The rise of the new age law firm
James Knight proposes calling time on the traditional partnership and focusing on creating the right platform for senior lawyers to work from
Traditional law firm management often brings with it a number of difficulties. Partners may have their own varying agendas. Some, tasked with the role, are even reluctant to do it, if they feel the distractions will adversely affect their client base.
The legal industry has seen great change of late, particularly in the last six months, with news of a number of mergers and sinking ships. Indeed, the constant stream of news articles on the demise of King & Wood Mallesons is reminiscent of the collapse of Lehman Brothers almost a decade ago.
It’s true that partnership is not what it used to be. Badly structured collaborations, in-fighting, internal politics, and ill-advised borrowing is becoming all too common in the modern-day industry. But while our legal friends across the pond are still largely prohibited from allowing non-lawyers to become owners and directors, the UK market is blazing a trail in the radical alteration of the law firm model – and with much success. So with the rise of the new age law firm comes the big question: should we call time on the traditional law firm partnership?
Lawyers, particularly senior ones, have a challenging job at the best of times. They must develop and maintain numerous client relationships and then handle the work that flows from those relationships. This is a full-time job in itself and one that frequently involves international travel, business entertainment, lengthy and emotive meetings, and lots of midnight oil.
Even the very best lawyers, in particular those who are heralded on account of their technical expertise, are not usually ‘people’s people’. Add to that the general difficulty of being a manager, along with the concept of being accountable for the mistakes of others, and you have the consequences of management simply clashing with the independent personality traits of the professional partner.
Ultimately, the partnership role is a job that places individuals under enormous pressure, but that is the career they chose and one that can be enormously fulfilling when they have the right platform to work from. The ‘right platform’ is a well-run law firm that supports them, both logistically and emotionally, and in so doing enables them to be the best version of themselves and deliver a first-rate client service.
Unfortunately, law firms are all too rarely geared to provide senior lawyers with the platform they need and, in fact, deserve. Rather, in addition to carrying out their fee-earning work and meeting tough billing targets, most firms expect those lawyers to help run the business side of things too. The non-fee earning activities they are required to perform are too many to list but inevitably involve endless internal meetings and steering committees.
Lawyers generally don’t enjoy these tasks and certainly don’t feel an overwhelming urge to be integrally involved in the decision-making process that goes into the new office furniture. They would prefer that it was just done and done well. They want an efficient, well-run, financially viable office infrastructure and good colleagues to work with. In other words, they want a good platform from which to practise law.
Taking lawyers away from fee-earning work as they struggle to achieve rigorous billing targets is the cause of an enormous amount of unnecessary stress which, in itself, helps to engender political in-fighting. Apart from that it is simply illogical and inefficient. Working with clients to achieve a successful outcome for their case or matter requires a completely different skill-set to running a business. To expect anyone to be able to switch immediately from one style of thinking and working to another and then back again is unrealistic and actually naive. It shows a complete lack of understanding of what sort of personality type it takes to run a business and how distinct that is from the practice of law.
At Keystone Law, if we were to distil the factors that have allowed us to succeed down to one thing, it’s this – letting lawyers get back to doing what they do best while the firm’s management team is consultative and seeks to initiate solutions to facilitate this autonomy. Most importantly, the board of directors, which is made up of non-fee earning lawyers and other individuals who have never done a unit of fee earning in their lives, strives to provide an environment that supports and pleases the firm’s lawyers so they can do their job to the best of their abilities by way of a truly dynamic platform.
James Knight is founder and managing partner of Keystone Law