The worm at the core of law firm management

Blake2Writing for Bloomberg Law, Aric Press gives an account of a presentation made by Albert Bollard from McKinsey about the nature of “expert organizations” like law firms.

There’s a worm at the core of law firms. “Expert work,” Bollard says, “is misaligned with customer value.”

Clients want “higher levels of service, delivered faster and more responsively, in a rapidly evolving landscape.” But, expert practitioners value expertise, autonomy, and independence, which they understand as the foundation of their ethics and the core of their identity as advocates and advisors.

In traditional law firms,

  • expertise is “valued for its own sake, rather than for contributing to customer value;”
  • knowledge is not “codified or shareable”, but is transmitted by apprenticeship;
  • individual practitioners own their separate engagements, and they are not oriented to improve “the way their organizations perform tasks;” and
  • there is no “end-to-end ownership” of the client’s experience, and limited ability to create and enforce “standard ways of working.”

Independence and autonomy foster counselors and empower advocates; but not managers and processors — and not efficiency.

It’s the rare law firm of any size that functions for very long as an integrated, cohesive, centrally directed team. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. And cat-like independence impedes efficiency. It breeds misalignment between lawyer and client. It feeds the worm.

Commercial and institutional clients are themselves, managers and processors. They want service, fast and efficient. Don’t talk to them about autonomy. Don’t try to get them to care about expertise for its own sake.

The worm is a core challenge for lawyers. The misalignment between professional values and commercial values generates tension. Expertise and independence are GOOD. Efficiency and responsiveness are GOOD. If managed well, the tension between them can be creative.  

Easily and obviously, mid-size law firms are the practice setting best suited for aligning values, for keeping clients close and fostering creativity.

 

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