Survey reveals traditional model of partnership in a law firm is outdated

A survey of over 1000 legal professionals, by a legal recruitment consultancy has found that over three quarters (78%) of respondents think that the traditional model of partnership in a law firm is outdated.

 

This is view that theGrogroup has evidenced first hand, and an issue we have helped our professional services clients resolve many times.

 

The traditional pyramid structure of partnership in a law firm, goes from senior partner at the top, to the masses of front line staff at the bottom is proven and easy to understand. People know where they stand, the levels of seniority are clear, the ‘rules’ and lines in the sand stand out: it is robust and it works.

 

Does it? Really?

 

We believe that this model of partnership in a law is fundamentally flawed, creates numerous problems, dominates culture through affecting behaviour (more than values and purpose do), and ultimately affects firm performance. What is required is something more now’….something agile.

 

It is becoming clear that traditional formal structures of partnership in a law firm are making it very difficult for the firm to do effective business. They can be rigid and one-dimensional anchoring firms to past behaviours and preventing change through bureaucracy. This affects the ability of a firm to react quickly and take advantage of opportunities, to satisfy client needs and goals, to retain talent and to achieve business objectives. And not just in big firms….

 

“Bureaucracy is related less to ‘bigness’ than to the number of tiers in an organisation”, Meredith Belbin.

 

So how do traditional structures limit the effectiveness of firms?  Let’s take a selection of objectives that a firm may be focusing on:

 

Aims and objectives Structural barrier
 

 

 

 

Client focus – put the client at the heart of everything

· ‘Ownership’ of the client relationship often on an individual basis creating protectionism.

· Silos and fragmented resources and responsibility for services and operations.

· Traditional career progression can create an internal focus (‘what I need to do to be rewarded’) instead of external focus (‘what we need to do to help clients’).

Provide empowerment, challenge and responsibility to lower level employees · Layers of middle-management who micro manage and who promote a blame culture.
 

Be quick, agile and proactive

· Hierarchical barriers and independent silos block effective communication meaning decision-making is slowed down.
Create clear career paths and place key talent in high impact roles · Rigid structures and traditional triangular models prevent non-linear progression and create ‘dead-man’s-shoes’ scenarios.
 

Clear, transparent, two-way communication

· Horizontal ‘peer’ group barriers at Partner, Associate and Management levels prevent top to bottom communication flow.
 

Play to people’s strengths and natural talents

· Pre-defined roles mean that people are ‘shoe-horned’ to fit with the role requirements, often leading to dilution of strengths.
 

Open thinking and innovation

 

· Strict management lines can stifle challenge of working practices and prevent new ideas and strategies. ‘It’s what we have always done’.  A ‘wait for permission’ culture limits innovation.
 

 

Team working, collaboration and knowledge share

· Career progression is limited to fewer ‘places’ than candidates in each role, meaning that the natural tendency is for individuals to compete against peers rather than collaborate and share knowledge.
An engaged workforce which takes ownership for driving the firm · Multi-level structures create a large divide between top and bottom levels creating a ‘them and us’ feeling.

 

We are not suggesting that there is a shiny, perfect photo-fit modern structure that will slot into every firm and solve all of the clear limitations. What works for one may well be a disaster for another (and the traditional structure of partnership in a law firm may work very well indeed for some firms).

 

But, we do believe that the key is to ensure that any structure is more flexible, agile and dynamic. And it needs to be aligned with the vision and strategy of the firm. Strategy will be formed based on a deep understanding of the internal resources, people and their strengths, clients, systems and financial infrastructure, plus a thorough analysis of external threats and opportunities, the environment, change and trends.

 

Then a firm should focus on ensuring that it is structured in such a way as to maximise its chances of driving the strategy.  So a structure can be designed only after the vision and strategic plan has been created.

 

This sounds simple and obvious, but usually the opposite is true: that organisational structures are established and remain more or less fixed. OK, titles change and personnel changes but in effect the model remains the same, despite changes in business direction, changing market conditions, client needs and the dynamics of the people within the organisation.

 

So we think it is time to have a real think about how the structure could be limiting the effectiveness of all aspects of business and be brave enough to redesign it.