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"know thyself" is the cure, the answer, the process, the goal, the result


Followers As Leaders: The Juxtaposition of Swarm Theory, US-Style Corporate Management and Cutting-Edge Law Firm Practice

Executive Summary:

There is a tremendous new opportunity for law firms, if they can get their collective brains around it. After reading MacEwens’ review of Wharton’s new “serial-monogamy” CEO model, and Bilinsky’s re-dux ("Bees Rule") of cutting edge “swarm” management theory, I’ve come up with a nascent idea for a new law firm management model that could very well ring in a new golden age in the field, to wit:

A co-leadership model that incorporates the best elements of 1) hard-charging corporate-America-style CEO mentality, with (2) the cool, consensus-building model of (the again) American-styled corporate board of directors, but yet strengthened by (3) the traditional law firm model where senior “sales” managers (practicing partners) decide the direction of the firm.

Let’s review the facts . . .

The pressure on Managing Partners (MPs) to demonstrate the management savvy of corporate America is growing. MPs now know that they basically do not have the skills to run huge multi-national law firms by virtue of great law school grades and an IV league school. They need real, high-quality training (Wharton or Harvard MBA, anyone?). Suffice it to say that there is a skills gap in upper law firm management. I note legion sites, ads, non-profits, etc.: all of these want to help educate MPs in the doing of their work in light of this new expectation. Firms themselves are starting to put their money where their mouth is. Believe me, it is slow going.

The legal industry in the US is going through tectonic shifts: it is adjusting to the conflation of US markets—to the realities of pressures put upon them by their corporate clients to serve all of their needs everywhere, and thereby increase footprints not only across regions but across continents and the globe.

As the legal industry wakes up from its (frankly) embryonic sleep-before-a first-awakening, firms are all over the place. Not only are firms in various states of development by virtue of their start-dates, but they are also in different states of being vis-à-vis their ability and desire to acclimate to global corporate needs. Further, there is a huge variation in the way in which firms differentiate themselves by virtue of the fact that this industry does not yet follow a single path—the world is too new to law firms (frankly) and there is no path to tread. Firms are basically making virgin tracks in uncut prairies of opportunity.

Therefore, firms are going through numerous transitions simultaneously and also in very quick succession. The upshot is that firm’s strategic needs/foci change quickly, and more importantly, change radically (and for good reasons).

 Thus, the pressure on firm leadership, MPs, to pull rabbits out of hats a la bigwig corporate CEOs is breaking upon the scene and growing. The role of the MP and of law firm leadership generally is far more important that it ever has been before.

 Compounding this pressure is that partners have traditionally not been trained in management, have not truly managed large enterprises, and do not necessarily have the temperaments and skills to do this work. They are shooting in the dark with unknown, sometimes still half-formed weapons, made by hand, with no guidelines, with no clear targets, and often with their partners using their own weapons all pointed at or near each other.

 Moreover, it is a sociological “fact” (to the extent they exist) that individual managers can only bend so far. It is the rare bird that can operate under two totally different sets of expectations, and pull off successes. This is because most people are not sufficiently developed to contain more than one framework of attitudes toward their work. Moreover, few can act outside their natural tendency. To quote "father" (Abraham) Maslow “to him who has only a hammer in the tool kit, every problem looks like a nail." Thus, there is a need for highly-productive and effective working groups to adopt more "hive-minded", decentralized approaches to problems that don't mindlessly trust a monolithic leader to get them out of trouble (click here for more on that one).

 This is the rub: we need strong managers, but we need precisely the right one—and who that person is may be different 18 months from now, and 2 years or even 12 months after that.

The Solution—Followers As Leaders: Co-Leadership and a Friendly Revolving Door at the Top

Thus, here are the rough components of what I propose:

 In agreement with David Nadler (CEO and consultant extraordinaire) (and in disagreement with MacEwen) we need to accept and embrace the idea that law firm Managing Partners need to be called upon to perform specific “tasks” or help firms through specific transitions, and no more. There should be no expectation that a particular MP is or ought to be fit for all phases in a law-firm’s growth. Two- to three-year stints should be plenty long in this model. For this reason, we should redisgnate MPs as CEO’s—this might help undo the traditional prestige end “terminus-point” mentality that the term MP implies. The point: a firm CEO is a co-leader, called upon for a particular task, and expecting to turn the reins over to another partner (or outsider as necessary) based on the needs of the firm.

