The Ultimate Secret of Success for Professional Services Firms

Steven Harper published The Lawyer Bubble  and has gotten lots of attention. And, Weil Gotshal announced layoffs based on its conclusion that the market for high-end legal services has changed permanently.                                                             Ancient_Secrets_219640_350

During this same “Big Law Spring,” Charles Ellis’ book, What It Takes, appeared. Its subtitle is “Seven Secrets of Success from the World’s Greatest Professional Services Firms.” Ellis looks at a preeminent law firm, a business consulting firm, an investment firm, a medical clinic, an investment banking firm and an accounting firm.

Well, it turns out that the seven “secrets” he discloses were not secret at all; and What It Takes is not prescriptive in the style of In Search of Excellence and Good to Great. But, like those books, What It Takes looks at iconic firms and tells stories, some well-known and some not-so-well-known, that generally illustrate the seven secrets.

The iconic firms are

  • McKinsey & Company
  • Cravath, Swaine & Moore
  • Capital Group
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Goldman Sachs
  • Arthur Andersen & Co.

The seven secrets are

  1. Mission: an inspiring purpose
  2. Culture: shared values
  3. Recruiting: the best people
  4. Developing people: professional and personal learning
  5. Client focus: clients first
  6. Innovation: reinvention in the face of change
  7. Leadership.

No news here. These “secrets” may be nearer the Ten Commandments than the Secret Wisdom of the Kabbalah. But Ellis’s actual stories,  sounding canonic themes, are a kind of  professional-services bible stories. Some of the stories are compelling, some not.  All are worth reading.

Near the end of the book, an ultimate principle emerges. It is broader than Harper’s indictment of Big Law and looks beyond immediate crises of supply and demand.  Every professional services firm, Ellis shows, must strike a balance between professional values and  business priorities (money).

When money comes to have greater weight than professional values, decline sets in. Overvaluing lucre contaminates mission and infects everything else.

When the dominant value is money, small choices and large are colored accordingly. In the short run, money, which is tangible, immediate and measurable, almost always seems more compelling than professional values. Exceptions to principles almost always seem manageable. But in the end, when professionals come to measure and value each other in other in terms of money –  firms come apart.

Ellis’s penultimate statement:

When the salience of professional excellence is challenged by commercialism, the “realistic” business arguments are easily made and documented, while fidelity to professional values is abstract and based on a faith that disbelievers often cannot – or say they cannot – understand.

My own firm is not ungreat. And the hardest thing we do is strike the balance between business needs and professional values.

It’s a balance.

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