Leading Lawyers

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal online wrote:

The Monday-morning quarterbacking continued today on the failed merger between Dewey Ballantine and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Calling the deal an example of how “now not to consummate a merger…”

Dewey, Ballantine has about 550 lawyers; Orrick, about 900.

LegalTimes.com says it’s painful for both firms:

It represents at least the fourth time in four years that Orrick has failed to cinch a merger, prompting speculation about why the firm can’t close these deals…

..Two more partners last week decamped from Dewey, raising the question of whether the departures will mark the tail end of an exodus of more than a dozen partners…
..like many relationships that end badly, each side thinks it’s all the other’s fault.

Why did it happen? WSJ continues:

Dewey is old school, led by chairman Morton Pierce, an attorney first and manager second. Last year, he billed 3,300 hours; in his “spare” time he managed the firm. “Management is not my passion,” he admits.

Orrick chairman Ralph Baxter Jr., meanwhile, is a more modern, CEO-type leader; he doesn’t practice law, spending all of his time meeting recruits and clients and jetting to the firm’s offices around the world.

The comments on the WSJ blog boil down to:

“How can the chairman of a 550-lawyer firm legitimately bill 3,300 hours?”

But that’s not the right question. The right question is,

“How can someone who bills 3,300 hours legitimately be described as managing, much less leading, a 550-lawyer firm?”

The issue isn’t integrity of billings—it’s seriousness of leadership.

The narrowest definition of management in the law business includes checking timesheets, hiring and firing based on numbers, and hosting a few annual events. It doesn’t involve articulating a market position 5 years hence, not to mention how to get there, how to align an organization, or how to develop human beings.

Mr. Pierce is not alone. Among the professions, law is—in general, by and large—the most anarchically managed. To be fair, this is partly an outgrowth of the nature of the business itself.

Another obstacle is low trust. David Maister quotes a former law firm managing partner, “It’s not that I don’t trust my partners. They’re good people, mostly. It’s that I don’t want to have to trust them. Why give up any degree of control over your own affairs if you don’t have to?”

But industry is not destiny. Larry Bodine notes that 5 law firms made the “best places to work in the US,” including one at #16. In Canada, a law firm is #4 (see this post on Trust and Law Firms). Leadership is a prime suspect in this aberrant behavior.

The best argument for Mr. Pierce’s model is that partners respect a practicing lawyer. This parallels Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska’s response to accusations of mediocrity: “the country has a lot of mediocre people, and they deserve representation too.”

The belief that widget-making is the best qualification for leading widget-makers is alive and well in the law business (I like to think Nebraska evolved).

It’s a belief that implies surgeons, architects, financial planners, accountants and actuaries are all equal in their leadership capabilities. It also belies a belief about leadership that there is no ‘there’ there.

Which firm’s leadership model would you trust over the next 10 years?