 Institute a corporate culture of strong consensus-style law firm governance. Basically, firms need strong “boards of directors” whose job it is to identify issues, strategies, challenges, etc., and determine which particular opportunity needs most to be addressed. This, combined with the selection of a law firm MP (CEO), should be their only function. The other duties currently carried out by such boards should remain in the hands of “managing committees”, etc., that can deal with particular issues that arise along the way. The point is that a sub-set of strong leaders (or just really great thinkers) should be tasked with the job of looking out at the markets they serve at the 30,000 foot level.

 Further, firms need to instill a corporate culture of accountability. This, I think, it is a better way of instilling institutional pride and loyalty than simply a “teamwork” or “networking” model. We need to recognize that partners (well, rainmakers) only remain in firms to the extent they perceive strategic advantage from remaining there (that, an entropy or nostalgia—two notoriously weak motivators). Thus, to truly bind a firm together—while simultaneously recognizing that firms are, remain, and will continue to be, institutions in constant flux (in other words, constantly gaining and shedding weight)—firms need to instill a new mantra: accountability and ownership. To the extent that we can get every partner in a law firm realizing that the entire firm is, in a real way, up to their individual creativity and input, we will see a releasing, I believe, of the floodgates of creativity that are often bottled up by inertia and lack of a perceived outlet for the same.

Not So Hard

The great thing about this model is that it is a perfect unity between what firms are used to (consensus-style leadership involving work-a-day partners) and the more-effective business-style model of professional managers, clear lines of authority and specific tasking. This is a cinch, because firms historically were accustomed to co-leadership. Their dismay in the face of the need to incorporate more professionalism and savvy in marketing, strategic planning and implementation, can be met through the selective addition of non-law CFO’s, COO’s, perhaps one-day even CEOs.

We are on the brink of a true awakening of the potential of law firms as vibrant world-players, world corporate entities. All that remains, frankly, is a work around the anachronistic taboo of public offerings for law firms in this country. When that happens, the sky will indeed by the limit.

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The Ferengi and True Intellectual Capital Management: Exploitation Begins At Home

You gotta' love the "Ferengi". You don't remember them? One of the more memorable "alien" species on the now-defunct "Star-Trek Voyager" series (maybe they were on DS9, too, but I never liked that one). Anyway, the Ferengi. They were the greatest capitalists in the galaxy (at least in our quadrant). Not only were they skilled capitalists, but they had created an entire all-consuming philosophy centered around maximizing wealth. They were shameless. (God! I love those guys!)

Anyway, the Ferengi also had 600-some-odd maxims of capitalism (the "Rules of Acquisition"). One of them was: "Exploitation begins at home." I will take a pass on all the implications of this in the new paradigm of quasi-stay-at-home-daddies-turned-headhunters. Suffice it to say that the Ferengi had no problem taking stock of, managing, planning for, and retaining, everyone in their household. Everyone in the home was considered a part of the economic strength of the family. Which leads to the nice, soft underbelly of the overtly cold and calculating species--they really, really believed in family.

Contrast this to law firms. If the Ferengi considered family a business and business a family, early 21st Century law firms resemble little more than a confederation of squabbling city-states. Little cohesion. Little coordination. Little collective memory of past victories. Little awareness of current wins. Almost no thought given to making sure that those that do well stay inside the 'circle of life' (oops! I mixed a metaphor there--a hazard of watching Disney movies).

My point! I'm trying to make a graphic portrayal of the depths to which modern law firms have descended in terms of unity, team spirit and good old fashioned "us against them" attitude. Really! I can't think of another way to function. Remember those oft-cited "good-old-days" of "mastership", "apprenticeship" and its corollary, five-year partnership tracks? I didn't think so, those days died in about 1961.

