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Why Big Law Partners Don't Play Nice in the Sandbox

by Good2bSocial • March 15th, 2015 • Social Business | Blog

law firm partners collaborationEarlier this month a major new study about collaboration in professional service firms, including big law firms, was released with much fanfare. Written by Heidi Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center for the Profession, the release of the study has been heavily promoted through excerpts published in the Harvard Business Review and The American Lawyer.

As much as anything else, what the study and press interest suggest is that collaboration is now ready to go mainstream at the high-end of the legal profession. The 5 main findings highlighted by Gardner read and sound exactly like the sort of presentation that Big Law partners should expect to hear at the next annual retreat. The bar charts purport to show the incredible financial benefits that stand to be realized by the entire firm if only the partners will learn to play nice with each other in the sandbox.

In a way, Gardner’s report parrots back what elite law firm managers themselves are now saying and thinking. (This, of course, is precisely what you would expect from a distinguished fellow at the Harvard’s Center on the Profession – a reliable reflection of the current views being professed by the elite firms themselves.) The major benefits to collaboration extolled by Gardner seem to be that it enhances law firm profitability because it enables lawyers to tackle more complex, multi-disciplinary matters. This could be a page ripped from the business plan of virtually any one of the nation’s elite firms. Let’s go get more complicated deals and litigations to work on with more premium billing!  It pays to collaborate!

For me the far more interesting question is why are lawyers – particularly lawyers at Big Law firms – so damn resistant to collaboration? The article in The American Lawyer touches on this in passing but does so in a way that glosses over the true depths of the problem. Perhaps Gardner’s complete research delves further into the barriers to collaboration in the legal profession but if so, for some reason this material was excluded from the excerpt published by The American Lawyer.

Anyone who has spent time working at an elite law firm (or for that matter any client who has ever had a significant matter handled by an elite firm) should have a clear sense about the extent of the aversion to collaboration that seems baked into the culture of Big Law firms. After a few months as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell or Skadden you soon realize how resistant Big Law partners are to the very notion. We spent a fair amount of time considering the root causes for this in the course researching our own book on The Social Law Firm. We identified three major contributing factors:

  1. The first reason is characterological – it has to do with the type of person who is drawn into the legal profession in the first place, particularly the men and women who are culled from the ranks and end up selected as partners at the elite firms. These Big Law partners are high achievers to say the least – incredibly self-motivated, they have been striving for top grades their entire lives, and are rarely satisfied with anything less than order of the coif. In fact, partners at Big Law firms tend to be the only seasoned professionals I know who still reference their undergraduate GPA on their resumes, as if somehow that speaks most highly of their personal and professional attainments.
  2. The second reason is that Big Law firms are typically structured along the lines of status based hierarchies. The relative pecking order between partners, of counsel, associates and support staff is usually evident and reinforced in almost every aspect of daily life inside the Big Law firm, on display in everything from the letterhead to the office layout (in terms of square footage allotted to each level of attorney) to the order in which lawyers speak up in meetings. From my experience over the course of the last 35 years working with lawyers from many top firms, I would say that the profession remains just as obsessed with status and ranking as it has ever been. Lawyers simply love their rankings and league tables, when it comes to comparing one firm to another; and they are just as keen on internal ranking of the members of their own firm. In that respect, the resistance to collaboration is more than characterological; it also seems deeply engrained in the Big Law partner’s sense of professional identity. The big firm I used to work at was relatively benign about such status concerns. It was an old line firm that still maintained a lock-step compensation scheme so there was no financial incentive for partners to compete and every reason to collaborate – and yet still the partners competed (sometimes quite fiercely) even if for nothing more than bragging rights to see who could originate the most business.
  3. Third, many big law firms have established compensation schemes that completely work against fostering the spirit of collaboration.  The number of old line firms still organized with a lock-step partnership has dwindled to a small handful.  In its place the vast majority of Big Law firms have adopted methods for fixing partner compensation, often involving complicated point systems, that provide substantial incentives for business origination and pay little or no regard to collaboration.  As has been all too evident in recent years, the collapse of Big Law firms (such as the Dewey fiasco) is frequently tied to these compensation schemes running amok and completely undercutting the veneer of collegiality that previously held the partners together.

The barriers to collaboration in the Big Law firm are deeply engrained and cultural, more than anything else.  As such, Gardner’s report, with its nice bar charts, might make for very good presentation materials at the next partnership retreat but it is highly unlikely to make a dent in the eat-what-you-kill mode of practice that now predominates among the AmLaw 100.  It’s going to take much more than rational argument to foment real change in a profession so rooted in its own traditions.

What are your thoughts? Will senior partners at law firms ever learn to collaborate? Will clients force them to collaborate or will the competition drive them to it? Please share your thoughts and comments with us. 

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