The Names on the Door

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A few days ago LegalWeek wrote about whether the “global law model helps or hinders the top-level adviser:”  In other words, whether the more commercially minded we all become as lawyers and as firms, the less room there is for the classic strategic business counsel sitting at the board table.  Here’s the nub of the argument:

But it is clear that the corporatisation of law doesn’t always nurture the development of the all-round strategic adviser in the school of a Marty Lipton or a Nigel Boardman; the downside of institutionalising your client relationship is that it can make links with top plc clients not only broader, but also shallower. Likewise, the development of highly-specialised practitioners can, if not carefully managed, position the corporate adviser as a narrow technical specialist.

If these trends have sometimes had a negative impact at the senior end of the profession, there is also reason to harbour doubts regarding the kinds of people entering law. It’s become widely acknowledged that academic standards have risen – many current partners admit they wouldn’t have made the grade these days. But law firms are hiring from a narrower social strata and range of academic institutions than in previous decades.

The full impact of this homogenisation of the junior ranks is not yet apparent. Certainly there is a debate to be had over whether this new generation, which heavily defines itself by academic standards and often has a strong sense of entitlement, has the commercial mindset to transcend purely legal roles.

And surely there’s room for worry:  While it’s a timeworn cliche that we’ve always had “finders, minders, and grinders,” what strikes me as alarming is if we are limiting our recruitment criteria to narrower and narrower academic criteria.  That is very much the assumption–a sometimes unarticulated assumption, but a one necessary to the view that we aren’t finding and developing the well-rounded, 360-degree perspective “trusted advisor” of yore.

But is that true?

I know one managing partner of a leading New York firm who told me that the one student he most wanted to hire every year was the valedictorian of Brooklyn Law School–in the night division.  What wisdom is there!

This leads to a related discussion:  Are there still any Big Characters in BigLaw?

The piece–and a charming one it is–opens with this anecdote: 

“I’m an NQ lawyer suffering a minor spiritual crisis. I am quite enjoying the work so far, but my problem is that I look around the office at the partners, all of whom are perfectly pleasant, but rather dull and grey, and think: ‘That’s me in 15-20 years’. “

Surely every associate with the wherewithal to occasionally raise their heads above their desks has read the same thing, but in statistically significant form rather than anecdotal: That lawyers overindex on alcohol problems, depression, divorce, and a host of other unattractive afflictions probably including congenital difficulty matching suits with shirts with ties, if anyone cared to study it.

But the point is a serious one, and one of the commenters immediately picks up on hypothesis that “it’s all because of who we recruit:”

There is no doubt that there are now fewer big characters at law firms. The downside of that is that law firms have become far more formalistic about who they recruit, when 20 or 30 years ago they were much more ready to take on individuals outside of a very narrow educational and social background.

The drive to institutionalise clients has also contributed to this, which is why a lot of partners are really just senior account managers. It’s only odd that lawyers then scratch their heads and ask why clients struggle to differentiate them. But the upside is that there are less loony, racist, bullying, sexual harassing, alcoholics kicking around the Square Mile, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.

Another theory is that the truly interesting people leave:

Inspiring people usually are politicians, diplomats, working for think tanks and international organisations. Hollywood has desperately tried to depict lawyers as inspiring personalities living in an exciting and challenging world but the truth is that this is just Hollywood… No matter what practice group you are in, don’t expect to be inspired by the partners at your firm unless you are limited yourself. Expect to be inspired by brilliant associates who leave the firm for totally different and truly amazing career paths though!

Or that the role BigLaw serves in society is precisely to reinforce the dull, the boring, the predictable, and the surpassing value of “no surprises:”

I think it’s fair to say that the culture in law firms is such that conformity and protocol is valued over innovation and individuality. This is probably a function of the kind of detail-oriented, “thinking within the box” skills needed to do most legal work well. Only after some years in private practice did it dawn on me that, while I was surrounded by intelligent, mentally agile lawyers, I wouldn’t be caught dead next to them at a dinner party because they were without a scrap of imagination and so devoid of any decent conversation – and my colleague’s experience [about a truly horrifying boozy dinner] bears this out!

Now, on a personal level, I had the pleasure (tinged with a bit of fear and awe at the time, when I was a callow associate) of knowing Milton Gould and Bill Shea of Shea & Gould.  Shea was the quintessential Mr. Rolodex, who knew everyone and loved them, and was loved back in return (or else…, I suspect, though I never saw this side of him).  Think an Irish/New York version of Bill Clinton.  Milton Gould was merely one of the more gifted litigators of his generation, with the unconscious theatrical flourishes that can come with the category.  And, not incidentally, they built what was one of the great New York firms of its day, one which tragically imploded after their retirement.

Having been exposed to people like them, how could one not want Big Personalities in BigLaw?  We black-ball them at recruitment time, cold-shoulder them as associates, and “NOSD” them as lateral partners, at our peril.  [NOSD is an archaic Wasp-ism, once deployed as a kiss of death:  “Not our sort, dear.”]