Bottom line? With the "greying" of our workforce, the imminent mass retirement of our best law firm management, the inability of a majority of law firm partners to see beyond their own personal P&L, to say nothing of firm-wide success, firms are going to continue to see lower-than-par profits. Wake up, law firm managers! Your biggest challenge and your great opportunity is in front of you--take active steps to retain your talent, grow inter-locking rings of cooperation and team enterprise, and do your damnedest to make creative arrangements to hang on to that talent that is walking off the courtroom floor for the greenway. No, I don't know how to do that, but you can pay for that expertise. I'll bet you my next placement fee (just kidding) that it is a hellava lot cheaper to pay a consultant to figure this stuff out for your organization than to suffer continued losses in productivity and retention (don't you remember that $250K price-tag some firms are paying for EACH new associate?).

Anyway, over a series of many future posts, I hope to explore the potential for law firms to really maximize their intellectual capital. The big accounting and consulting firms are taking radical steps and giving plenty of thought and energy behind campaigns to retain what they can of an expected 12-15% turnover, a greying and retiring leadership, and overall a massive coming crunch in lost productivity due to a lack of sufficient talent. Click here to read a great article in The Economist re the same.

The bottom line, managing partners, is that the next 20 years are a gold mine of opportunity to position your firms to take advantage of the lead you have before the Chinese, South Asians, Russians, Southern Europeans, and everybody else finally catch up to the "West" in terms of quality of education and financial and management savvy.

The biggest challenge will be "acceptable" profits in the near-to-medium term. The bummer for those who really want to see excellence in this profession is that lots of law firms will be able to sustain "big" 1.0 to 1.5 million per year PPEP, when they could be ramping it up to 2.0 and 3.0 simply by putting into place more sophisticated management tools. This is a boon for management consultants, by the way (too bad I'm not one of those).

The reason this is bad is that it is going to allow the industry as a whole to sit on its laurels while international competition heats up and closes the gap. If we can to stay, as a profession, at the lead of the planetary game, we must take the Ferengi maxim to heart: exploitation begins at home!

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Partners: Have Your Book Ready--And Your "Synergy" Spiel Too

A short note on partner metrics. I always enjoy reading MacEwen's thoughts on law and economics, but I have to say I have a bone to pick with him on his post back in May about partner metrics.

He opines there, quite rightly, that firms are looking for alot more than just the "size of the book". They also want someone who is going to add something to their practice in terms of substantive practice that expands their reach. It is not enough to just bring immediate profits (as bringing over a partner is always risky--the clients aren't obligated to play along, after all). Rather, partners must be able to give a strong story for how they will be able to mesh with the firm's over-all strategic plan. Of course, this assumes they have one.

Which brings me to my point. MacEwen goes a little off the ranch (sorry, Bruce) by saying that book is "irrelevant". It is not irrelevant, should not be irrelevant, cannot be irrelevant. Here's why:

1) Competition among firms to attract and RETAIN talent is too stiff to allow firms the luxury of not thinking about IMMEDIATE benefit. There are (conceivably) scores of attorneys that could fit into a firm culture, that can make a pitch for "fit", a pitch for "synergy", a pitch for "expanding capacity" of the target firm. Yawn. What firms cannot afford NOT to ask is "how much synergy have you already demonstrated you can create, buster?" I mean, if PPEP isn't the law-firm version of quarterly profits for the DOW JONES blue chip companies, then what is it? Firms can't afford forays and excursions and investing in maybe's. They need to keep the numbers up, all the time, every year, without fail. If they don't, they lose people (well, they lose them anyway, but they lose more!).

2) Frankly, just as I opined in my piece on the "irradiation of grades", Bruce has identified a whole new vista of criteria for judging talent, but not to the exclusion of tried-and-true metrics. I think the best criterion for potential for bringing long-term growth and profit to a firm is the track record of an individual in so bringing it. The days for "not talking about size of book" are so over, if there ever was such a time.

