Our firm is in Nashville TN and we currently have 12 attorneys – 7 partners and 5 associates. We are an eat-what-you kill law firm. In essence we operate as separate profit centers and operate in our own silos. We all have to come together and agree on any and all management decisions. Our management team consists of "all partners". We do not have a office administrator, office manager or even a managing partner. We all have the freedom to do as we please and there is very little accountability to each other. Recently we have been discussing the pros and cons of why we might want to change our governance and overall structure. I would be interested in your thoughts.
I believe that law firms that are "firm first" team based firms and organized along these lines have (or will have) a competitive advantage with respect to clients, legal talent, and merger partners. As law firms grow the "lone ranger" confederation approach no longer works. Decision-making is too time consuming, partner time is wasted, and opportunities are missed. Synergy (where one plus one equals three or four) is not achieved and the firm achieves little more than any one of the attorneys could achieve in solo practice.
Recently I was working with a similar size firm in Chicago that was looking for a merger partner. When the other firm learned that my client was a "lone ranger" firm they discontinued discussions. Larger firms that are "team-based" are not interested in merging with "long ranger" firms – they tend to cherry pick key talent from these firms rather than pursuing mergers or combinations.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a 34 lawyer litigation boutique based in San Antonio, Texas. We have 20 partners and 14 associates. I serve as managing partner at the will of the partnership and spend 35% of my time on firm management matters and the remainder of my time practicing law. A legal administrator and accounting manager assist me with managing the firm. While I have the general support of the partnership, maybe because no one else wants the job, I serve more as a filter and still find that I have to run most of the firm's management decisions before the full partnership. Often I feel that my staff and I are second guessed, management decisions take too long to make and are diluted and watered down, and the firm has missed out on opportunities due to our structure or lack of structure. Other law firms that we have competed against for years have passed us by and have grown while we have stagnated. Do you have any suggestions concerning our approach to managing the firm?
You firms has reached a size where more structure is usually required. The democratic system of all partners being involved in virtually every management decision might have worked when you were five or six attorneys but has now outgrown this structure. Think about how some of your business clients are organized and structured. Ask around and talk with other law firms and accounting firms your size. I think that you will find that they have put in place more structure to support their business models.
I suggest that you:
You should start with general partnership discussion on how the members would like to work together and the kind of firm they want going forward. Are the partners willing to be managed and willing to be accountable to each other and to what extent? Then go from there.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC