Oct 2014

Michael Burne, CEO, reflects on the problem that leaders of large law firms often become remote from their people and clients. Their “LA Law meets Ally McBeal” offices don’t help! He offers a refreshing solution.

As Group Legal Director, I spent plenty of time in lawyers’ offices. Sleek, state of the art, large windowed, roomy offices with resources galore and a spectrum of people beavering away. I couldn’t help but wonder: what justifies the enormous overhead costs of these ‘LA Law meets Ally McBeal’ offices?

Justification # 1: Structure provides structure

Firms in swanky offices can attract and benefit from experienced, knowledgeable business leaders charting a clearly expressed course to a better future. It could be the buildings. On the other hand, maybe it’s the strategic advantage of great lawyers working in a great business that attracts the brightest and best. In any case, what is this so-called ‘better future’– better for staff? Clients?

Better for…Equity partners?

In fact, the overheads are largely carried by the firms’ clients and senior associates. Both these groups often feel disconnected from the law firm leadership. Indeed, as Tony Williams explains in The Lawyer, even partners can feel this way: ‘It is easy for law firm leaders to become remote from their partners…this remoteness can cause the leadership to be deaf to – or dismissive of – concerns until a crisis erupts’.

I think Tony makes a fair point. If partners feel they are the victims of ‘Remote Control’ how on earth do their aspirational colleagues at associate level feel?  More remote from strategy, direction, priorities, rewards…and so the list goes on.

Justification # 2: Water cooler moments

Of course, having large premises can promote ‘water cooler moments’ – a chance to chat with a colleague over a tricky issue (all while staying hydrated!).

The ‘water cooler moment’ is the moment when two human beings interact in a human way on a human level and share ideas. The water cooler, or in the UK more commonly the kettle, doesn’t facilitate anything itself. Instead, it represents the point in the building where management stops trying to control communication.

Culture doesn’t happen because of a building and it certainly isn’t the product of remote leadership. It happens in the hearts and minds of people. People bond around a shared vision in a culture that cultivates collaboration and collegiality. I expect you can easily think of a large, effective organisation, probably in the third sector, that does not gather its people into a shiny glass building and yet functions extremely well because of shared values.

Justification # 3: Clients expect it

What about clients? After all, surely law firm leaders are really there to ensure their organisations are responsive to clients??! From their seat at the top of the pyramid, don’t leaders have a better view of clients’ needs than the “clockers” (those billing 6 hours a day working cheek by jowl with the clients)?

No. The leadership probably did not ask the clients what they wanted from their lawyers’ premises before they invested in them. (We did and we’ll write more about that in the future).

There is a better way

A structure without hierarchy – one that is aspirational, collegiate and meritocratic – is the organisation of tomorrow. Rather than being remote, future leaders will adopt the principles of custodianship and become servants. These ‘servant leaders’ will be entrusted with ensuring that the business continues to work for all its stakeholders – both clients and lawyers.

If you believe culture lives in a building, then stick with the building. If, however you believe there is something else out there – then you have a shot at a brighter, better and more satisfying future.

So, take the remote and change the channel.