3) Thus, it is the same (new) old story: the pond is shrinking, standards are up, more is more. If you want to be recruited to a new platform, you must not only be able to sing and dance and have a substantive practice that will strategically expand a target firm's reach, but you must also have a demonstrated book.

4) Even if Bruce is right and book SHOULD be ignored, I can tell you that it most assuredly is not being ignored, nor does it look like it will be anytime soon. I mean, in my markets (San Francisco and Los Angeles), book inflation is going through the roof. One million in immediately transferable book is now a FLOOR, people. Three years ago it was a golden ticket. Firms don't want to say it, but they can barely pull their eyes away from their blackberrys for a book of less than $1.2 mil. Synergy be damned. Firms (largely) already know what they want: more of the same, in more places. They aren't even going to talk to you unless they already know they need what you've got.

Book is bank!

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Swarm Theory and The Practice of Law

Wow. And here I just filed a post about nothing happening during these 'dog days' of summer in the blawgosphere, and I tumbled upon a great post by new blogger David Bilinsky of Thoughtful Legal Management. David reviews a National Geographic article about bees, swarm theory, and the implications for business (and other human) management. Fascinating stuff. David also mentioned a recent Cornell University study that speaks to the issue.

Birds and Bees

I'm not sure I can do justice to the entire concept of "swarm" theory, and frankly even the descriptions from the scientists sound fuzzy to me. At any rate, the idea is that in certain creatures (like bees and pigeons) that band together in large groups for safety, no one individual creature is really minding the store. Or, rather, the colony or hive or collective unit functions almost as a single organism by virtue of the interaction of all the creatures making independent judgments, and all communicating with those nearest. For example, in a bee hive, the "queen" in no way rules the hives. She does not direct activity. Rather, the bees each have a palette of a very few observation/reaction series, but are able to communicate these to each other. The effect is that the bees sort of 'follow each other' to where the honey is (ok, I seem to remember there is something about a "bee dance" and no I don't know how that fits in).

Maybe an easier example is a flock of birds. There is no leader telling a flock of one hundred pigeons to take off simultaneously from the pavement when my four-year-old runs up to it. Rather, each bird has a little tiny sensor and little tiny glycocalyxes in its brain cells that allows it to understand that: 1) that short, sticky human is a threat; and 2) if my buddy flies off, by God I'm flying off too. The result is a cool aerial effect.

Taking Advantage of "Dumb" AI

Alright. The next leg of this little thought-journey is that scientists, programmers and business management types are now using a sort of swarm theory approach to solving big problems. The idea is to give the computer a bunch of parameters, and ask if to look at the problem from every conceivable angle, and it eventually can turn up with some very surprising, non-intuitive, even cost-saving results. I'm not sure I grasp how this is different from any other kind of computing, but apparently it is. (That's for somebody else's blog to figure out).

Easier for me to understand is the sort of "hive-mind"-like effect of the world wide web (of course). Whole lots of people making eentsy-weentsy observations, that maybe in the aggregate can get us all as a nation, a world, smarter and better able to react (well, you know, except for the billions of people not reading, listening to news or blogging, but you get the idea).

Business Applications

Here is where it really gets exciting, but even murkier. Social scientists apparently think they can put some of this "swarm-mind" ("hive-mind", whatever) mentality to work in smaller working groups. The hallmarks of this kind of approach are: "decentralized control, response to local cues, and simple rules of thumb."

Apparently, the ideal "swarm"-type thinking "manager" attempts to go in to a situation with no preconceived notions of how a problem is to be handled. S/he goes into the proverbial meeting with blinders on, lets everyone talk it to death, try to see if from all angles and then even engage in secret ballots. To make this work (and sorry, I think I started going sideways there for a minute) the idea is to try to have some basic criteria or simple rules of thumb about how a particular business (or other activity) works, and then try a non-hierarchical approach to solving it. Kinda' smooshy, I know, but I think there is some merit there--at least food for thought, for future research if nothing else.

Okay, What About Law Firms?