One Big Personality on the American scene today is Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and creator of the biggest, baddest football stadium in the country, with its famous hanging video screens so big that punts and kickoffs occasionally hit them.  I recently saw a profile of him where the rather obvious question was asked, “Where did your drive come from?” and he related a story from his very early days as a traveling salesman when he was at a car rental counter and not only was his credit card declined but the clerk confiscated it with the unforgettable words, “You better learn to pay your bills, son.”

You get a sense of where outsize personalities come from. And true to form, he confessed that he’s afraid of not being able to pay his bills to this day.

One way to characterize the phenomenon of why we may have lost Big Personalities is to ask where we’re focused: Inward or outward? This is not a trick question. By that I simply mean whether in selecting law students to hire, associates to promote, and lateral partners to acquire, we’re looking for “people who look like us” and whose joining the firm will not raise the pulse (much less the blood pressure!) of incumbents in the firm.

A better question might be whether recruiting said outsider might raise the pulse of our clients and (one can hope) the blood pressure of our competitors. A broader perspective is to ask whether BigLaw is unique in its becoming more risk-averse in its hiring practices.

Here let me bring in a different voice, Walter Russell Mead writing in The American Interest on whether the American intellectual class has kept up with the changing demands of the 21st Century:

America has everything it needs for success in the twenty-first century with one exception: a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth. Figuring out why so many of our intellectuals and experts are so poorly equipped to play a constructive role — and figuring out how to develop the leadership we currently lack — may be the most important single thing Americans need to work on right now.

The key concept, ideology aside, is the tendency of professional classes to adopt the mindset of guilds. Medieval guilds, of course, have been out of fashion for 500 or so years, but the affinity for them among professional intellectuals is not (and forgive the extended quote; I have omitted some sections):

Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions – lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists – are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members. The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds. Just as the industrial revolution broke up the manufacturing guilds, the information revolution today is breaking up the knowledge guilds. Guild methods are too expensive given society’s rapidly increasing need for the services they provide; we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services that, currently, the guilds and the learned professions provide.

Guilds are not very good at mass production, and our need for the services they produce has become so great that only a much more efficient production process can serve. Health care, education and legal services are all economic sectors where prices have been rising more rapidly than the overall rate of inflation. These professions must be fundamentally restructured; a Marxist would speak at this point about the proletarianization of the petit bourgeois intellectual professions.

Fortunately for the rest of society if not for the guilds, developments in IT and telecommunications now make it possible to reduce costs dramatically in the learned professions. Outsourcing and automation between them can transform the production and delivery of these services. Moreover, the process of disintermediation will enable many Americans to dispense with the expensive services of the professional classes. Basic legal services and advice can increasingly be found, free or at very low cost, on the internet. Many Americans have substituted tax software for accountants; more and more activities once performed by highly paid professionals will be performed by computers and the internet.

Ultimately one suspects that services once reserved for elites will be available for the masses, just as the industrial revolution enabled mass ownership of goods that had once been the preserve of small elites. The effect will not only be to raise living standards for most people by improving their access to useful services. It will also be to transfer power and authority from the provider of such services to the consumer. When my grandfather was a doctor, his patients mostly did what he told them to do. He was the expert and there was no rival source of information — especially as many of his patients had little or no formal education and in some cases struggled to write their own names.

Today, well-educated patients (many of whom have college and advanced degrees and must routinely master complicated bodies of knowledge in their own work) check with the internet and search the archives of web-based support groups to challenge their doctors’ prescriptions. Increasingly, people will seek and acquire more control over the decisions that shape their lives. People not only want to be more affluent in the future than they are today; they want to be more powerful, less beholden to the men in white suits.

Swell, you’re saying; and what has this to do with me, or, for that matter, with Big Personalities?

Precisely this: The more that our services are outsourced, disintermediated, and mass-produced, the more we need the Big Personalities. The grey drones won’t be calling cards for us; clients (some of them, anyway, and not the ones we worry about initially, but conceivably more and more until they begin to include clients we do care about) will decide they can get the grey drones elsewhere.

So we better figure out how to offer them something other than grey drones.

Might I suggest a few first steps in this direction?

  • Think about your recruiting criteria out of law school. If they’re the classic “we want the top 10% of students from the top 10% of law schools,” you might want to look at whether your most successful partners actually fit that mold. Recently, the managing partner of an AmLaw 20 firm said he wanted to hire “sassy.” Just a thought.
  • Think about your lateral hiring criteria. Do you hire for big books of business? (Who doesn’t, at this point?) Maybe you ought to hire for farm-team strength, the way well-managed baseball teams do. Who might be the superstars of the future? And the only way to judge that in young partners who haven’t had much chance to build a book is to look for the iconoclasts, the standouts, the potential Big Personalities.
  • Lastly, take a hard look internally at your own partnership. Are you ostracizing iconoclasts? Are you demoralizing off-beat associates? Are you blackballing those up for partnership because they’ve shown flashes of individuality? Are you killing off potential Big Personalities in the bud? If so, for the love of God, WHY?

The choice is yours, of course. But if you think your firm’s founding partners-I’m talking about the guys whose names are still on the door-were grey drones, then I know what trip I want to take you on when time machines are finally invented.

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