I’m invited to several law firm partner retreats each year, usually as a speaker about trends in the marketplace. Before I go to the podium, I often get to hear the annual state-of-the-firm address. (I’m the one, second row, stage right, listening carefully.) Recently, a couple of these talks have stayed with me. They were notable for the fact that once the speakers finished their jokes, the rest of their remarks focused exclusively on the financial health of their firm. The only calls to action were exhortations to push harder to meet ambitious budget goals so that the highly compensated partners gathered in these rooms could be, well, a little better compensated. There was virtually no talk of professional excellence, improved client relations, or a larger mission for any of the firms. As the first President Bush once lamented, these moments called for a “vision thing.” Instead, all the partners heard were cries for pumped-up balance sheets.
They were a poor substitute for inspiration. Not only did those cris de ledger represent a crabbed view of success and motivation, they also ignored remarks made last year by two distinguished observers of law firms. One came from Ashish Nanda, who now leads a prominent business school in India. While he was teaching at Harvard Law School, Nanda had published a very positive account of how Bingham McCutchen grew by absorbing once proud but somewhat distressed firms. After Bingham failed last year, my former colleagues at The American Lawyer asked Nanda for comment and he astutely pointed up the shortcomings of this strategy when the firm hit hard times. The promise of money, he said, “is a very weak glue.” [Read more…]