My initial thought is that since the legal industry is usually 10-20 years behind business best-practices, that there is a really, REALLY long time-horizon before this stuff gets spouted at ABA seminars. But maybe not. Maybe our own technologies are allowing a sort of bottom-up or side-to-side decision-making already. I mean, lawyers today already stay ubiquitously attached to their blackberrys, the web, the blogosphere, their clients' intranets. Plus, they are working in more and more disparate groups across disciplines and continents. Maybe law firms can sort of leap-frog over the some of the steps (sort of like Thailand not bothering to install telephone land-lines and going directly cellular). It is something to think about. On the other hand, I don't see the legal mind as an essential collaborative process. Rather, the legal imagination is usually conceived of as rather a solo job, with lots of pretend collaboration (usually involving lots of yelling, sneering, badgering or smug side-long glances--especially the smug, side-long glances--you know who you are!).

The Testosterone Factor

On the other hand, humans are not bees and we're not birds either. We are mammals and we do organize ourselves in a more hierarchical (read: social dominance cycle) sort of way. Thus, there is probably an inherent resistance to true de-centralization in smaller groups. Plus, we as "civilized" humans haven't done too bad for ourselves over the past 14 millenia, so we oughtn't be too quick to chuck a working strategy too quickly. At any rate, there is no such thing in a human interaction as "no leader" like in a pigeon or bee model. We do have leaders, even in teams of two or three. On the other hand, taking advantage of new social technologies is also a hallmark of our wonderful species. I'm interested to see what happens next.

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Caniculares Dies - Keeping the Faith During the Dog Days of Summer

We in San Francisco have a tendency to turn every three-day holiday into a four-day extravaganza--even our run-of-the-mill weekends are usually about 2.6 days all told. However this week, we aren't the only ones, I'll wager, feeling the "dog days of summer." I diligently checked all my "RSS" feeds today, and there wasn't a single new post among the glitterati of blawg writers--there is definitely something in--or absent from--the air today.

The "ancient" Romans called these days--the hottest of the year--the "caniculares dies"--days of the dog--after the star Sirius (the "Dog Star")--the brightest star in our celestial view other than Sol (a mere 8.6 million light years above).

The Romans believed that these "dog days" were a time, not of relaxtion, but of evil. These were days "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid." I think it speaks volumes about the Roman character that a season that engendered languidness was considered evil--I should think that there are many other cultures that would rather indulge and thank the "gods that there may be" for the respite.

Yet I tend to agree with the Roman perspective (and it is not just my Scandinavian Protestant upbringing talking). The greatest bane to the productive and creative professional are little unplanned and un-called-for holidays from the task at hand.

Now, of course, I have nothing against the occasional "mental health" day and I have been known to "work from home" unexpectedly from time to time. The point is, however, that success is a process, a dynamic, and to be measured in the long-term--but a long-term composed of lots of successful "short-terms". In short, success only comes if we do not allow our least productive times to become unproductive times.

Thus, my advice to you as a legal professional (and/or blogger!) is to make sure that those days where it seems everyone else is sloughing off are days you pointedly avoid that particular temptation. There is an old proverb that I have taken as a mantra: "the gift of youth is pleasure, but the gift of age is strength."

Let's make sure that we each exemplify that strength of character that ensures we keep on looking at our weekly list of goals and keep striving toward that perfection of mind and heart that will bring us to new and greater vistas.

By the way, not to worry, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, the dog days will end August 11th--hang in there!!!

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Hannah Arendt's "Natality"--Embracing "Politics" as a Positive Virtue in the Practice of Law

I am sick and tired of hearing partners and associates alike bemoaning the difficulties, unfairness and over-all messiness of law firm "politics". Many otherwise highly intelligent, well-read and forthright professionals start sounding like 7-year-old boys (I ought to know, I have two of the creatures at home) when they start gabbing about machinations in their respective offices--and usually it all starts sounding like an elaborate and just plain wishy-washy excuse for mediocrity. "But 'she' got made a partner just by kissing up to the big partners!" and again "But 'he' got onto the managing committee and froze me out of that great new project!" Please. Stop your snivelling.

