Leslie Perrin is managing partner at Osborne Clarke.
A finance guru tells a roomful of partners that partnership these days owes more to the franchise business model than to the conventional paradigm of ownership. You buy into the business because you like their idea. You run the business according to their pre-set strategy. You sell out when the time is right. And then you move on.
Cue sharp intake of breath. Inflammatory as it sounds, the analogy isn't far off the mark. These days, the best firm money can buy - even US or accountancy money - is greater than the sum of its parts, let alone of its partners. It has to be. That's market forces, innit? Fact is, no one is indispensable these days. True, even the best firms are banjaxed when big hitters bail out, but it's a temporary thing - a hitch. Successful firms have dealt with these irritating glitches for years. Successful firms don't swerve - except perhaps into other people's paths.
Your brand should do no less. In everything you do - the way you look, talk, think, act - you must be consistent, you must aspire to doing everything The Firm way. You develop the position, you fashion the strategy, you sharpen the marketing tools, you commission a logo, you create a killer brand and then, you simply mould the people in your firm to fit. And if they don't, you get some that do. You find people that want to buy into your action, and you buy them by selling them the dream. Or the lie. Whatever, it works.
Like fun it does.
As it happens, the franchise analogy wasn't far off, but it simply doesn't do the business. Today's successful firm has to be greater than the sum of its partners because it relies on too many complementary skills - technology, know-how, training, finance and, yes, marketing. The trick is not just to develop a brand that pulls in the punters, but to develop one to which people gravitate freely - and by people that doesn't just mean clients, it also means your people, your suppliers, the media, even.
Doing it The Firm way is not marketing. It goes far deeper than that. It's culture: that intangible, but never indefinable essence that binds the many disparate factions in your firm together. A lot of firms have developed good products, and unsurprisingly they have had little difficulty selling them. There will always be people - clients included - who want a part of that profit-fuelled action. The real question is, do you want them as a part of yours? If a firm has no culture, no clear idea of itself, its people buy into the profit principle and leave it at that. Then they leave.
Only by giving due weight to all its relationships can a business maximise its opportunities for sustainable growth. It is the strength of these relationships that will secure the long term future of any business.
In today's world, the purely profit-driven enterprise - in legal terms, the franchise firm - must inevitably fail.