Because lawyers have so much discretion and autonomy in a law firm setting, firm culture is the dominant force in determining how lawyers in any firm actually behave towards one another and towards their clients, so one of the first challenges that law firms will face in the years ahead will be finding ways of changing the firm culture to ensure an adequate supply of qualified lawyers.
Many law firms remain mired in the notion that the only way to create wealth is by leveraging people and hours; that the two main drivers of profitability are leverage (number of associates or paralegals per partner) and the hourly rate utilization achieved by each team member. The thinking has been that if a firm wants to add to its revenue base, partners have two choices: work its people more hours or hire more people.
Confronted with new forms of competitive and market challenges, the practice of law is long past due for a new way of looking at profitability in law firms. It is also long past due for a new way of looking at its lawyers – including senior lawyers. It’s time for a new business model that will attract individuals who are fully engaged, physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused, and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond immediate self-interests. This Full Engagement Model begins with an eagerness to go to work in the morning, equal happiness to return home in the evening, and a capability to simply set clear boundaries between the two. Full engagement implies a fundamental shift in the way lawyers – young and old – live their lives.
In discussing this new business model, let’s start by agreeing that clients are not interested in buying time. They are interested in buying: results, expectations, good feelings, hope, dreams, a preferred vision of the future, and solutions to problems. Today, a lawyer’s ability to create wealth ultimately depends on the firm’s capacity to create, disseminate, innovate, and leverage intellectual capital, so firms must begin pricing their intellectual capital based upon the value to the client, not the internal labor cost of its human capital; or the profit desires of its owners, and certainly not the labor hours involved in creating it. Keep in mind that intellectual capital in most law firms resides with the most experienced people – your senior lawyers.
Two aspects of this new law firm culture that young people are now demanding include: a strong performance orientation and an open, trusting environment. It logically follows that, law firms whose culture supports both a performance orientation (which includes inspiring mission, stretch goals, accountability for results, and tight performance systems) and an open, trusting environment will have a much greater chance of attracting and retaining talented people. Two aspects of this new law firm culture that senior lawyers are now demanding include: a strong performance orientation and an open, trusting environment.
With the emergence of this new Full Engagement Model, the success factors of the past will increasingly becomes less relevant. Billable hours will become less meaningful to clients, and the criteria for success in the future have yet to be established. This new law firm culture will create the framework for setting new performance expectations and the ways in which people relate to one another. I suspect that “quantifying senior lawyers continuing involvement” will become a much sought after standard.
 Dunn, P. & Baker, R. The firm of the future: A guide for accountants, lawyers, and other professional services (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2003), p.28.