I hasten to add that I am not necessarily advocating adding an extra helping of chest-thumping testosterone to ease your next meeting. Neither do I immediately suggest an oily, clandestine, Machiavellian maneuvering afterwards. On the other hand, either might be perfectly legitimate and necessary tactics, depending. Rather, I advocate a more reasoned and better-conceptualized approach to what "politics" actually is, and how grasping the concept of the true spirit of politics can lead to vastly increased influence (read: power, read: success, read: satisfaction, read: meeting your goals however you define them).

Okay. I won't go all the way back to Socrates and Augustine, and I don't have to. Twentieth Century philosopher (or, as she preferred, "political theorist") Hannah Arendt did it for me. Arendt, a German Jew (in her 40's during the Holocaust) and a brilliantly creative and insightful thinker, had alot to say about the virtues of politics. (Need I connect the dots that if, given her background, Arendt found an upside to politics, then you, friend, can find a silver lining in your current law firm morass!)

At any rate, Arendt wrote extensively on the nature of politics, authority and, yes, totalitarianism. She was one of the first to theorize that both the extremes of Fascism and Communism were two outgrowths of a single, evil root. As one might expect (or at least hope), Arendt was a champion of freedom.

Very importantly, Arendt discussed freedom in terms of political action among individuals. In other words, freedom was to be experienced, shared and, in essence, defined by actions of individuals within a social milieu. This hearkens, of course, to the Greek polis, the American township, and the Paris commune.

Moreover, Arendt did not shy away from the fact that such activities presuppose and require the creation of instruments of power (social structures that have the capacity to compel) and establishment of avenues of authority to wield such tools. Quite beautifully, Arendt advocates and describes "natality", which she defines as the human ability to bring new ideas, new institutions, and new frameworks out out of nothing and into reality.

I think that with very little extrapolation one can see that politics, properly framed, can be seen as nothing more than the technology (or set of technologies) for influencing, organizing, inspiring and working together as a free individual in association with other free individuals--albeit individuals each of differing amounts of power and influence, all vying to some extent to increase their own.

Of course, morality enters here. Rightly, I think, while Arendt see "freedom" as a social construct, she sees "morality" as a personal dialogue--an inner Socratic method if you will. For her, morality and conscience are those mechanisms by which we communicate to ourselves which activities and attitudes we can maintain and still be "friends" with ourselves. If you take the time to think about that for at least half the time it take you to scan this article, it is a startling and fecund thought.

This brings us back rather neatly to your law firm practice. Arendt shows us that we are and must be independent actors in a social milieu. This means, quite emphatically, that we are INVOLVED in the process. That means meeting others, attempting to influence others, organizing teams, excluding, including, chastising, praising--in short, politics as a wholesome and beautiful virtue.

As a posthumous thanks for these insight, I am pleased to say, dear Hannah had a number of items named after her, not the least of which is, one such item, not quite a star, but a shining and relatively free relative of the same, asteroid 100027 Hannaharendt.

Enjoy your day.

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The More Things Stay the Same, The More They Change

After singing MacEwen's praises this morning, I must add a slightly critical note tonight. I just finished reading his blog entry on the (purportedly) ineffectual ways in which firms interview new associates (click here to see the article). As usual, MacEwen's observations are thorough and his ideas sound, but his analysis and conclusions could use some tweaking.

To set the stage, let's just all agree to agree that law firm recruiting of new law school graduates is expensive, appears to suffer from a lack of creativity (at least in terms of what firms actually ask candidates) and does not result in a high level of retention (per MacEwen, an abysmal 28% of interviewees accept and an anemic 38% remain at the firm after year four).

Damned if you don't

In response, firms are flapping their collective arms vigorously and doing what presents as obvious: interviewing more (by interviewing at schools a smidge further down the rankings, and interviewing slightly deeper into the rankings within schools) and getting more aggressive generally about recruiting. In a burst of benign and thoughtful energy, MacEwen suggests working with firms to identify factors other than grades and school prestige to work down to other traits and experiences that might actually more closely correlate to long-term success in firms.

