In the summer of 1976, I worked for the largest law firm in Montreal, which was Ogilvy, Cope, Porteous, Montgomery, Renault, Clark & Kirkpatrick, as a student doing research. You likely do not know that name, but you may recognize the name of its successors Ogilvy, Renault and Norton Rose.
My ‘office’ was the firm library and was shared with twelve other students and the occasional lawyer who stopped by to do their own research. One of those other lawyers was a name partner (or former partner) of the firm who must have been about 80 years old. He appeared to have a physical disability because he shuffled rather than walked. He would take a law report off the shelf and sit down at one of the tables to read it for an hour or so. We rarely saw him turn the pages. Sometimes when we students spoke to each other too loudly and interfered with his concentration, he would slam the book on the table and ‘shush’ us. Other than that, he never communicated with us. Eventually he would shuffle out of the library, usually in the direction of the executive washroom for which he had a key.
It was obvious to us young folks that this lawyer was well past the days that he could contribute to the success of the firm, although perhaps he still had valuable contacts. But he still had an office at the firm and a key to the executive washroom. He still belonged.
Things are different nowadays. For one thing, we do not have such long firm names anymore. Ostensibly, the reason for shorter firm names is that we now have a better understanding of branding. However, an equally important reason is that partnership is more transactional. Partners come and go. Changing signs, letterhead and marketing material became a challenge and a waste of money. At some point the industry decided that it was simpler to shorten the names of the firms. Ideally, a firm’s name could be changed to the names of a few dead partners who could never leave to compete, so the name would never have to be changed again. Some law firms and many accounting firms even changed their name to initials for the same reasons.
As the Bard asked, “What’s in a name?” Perhaps not much in the present business climate. However, there is something in the sense of belonging to a group that is larger than oneself. A group that respects you. A group that appreciates what you have done for the collective, even when you are no longer able to keep doing it. A group that will never squeeze you out when you age because your client base shrinks or your billable hours decline. A group with whom you want to stick through the tough times or to whom you want to refer all of your contacts, even when you are no longer working.
‘Belonging’ gives life meaning in a way that money cannot.
There are those that will say that this idea of ‘belonging” is quaint but outdated. Law firms may have been profitable enough to think this way back in the old days, but that is no longer the case. In order to survive, they must now be more businesslike, more ‘corporate’ if you will.
Perhaps that is true. I am a lawyer by training, not an expert in business so I may have this wrong. However, it seems to me that some of the challenges facing the legal profession today are a consequence of the loss of this sense of ‘belonging.’ It also occurs to me that the corporate world may also have this wrong, and that law firms have simply followed them down a problematic path.
One of the challenges that law firms are now facing is how to hold onto their lawyers. In a transactional world, lawyers are frequently jumping from firm to firm and from law firms to inhouse jobs or to jobs in government or in the corporate world. Sometimes new lawyers seem to be poached just as soon as they have been properly trained. Currently there is a lot of talk about U.S. law firms enticing Canadian lawyers with offers of signing bonuses and higher salaries. Lawyers are moving for money, and firms are trying to hold onto them with money. All of this will continue until the next recession when lawyers will be let go and salaries will decline. We have been here before.
All of this turn-over, of both lawyers and staff, costs law firms money. Law firms try to reduce the costs of turn-over by throwing money at people to retain them. In the transactional world in which we live, presumably that helps a bit. However, as I observe the degree of movement, it does not seem to be helping nearly enough.
I am aware of long-term partners, associates and support staff of law firms who are thinking about leaving, or simply retiring earlier than they might have otherwise, because they do not sense that the firm has any loyalty to them. They have come to believe that everything is a question of ‘What have you done for me lately?’
These firm members feel that there is no appreciation for someone having done so much over a period of 10, 20, 30 or more years, after they are no longer able or willing to contribute at the same level. They do not feel that accommodation will be made for them if their health or changing priorities reduce the amount of time that they can, or are willing to, devote to work. They sense that they are interchangeable with someone who has just newly arrived at the firm. Sometimes they have a feeling that management has no understanding of the value of the institutional memory that they have, and perhaps even sees it as an impediment to ‘progress’.
I do not think that law firms are any different than corporations are in this regard, although perhaps they should recognize that the corporate world has the same challenges and is not doing particularly well at solving them.
The existential question for me is what can law firms do about it? Is there truly no answer other than to continue to emulate the corporate model and throw money at people to stay financially competitive in the recruiting game?
While we all know that ‘you can’t go back home again’, it seems to me that perhaps it would be a better idea for law firms to do some ‘out of the corporate box thinking’ and look for a better answer. Perhaps they could start with a new C level position such as ‘Chief Loyalty of People Officer’, with responsibility for implementing a culture which makes people want to stay with the firm. The CLOPO could look at everything about the work experience (other than money) which would make a team member want to stay with the firm. Things such as communication, respect, functionality of teams, mentoring, training, career paths, delegation style, support for people overloaded with work, and support for people who are facing personal challenges.
How far ahead would law firms be if they could recreate some of the loyalty of the past? What if law firms could make their people feel that they are valued as individuals, and not just for what they can produce this year?
Once we are dreaming, what if every staff member, associate, and partner looked at the people who had been there longer than them and thought, “Wow, it just keeps getting better and better the longer you stay here.”
You may say that I’m a dreamer. Unfortunately, I may be the only one.