal recollection by distracted individuals. The result is probably even worse than anything produced by Jane Austen’s “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” This is sometimes manifest in the way that change is resisted. The classic lines, “That’s not how we do things here” or “We did that before and it didn’t work” can be heard in all sorts of organisations. But without a documented history there is no way to deal with them. A historical account can be used to disprove such statements, or to show why things that were true in the past no longer apply. If there is no historical account such a rebuttal is not possible, and so resistance succeeds. At a practical level, that is why documented after-action reviews can be so powerful.

In the end, it’s a paradox. Law firms need to look to the future and update themselves to meet new economic, regulatory, client or technological challenges, but many of them will fail to do so because they prefer to pretend that they have no past.