My personal favorite is the idea to administer psychological profiles. The business world has been trying this for quite a while for managers. I certainly can see no argument for refusing to engage in the process in law. By extension, my own recruiting firm, BCG Search, administers a psychological test to its recruiters (perhaps they don't work--I passed with flying colors!). Anything and everything is worth looking at and I'm certainly in favor of a creative and tabula rasa approach.

However, this will all backfire anyway, and I'll tell you why.

Damned if you do

For starters, there is no way that firms are ever going to be able to get away from grades and school. There are lots of good reasons for this, I'll just remind you of the basics:

a) Law school grades are on a curve--that means that the traits most desired in candidates (endurance, creativity, quick-learners, etc., etc.) have all worked earlier in the candidate's life to get them in to good schools in the first place, and to succeed in a variety of educational experiences to present with great grades at the end of the race. Sorry folks, grades matter, they matter like hell, and they will only continue to matter--and more in the future than now.

b) The same logic works for school rankings--you can't get away from the fact that a big part of school rankings has to do with the fact that they can turn away HORDES of people--this leaves not only those that are smart, but those that have what it takes to deal with a multiple of experiences to come out on top. PLUS, because large law firms almost by definition have larger corporate clients, and these are prestige sensitive, school rank will continue to matter, and more so. Moreover, given that the rates for legal services are extremely inelastic (comparable to other services), clients want full value---and they want to ensure that any and all junior people for whose work they are paying $500 an hour are really, really, really smart.

c) Plus, frankly, if great grades and great schools aren't sufficiently reliable to base a forecast of "fit" for law-firm life (which criteria are, obviously, immediately tied to actual performance in the very skills that we are hoping these folks will excel at), how much less can we rely on mushy factors such as whether these people worked during school, took an MBA with their JD or took off time between their undergrad and professional degrees (as MacEwen suggests)? Just consider for a moment how many score of reasons you can think of that a person might have used as a basis for such decisions that have nothing to do with desirable character traits.

The "Irradiation" of Grades

Worse, the move toward additional criteria for hiring attorneys is only going to make things more competitive. As, I believe, grades and schools will never cease to be central, the addition of psychological profiles to ensure that the candidates have the right kind of personality to handle stress (as apparently living through law school is just not enough--hey! I know! let's just actually use the "hand over the open flame test!) is just going to provide yet a further way in which to decrease the available pool of talent. Thus, the intent to interview "down the curve" will be (if not completely chucked) countered by the need to screen candidates for "soft" criteria.

So, what are the choices? There are none. Firms will continue to have to recruit at higher and higher and more aggressive levels. I believe that what is happening and will continue to happen in the legal field is only a small part of a global trend--a massive lack of talent across all spectra. Law firms, just like lawyers, will have to exceed at all aspects to a good attraction and retention plan. They will have to find a way (somehow!) to differentiate themselves to people who have basically squat in terms of perspective on the practice of law. They will have to adopt corporate cultures that foster "teamwork", etc., and all the rest (sigh!). They will have to establish policies and procedures that fit in with the continually shifting zeitgeists of the various generations now involved in the practice (and there are more of them all the time--we apparently have new generations every 10 years now!). Basically, they will have to sprint to stay in place. Well, if this is not an example of Social Darwinism, I don't know what is.

On that happy note, good night!

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Three Cheers for Bruce!!

I can't help but add my "huzzah"s and "amen, brother"s to Bruce MacEwen's post today (pundit and creator of Adam Smith, Esq.) about the one absolutely essential criterion to growing a practice--strategic planning. Do not let yourself groan for even one minute. If you can keep your mind open for just a minute, I'll tell you how this can actually be fun and rewarding.

What Bruce hints at but doesn't just nail is what I have been preaching to my candidates and to law firms for ages: planning is not "an event"--no! It is a gestalt--a way of being, a continual process. Think "happiness through continual planning" or "zen and the art of law firm planning." What do I mean?

