The image that accompanies this post is of a massive tree in the forest behind my house which came down in a storm, bringing down another tree, which brought down a third. As you can see, the root system was wide, but shallow.
These trees might have looked majestic, but when force was applied, their roots proved to be too weak to hold up their weight.
Back in 1997 my firm had an existential crisis. Three rainmakers left at the same time, representing client origination credits for 40% of the work being done by seventeen lawyers, and just about all of the experience managing the practice.
We remaining partners had to try to figure out whether the business was viable and we should carry on, or whether it was doomed and we should wind it down.
We survived and prospered. But why?
To some extent the answer is that there is nothing like impending bankruptcy to sharpen your senses. But the main reason that we made it is because (with one exception) we were loyal to each other, came together, buckled down, and did what had to be done.
The winds of change did not topple us, because our roots were strong.
When firms have similar challenges and implode, you will read about partners who jumped ship as the storm was brewing, finding a safe landing for themselves, but dooming those who remained.
The strength of the ties which bind the partners and the effect of those ties when there is a crisis, is an element of firm culture which you typically do not hear much about. It is worthwhile thinking about this aspect of your firm culture from time to time because your financial security may well depend on it.
At your firm, is it “one for all, and all for one,” or is it more like, “one for all while it is convenient, and every person for themself when it is not?”
As lawyers, we pride ourselves on being able to ‘see around corners’ to identify risk for our clients. But how many of us take the time to think about the strength of the ties which bind us together in a law firm and contemplate the likelihood of surviving a really big storm?
Has anybody heard of law firms doing a culture assessment with a view to determining whether the firm could survive a storm? I certainly haven’t.
Has your firm ever thought about studying the strength of its root system and considering whether some profitable branches on your law firm tree have to be pruned for the good of all? And if you came to that conclusion, would your partners be prepared to suffer the short-term pain required to increase the likelihood of the firm surviving a storm?
Or at your firm, is there a tacit understanding that it is best not to speak about such things at all, and to just carry on like everything is great until the winds start, with the attitude that “it can’t happen to us?”