Is Your Law Firm at Risk of Losing It’s Soul?

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I was meeting a friend on the west coast for lunch late last year. This longtime acquaintance is a senior partner at an up-and-coming U.S. law firm. A smart and caring fellow.

As we sat down at our table, he excitedly asked: “Have you heard the news? Our firm is merging again – we’re going to be an even bigger, major player.”

Perhaps regrettably, I immediately reacted: “It seems to me that your firm these days is just always trying to get bigger. Frankly, I think your firm has lost its soul.”

What I got back was a furrowed brow and an awkward moment of silence.

I could tell that my instinctive response seriously bothered my friend as he has been a loyal and dedicated leader of his firm – in its several iterations – for over 35 years.

I wish, for his sake, I would have kept my mouth shut.

But truth is truth. Frankly, I think I hit an “inconvenient truth” nerve within my friend.

Stay True to Who You Are

I follow and work with a lot of topnotch law firms. Mostly midsize – these firms are healthy, thriving organizations comprised of impressive, collaborative and principled partners, associates, and staff. Their culture is strong and – whether they realize it or not – their collaborative culture is one of their true competitive advantages. (Clients love to see their law firms act as a purposeful team.)

These midsize firms that I have been fortunate to work with are led by values-based leaders. And, they have an impressive collection of loyal clients who truly care about the firm’s continued success. I know that because that’s my job – sitting down and having conversations with clients of law firms.

When I see these soulful, purposeful firms with engaged leaders, excited and inspired younger partners/associates and caring loyal clients, I think to myself: “This is the law firm holy grail. Why would any organization want to move away from this special place and its authentic inspiring essence?”

In my mind, it’s where you want to be and where you need to remain so that:

1. Your lawyers will continue to want to work there,

2. The brightest and most principled law school graduates will strive to be a part of this, and,

3. Your loyal clients will never think of leaving and jeopardizing such a special, strong, almost personal relationship.

Staying the course and doubling down on the important things such as firm values, culture and vision is, in my mind, the absolute right next step for a midsize law firm that is thriving and is looking towards its promising future.

Not just from a softer, feel-good perspective but it makes strong business sense to continue to follow and enhance the firm’s distinctive values, culture, and vision. It is a wise form of “Blue Ocean” strategy. (From the classic Harvard Business Publishing book “Blue Ocean Strategy. How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant” by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne).

Most firms at this pivotal point don’t do the wise thing and take stock in their values, culture and vision. Rather, they tend to chase that “shiny object” – namely, getting bigger.

The Tendency to Dive into “Red Waters”

I have seen this time and time again with successful midsize firms as they follow the familiar and obvious law firm path – “Let’s get bigger so we can work on bigger deals and play in a bigger pond.” They do this by perhaps opening a new office per year in dispersed cities. Or, like in my friend’s case, they merge with a “culturally aligned firm.”(Easy to say and promote, but very difficult to pull off.)

For many of these once promising firms, this new path just increases the competition as they move closer to “Big Law” where the profit demands are exponential and there is little time concern for seeking those soft things like a collaborative culture or meaningful relationships. From what I have seen, the soul-crushing, “red ocean strategy” route of getting bigger starts to eat away at the culture and diminish the “specialness” that was once there.

The most impressive firms are, in my mind, those successful, culturally-strong midsize firms that strategically decide to stay midsize and have midsize values and still put a huge firm-wide emphasis on maintaining terrific, caring client relationships.

And here’s the important part – striving to maintain the firm’s specialness is what their clients want them to do.

More and more clients these days are looking for longer term, more 360º, deeper relationships with their law firms and they know that is more possible with a strong, values-based midsize law firm than with a 10+ office legal behemoth.

The Undertow of Success

It really is perplexing. Why do great firms with an awesome culture and special client relationships conclude that the only way to make the firm better – is to get bigger?

Why don’t successful midsize firms do the hard work of really analyzing and clarifying why they are so successful? I would argue that these midsize firms are thriving because they have an impressive collection of principled people who have similar values and therefore, they act as a team. They have special client relationships where they take the time to listen and really care about the client’s business. They also understand why their founders started the firm in the first place. They keep returning to those galvanizing roots.

What do we stand for?

Why do we exist as a firm?

How can we be better?

These are some of the moorings for the firm to hold onto and save itself from the potentially harmful undertow.

Where to Start

How do you guide against falling into this “bigger is always better” trap?

Start by listening to your clients. I mean REALLY listen.

If you want sincere, unvarnished, truthful, meaningful client feedback – and of course, you do – have an unbiased third party conduct these conversations with your clients. When client feedback research is done correctly, clients just naturally feel more comfortable in offering their true feelings and perspectives to someone who is not from the firm. Importantly, this should not feel to your valued clients like “research,” but more of an engaging, thoughtful conversation.

Remember, nobody likes to be researched, but everyone loves to be heard.

So, listen. Engage with a good cross-section of your clients, and uncover authentic insights by probing and seeking their unvarnished, perceptions among six key areas:

  • Areas where the firm does particularly well
  • A recognition (or not) of the firm’s culture and what values they may follow as a firm
  • Perceived competitive set
  • Perceptions regarding the firm’s value of the services provided
  • Perception on how the firm is positioned for the future – particularly this client’s needs
  • Ways the firm could improve

You will be amazed at the insights that your clients will offer. These client insights could – and should – illuminate your firm’s path forward into a successful and meaningful future.

It’s funny – I have rarely in my experience heard a client say during this process: “My firm needs to open another office” or “They should merge with someone to get bigger.” Sure, it happens when some clients suggest they could use more attention in a certain area of the country, but is opening another office – and thereby splitting the firm’s culture – always the best solution?

Take the Path Less Chosen

Here’s the deal: With smart vision and doing the right things – your firm can still achieve its aspirations and “play more in the big leagues.” But, the special and more meaningful avenue is to play in these big leagues on your terms.

Do the hard work. Uncover those things that are great about your firm right now and then involve everyone in achieving the challenging – but in the long run – more rewarding goal of holding on to your magic. I will bet that you, all your colleagues and your most loyal clients will be glad that, in the end, you chose the path less taken.

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About the author 

Fred Moore

H. Frederick T. Moore is a well-known and respected strategic communications veteran. Prior to launching Big River in 2001, Fred served at several of the nation’s top strategic agencies where he led engagements with preeminent business organizations such as IBM and SAP. More recently, Fred has helped nationally recognized law firms such as law firms such as Hunton Andrews Kurth, Williams Mullen and Lightfoot, Franklin & White.