Makeovers won't help firms with takeovers

The big firms are turning to Oriental philosophy to help them reshape their workplaces. The latest breed of consultants to march through the partners' boardroom are the interior designers. With their talk of space, light, hot desking and even ch'i, they are trying to get lawyers to take a more holistic view of their business. And the message is reaching a receptive audience.

A holistic view of the office is one thing but a holistic view of legal business is quite another. As our analyses of UK firms' tentative moves into the US and the continuing debate about whether an "outsider" should head a law firm show, legal firms may be marketing themselves as businesses but there seems to be some way to go before they act like them.

With law firms fighting for new markets at home and abroad and looking at strategic alliances, large-scale mergers and takeovers, there is a real need for high-quality, clearly focused business development experience at a top level.

This is not to say that pulling in an existing business person from industry is the only model. Many senior partners may well have a good business mind and a passion for building a business. The question is one of focus. Theodore Goddard's Peter Kavanagh has not "quit". He has simply realised and bravely announced that he cannot focus on both clients and business.

Developing a business demands commitment and, as leaping into US markets demonstrates, a degree of risk-taking.

Law firms, of course, are not just businesses. Anyone developing a legal business needs to know and understand the law, legal culture and clients.

The type of person needed to take a modern law firm into the next millennium needs to be willing to listen to and work with the partners or, as the jargon has it, the stakeholders. In short, a successful modern managing partner needs to have a holistic view of their community and its business potential.

Rearranging the desks is one thing, but reviewing the decision-making process and responsibilities to the business is quite another.