Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series. The first installment appeared Feb. 7.
This series is premised on the belief that all law firms are not alike. It has been written in an attempt to dispel the notion that some lawyers have that firms are generally indistinguishable. I have focused on 10 differentiating elements — last month, these five factors were discussed: 1) leadership, 2) financial strength, 3) compensation, 4) culture and 5) risk tolerance. This month, the final five are examined.
6. Willingness to Embrace Change
All organizations need to balance adherence to the fundamental business practices that drive their success with not casting a blind eye to momentous shifts in their industry that seemingly loom on the horizon. In essence, there is an eternal push and pull between not being intransigent and not jumping at every new development that could very well prove to be a fad.
I have worked with CEOs who have opined that “half the battle” is just being aware of these competing considerations. One, in particular, recoiled anytime he heard someone in our company proclaim that “we have always done it that way” in response to a query as to why a particular action was taken. The CEO knew that our market was changing quickly and getting the company positioned to adapt was an especially difficult challenge as long as that internal mindset existed.
Law firms are no different. In fact, if one looks back over the past few decades, history has shown that firms that were at the forefront of adapting to change (in areas such as expansion, practice management and business development techniques — to name just a few) have separated themselves from firms that had been their peers. Some lawyers recognize this, while others cling to beliefs that no longer are valid.
For example, several partners, who have seen former competitive firms zoom past them in the past few decades — at least with respect to size and geographic reach — refuse to acknowledge the separation that has occurred. For example, one noted that even though another firm was more than five times its size, his firm’s top five litigators were just as good as the top five in the competing firm.
While this very well may be true, it missed the point that our world is vastly different today. In many cases, battles to land major litigation matters today often entail comparing one firm’s top 25, 50 or even 100 (or more) lawyers against another firm’s similarly sized squad. Moreover, especially as firms have grown, the quality and business development prowess of the lawyers in the middle ranks — who fall well below the top five — often tilt the balance between one firm or another.
At a macro level, there could be no dispute that firms differ in two key realms: scope and size. As to the former, firms may be international, national, regional or local (in just one market). With respect to the latter, firms may be large, medium, small or even solo, with many gradients along the spectrum. There also are many permutations, especially if the two categories are considered together. For example, there are some boutiques that focus on international work and some large firms that predominantly operate in just one market.
If one delves deeper, there some other important elements that further distinguish the platform that a firm may provide to its lawyers. These include fundamentals such as business development, marketing, technology and practice management. While each of these (and others) would merit an article of its own, we will just focus on business development here.
The differences among firms in this crucial area are rather significant. Some firms have full-time business development professionals who actively are trying to drum up new business, while others solely rely on the efforts of their lawyers. Some firms are rather generous in supporting promising business development efforts, while others force partners and associates to pay for all or much of these expenses out of their own pockets. Some firms have highly qualified staff ready to produce dazzling PowerPoints to backstop new client development efforts, while, in others, this responsibility lies solely with the individual lawyer who is making a pitch.
Consequently, the differences among firms, even those that nominally seem to have the same platform (with respect to scope and size) are quite significant. These differences could have a profound impact on someone and his practice, depending on what is important to him and his clients.
I share the view that clients normally hire lawyers and not law firms. This certainly was the case during my in-house career. However, there are circumstances when the opposite is true, such as “bet the company” or high-profile, major cases or deals (where hiring a name firm becomes important for the board and shareholders); matters in which retaining a firm that has a strong reputation in a certain realm sends an important message to an adversary, or where a firm’s business practices come into play. It is in those situations that a firm’s brand comes into play and may be the deciding factor.
As to the reputation for business practices, a firm’s brand may be that it is excellent to work with, is very reasonable with respect to its bills, and is a firm that will offer undying support, through good times and bad. When this reputation becomes known, as is often the case, it plays a big role in determining who will handle new matters. Conversely, other firms have a reputation for putting financial factors at the fore, which similarly can be important criterion when companies decide who will get their business. For example, I can recall not hiring one outstanding firm mainly because it refused to budge from its stance that any hardware or technology purchased during a matter (at our expense) would be kept by the firm at the conclusion of the case. This did not bode well for what lied ahead and was a deal breaker.
The brand of a firm that does develop is unique and also attaches to its lawyers. While a litigation matter ultimately should turn on the facts and the skills of the lawyer handling the case, the reputation, or brand, of his firm may play a role with the judge, at least early in the case. Similarly, when a lawyer is involved in his community, whether it entails seeking to join a board of directors of a charity, or even a local club, he may benefit, or be burdened by the reputation of the firm for which he works. As such, the reputation of the firm in which one works has an impact that can go beyond the lawyer’s own capabilities.
9. Talent Recruitment and Development
It may seem overly simplistic, but professional services providers are only as good as their people. All the factors discussed in this series are important, but each one is driven by a live person who performs the work in the trenches that defines a firm. As such, recruiting and developing talent is the lifeblood of every firm and, consistent with the discussion here, varies widely among firms.
Attracting new lawyers is a perpetual need for law firms, as some lawyers retire or die, others leave and still others may be needed as the firm expands. Although some lawyers may approach a firm on their own, most come through a firm’s own recruiting efforts or those offered by third-party recruiters.
Firms are all over the map as it relates to their own recruiting capabilities. Some have excellent websites that draw the interest of talented lawyers, while others rarely land anyone of consequence that way. Some firms have internal recruiting processes that work like a clock, while others routinely suffer missteps. From an outside recruiter’s perspective, I daily encounter a wide variance among firms as to their skill with recruitment. As the decisions of top tier candidates, especially significant partners, turn on subtle points, these distinctions, quite simply, are the difference when someone makes a decision to join one firm over another. And, it is those decisions that ultimately help to separate one firm from another.
The same holds true for development of talent within a firm. With respect to lawyers who come up through the ranks, firms vary greatly with respect to the amount of hands-on experience their lawyers receive (especially early), how well they are mentored, and the amount of resources that are devoted to training. Similarly, for those who join laterally, firms also are quite different with respect to how much time they devote to integration and how good they are at it. In some firms, one is essentially wished good luck and godspeed after orientation, while in others, considerable time is spent introducing the new lawyer to others in the firm (and clients) and in monitoring progress.
Thus, the variations among firms, on the crucial issue of its most precious resource — its lawyers — is hardly the same at all firms; in fact, it is widely different.
10. The ‘X Factor’
Not one lawyer who has worked in multiple firms has ever told me that all his firms were the same. Sure, there often are some similarities that are cited, but there always is at least one factor that is different. Moreover, even when firms seem to be quite similar on the surface, there inevitably is an intangible quality that uniquely defines the firm — as it does in any organization. I call this the “X factor,” as it is difficult to define, but we all feel it and know it.
I have sat through countless introductions to firms — whether it was as a general counsel or as a recruiter or consultant. The pitches from the firms — which have all been well-intentioned — focus on similar themes, namely: how collegial the organization is, the firm’s commitment to doing high-quality work, how talented the lawyers are, etc. At this point, I am confident that I could easily do these for most firms with little advance preparation.
As time goes on, though, one finds, whether he is an outsider or works inside the firm, that there is a unique persona about the firm that differentiates it from other firms. For example, consider the first generation law firm (in which the founders are still active or at least alive). These firms often have a discernible spunk and drive to go out and “make it happen” that is palpable. Unlike other firms that have been around for generations and are much more well-established, these firms are still making their mark and tend to be more aggressive and more likely to take risks.
In other cases, there are firms that place the highest priority — even if it means sacrificing profits — to maintaining civility and a comfortable environment. There are still other firms that instill a strong sense of “doing the right thing,” that this is so ingrained in its lawyers that they repeat the mantra reflexively when asked to describe their firm.
The examples here are almost as varied as firms themselves. The point though, is the same, and it is that every firm has an ethos, spirit, business practice, philosophy or other characteristic — my so-called “X factor” — that uniquely positions it in the marketplace.
In closing, if you should hear a lawyer grumble that “all law firms are the same,” please send him or her my way — I’d be happy to debate the point.
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.