Just this. The point of strategic planning is NOT that you need to "block out" an hour, day, week or month, to "knock that out" (or create a subcommittee if you can afford to have people "do" for you). Neither is the point that you need fancy metrics or high-priced consultants (but, you SHOULD be paying me big bucks for this). The point is that you already as a partner have what you need to make and continuing update a plan for dramatic growth, or for meeting and exceeding what "success" is for you.

Get it into your mind that planning and strategizing is continual, first and foremost. Secondly, however, it is a process that is reduced to a writing--many writings, a living document as it were. If you will, your professional plan (marketing plan, what have you) is like your personal (or firm) "constitution". But don't take the analogy too far--the point is that you have a living testament to you or your firm's highest ideals and aspirations, and fleshed out into specific goals, plans of attach, things to do, markets to exploit.

If you as a partner (or especially, yes!, an associate) can get your head around the fact that "doing" the work includes continual and contemporaneous "analysis" of the work, "strategizing" about the work, "mulling" over the work, then you will be already head and shoulders above your office-mate, fellow partners and competition. ANYONE can and does do this work, at least to some extent. But most allow it to degenerate into amorphous "shoulds", "woulds", etc. They don't take the bull by the horns and let it all hang out on paper, and then take the effort and time to slowly but surely--and consistently, turn one's thoughts into a plan and then into action.

If you think about it, action is only one small part of planning. If you plan the work, the actual steps taken will become de-mystified, natural, and obvious--and probably alot better targeted and effective. And, to boot, you will find that "planning" and "acting" on that plan are not just "add-ons" to your already full plate--but a pleasure, and a satisfying corollary to your "usual" vocation.

Click here for Bruce's great exposition on the details involved in strategic planning. Click here for my own further thoughts and suggestions about how to put your dreams into a vibrant reality.

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Smaller Barns, Better Velocity, or "Jesus Wants Me to Invest More in my Business"

Well. It has now "officially" been summer in the Smith house. My kids have completed yet again that very "mid-west"-y sort of tradition--vacation 'bible' camp. Although, as we live in the Bay Area, it is called nothing quite so gauche--rather, "vacation kids academy"--and put on by the Episcopalians (the most non-offensive folks I could find). You gotta love these people--the kids' themes have been "Star Wars", "Narnia", and "The Incredibles" over the past few years. I'm a little worried, however, as next year's theme will be "Peter Pan." (Sorry, that's just a little Catholic angst showing through!)

Anyway, for the first year we got roped into actually attending the "quasi-mandatory" Sunday worship service after the close of the camp set up for the parents. I figured it was alright to go just this once. Anyway, there was an upside (I don't go in anymore for arm-waving to hymns--if I must sing, my arms stay firmly at my sides), I got to hear an old, familiar story during the (refreshingly short) sermon: the parable of the successful corporate farmer and his capacity problems.

Never heard of it? Well, the upshot is that the Deity apparently looked unkindly upon the smug farmer who, when confronted with bigger-than-expected harvests, decided to tear down his old barns and build new ones. The problem is the farmer died the night after making this (rather reasonable) decision and it was all moot. Really!; I never could get my mind around this parable. Until now.

It finally dawned on me (and this is something that has been sticking in my craw since I was in short pants) that the Deity doesn't really care one whit whether or not I build smaller or bigger barns. Neither is s/he apparently averse to investment--I do seem to recall other parables about risk-friendly servants being repaid for their savvy risk-friendly schemes (remember the whole "10 talents" bit?). Anyway, I now have it: the Deity doesn't want me to sit back and let my excess capacity go to waste, he wants me to invest it back into the business.

Well. Don't groan. I think this is a fairly astute principle, especially considering the state of management theory in the "aughts" of the Common Era. Bottom line: rather than build up more storage space (or cyber-capacity as the case may be), I should be focusing on how to get either my profits or my excess "product" (be is beans, nuts or bits) out the door and back into the marketplace where it can grow. A reasonable proposition I confess, and none too hair-raising, but one that bears remembering.

Tune in next summer when I try to figure out some business application of the gospel as told through a Disney movie featuring a character who is an eternal boy wearing green tights. That will be a doozy.

Have a nice Monday.

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