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Law Firm Management

Timeless Wisdom (Or Get Out of the Way Grandpa)

I became a partner of a law firm and attended my first partners meeting many years ago. Since my firm was a medium sized firm, partners meetings were important since the participants actually made decisions (as opposed to what happens in large firms where an executive committee makes most decisions.)  Each partner had an equal vote.

Although I had the same right to express my opinions and cast my votes as the much older and supposedly wiser partners, I refrained from saying too much during the first year that I was a partner. I thought that it was wise to learn from the other partners and understand the lay of the land before jumping in and trying to change things.

Over the years I joined a number of boards of directors and I always took the same approach. Listen, learn, and then contribute once I understood who was at the table, where they were coming from, something of the history and culture of the organization, and how things worked.

Very recently I retired and moved to the country. My home is part of a community. There is a community association which owns common lands, including trails and waterfront facilities. As a homeowner in the community, I am a member of the association. At meetings of the members, once again I have tried to sit back and learn what the organization is about, how it functions and what the issues are before jumping in with my ideas on how to improve things.

I used to advise new partners who were joining our law firm to do what I had done, being to spend quite a few months as a new partner listening and learning instead of talking, and perhaps even to look for what was good about the existing culture before advocating to change things. Many of them followed that advice. Some of them most definitely did not. I imagine that the same types of things happen in other law firms and organizations.

It is my impression that the approach which I advocated throughout my career and into my retirement about listening and learning before trying to change things was a respected approach back in my day but has fallen out of favour in more recent times. New partners today seem to be in a bigger hurry to change things than they were in my generation. I am not passing judgment here. (But I will before too long.) I am simply observing that things have changed. It is a distinct possibility that my generation and those who came before us screwed things up so badly that the need for change is more urgent now than it was before. Or perhaps the pace at which technology is changing our society in general and the profession in particular necessitates that the younger folks provide urgently needed input much sooner than we did back in the day.

Whatever the reason, I am fairly certain that things have changed. For example, I am aware of a medium sized law firm where one partner joined the partnership and made it clear from his very first partners meeting that there were many ways in which the firm needed to improve. That partner also made it abundantly clear that the firm could best do that by immediately abandoning most of its culture and starting to do things his way. Although his influence was initially minimal with the existing partners, as new partners joined the firm, he did everything that he could to influence them to come over to his way of thinking (or, the ‘dark side’ as some partners referred to it). Some of his ideas were good. Others were not so good. A few were downright horrible.

Over time this partner’s influence grew and the culture of the firm changed. There was a lot of tension. Some people left the firm, as is apt to happen when the culture of a firm is changing. The old guard eventually gave way to the new. Had this young partner been able to temper his enthusiasm for change with a healthy dose of respect for the views of those who had built the firm, he probably could have been a great leader and achieved great things. But he could not and he did not.

I am going to stake out a position here, and I am keenly aware that there are those (perhaps many) who will disagree with it. I still think that the old way was better. New partners in law firms (and especially those who have never been a partner at a law firm before) should initially shut up and observe. They should seek to understand the culture of the firm and how it came to be that way. They should find out where the existing partners are coming from and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. After a good long time (a year sounds about right), they should start to contribute in a positive and respectful manner.

I am so happy to be retired now. If I had said something like this at a partners meeting back in the day, all hell would have broken loose. I suppose that it is possible that I will receive some negative comments on this article and be accused of being part of an out of touch generation which just does not get it.  Someone may even respond with ‘Hey, Boomer!’  But I don’t care. Isn’t retirement great?

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