Thames foreshore

Generating value through unavoidable irritation

Having worked in both, I can say that one thing that law firms and universities have in common (and there are more than you might think) is that they have a clear purpose built into their fabric. Universities are supposed to further knowledge by teaching and research. Law firms advise their clients on the law to guide their future actions. Diversification would change the organisation in unpredictable ways. (Both may have commercial interests on the side — publishers and conference businesses for universities; consulting arms or resourcing agencies for law firms — but those tend to be arms-length subsidiaries.) As a result of this clarity of purpose, there is a tendency to treat those who are not directly involved in the core activity as ‘other’: non-lawyers (or non-fee-earners) and non-academics. There are many articles and blog posts decrying this terminology, but few have found an easy way round it. This post won’t change that state of affairs — please take as read the decrying and absence of solution.

Thames foreshoreInstead, the past few months observing, and reflecting on, this state of affairs from the outside have led me to a curious conclusion. I suspect knowledge teams in law firms are not ‘other’ enough.

In a previous post, I drew attention to the respect that law firms generally have for their PSLs. This is partly a reflection of professional comity, but it has another aspect — comfort. By contrast, my observation of interactions between lawyers and their colleagues in IT, HR or Finance was that they were a lot less comfortable. The partner who wants to dismiss their PA or the associate who can’t be bothered to complete their timesheet accurately will find that their preferences conflict uncomfortably with those of the firm’s HR specialists and accountants. The outcome is tension between irritation about being unable to do something that seems reasonable and an understanding that there must be standards that apply to everyone. Successful IT, HR and Finance teams manage that tension carefully. They work out how far they can push their professional preferences for locked-down systems, carefully managed grievance processes, or perfect time recording and then they back off. In return they provide something that the lawyers cannot do for themselves: well-functioning systems, effective graduate recruitment, or efficient cashflow. In this ideal scenario, the lawyer’s casual dismissal of the IT geek, fluffy HR person or bean-counter hides a grudging respect for the value that those specialists generate for the firm. There is respect for the profession even if the individual is disrespectfully branded a ‘non-lawyer’.

I think something slightly different happens to BD/Marketing and Risk & Compliance teams. Lawyers are much more likely to consider that they are capable of doing the work done in these areas. In some cases (especially in Risk) the ‘non-lawyers’ have been practising lawyers in the past. Also, there is an expectation that lawyers engage closely with the activities that are notionally the responsibility of these teams. As a result, BD/Marketing and Risk professionals have to work much harder to generate and show the value that their functions deliver for the firm. Where they fail to do this, they are much more likely to be seen as an unnecessary irritant when times are hard.

I was thinking about an analogy for the relationship between these essential services and the firms they work in, but I could only find a cliché. They are like the grit in an oyster that is essential for the development of a pearl. By lodging themselves unavoidably within the fabric of a firm, something better is produced than would exist without their presence.

It is hard to imagine a modern business of any type, even a law firm, surviving without the services of good HR, IT, Finance or BD/Marketing folk. As a regulated business, a Risk & Compliance function is essential for firms (and would be wise even without the regulatory pressure). By contrast, many firms manage without a significant knowledge function. (This conclusion is drawn from observation and the research of the Legal Support Network.) Why is this? I think the answer is a combination of proximity to the lawyer role (even closer than BD/Marketing and Risk), not being irritating enough, and failing to demonstrate or communicate value.

Whilst lawyers love their PSL colleagues, they don’t always understand how their work is different enough from their own to generate value that can be distinguished from normal legal work. Some PSLs and knowledge teams are complicit in this because they want to be seen to be helpful, so they work to an agenda set by the practitioners they work with.

That is why knowledge teams in law firms are not ‘other’ enough. They and their work are respected because they are not irritating or threatening. That is not to say that they should be deliberately obstructive. Like their colleagues elsewhere in business services, greater clarity about the purpose of knowledge management as a professional discipline would generate sufficient unavoidable irritation to create valuable pearls that could not otherwise come into being. Firms that continue to believe that their knowledge teams merely work as extensions of ordinary lawyering will continue to undervalue what those people actually do whilst treasuring their existence — the opposite of their feelings about the rest of business services.

This conclusion demands consideration of the purpose of knowledge management in law firms. That is a topic for another day.

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