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7 March 2014
As recently reported in this column (3 May), adopting an industry sector approach to the organisation of a law firm is not new. Indeed, a number of firms have sought to specialise further within certain industries and sectors.
But that is not enough. Clients will only be properly serviced by ensuring that those best qualified - in terms of skills, market experience and location (or range locations) - are brought together. We all recognise that the client's need will sometimes be best served by others, perhaps from other parts of our firm. What can obstruct successful industry groups is the cultural tension often created in firms with parochial departmental/office values or where profit share is dependent on billing performance. The "eat what you kill" philosophy may serve some individuals but it is questionable whether it serves the client's best interests. It is often more satisfying to introduce and involve others with specialist knowledge than undertake the work ourselves. A lockstep system of sharing profits based in one worldwide profit pool should engender team spirit, break down regional, national and international demarcation, and help create a common sense of purpose.
It is critically important that certain cultural objectives predominate. These include teamwork, flexibility, outstanding client service, leading-edge ideas and genuine industry knowledge. However, in order to balance the objectives of client service and financial management and motivation, industry groups also need to be set up as profit centres - not as some sort of special interest group.
Another objective, which is more difficult for some, is accepting that earnings from long-term investments are preferable to those from short-term gain strategies. Certainly a partnership or collegiate ethos helps. This, after all, is what attracts talented lawyers who want to develop without feeling they have to justify themselves to a small controlling group who think only of this year's figures.
Then there is the issue of quality. It is not enough to ensure that work is not hoarded and that the right specialists collaborate. Mergers and alliances (even with other specialists) may dilute this essential ingredient and change the culture. Organic growth and specialist/market training is infinitely preferable. Hence the inherent strength of the "independents v global alliances".
But how should these industry groups be managed? Those who are prepared to spend a lot of time selflessly helping and advising the group and regularly communicating ideas should find that their efforts will succeed. Provided, of course, that the underlying culture exists. Those of us who have the privilege of "herding cats" should be focusing on the management of the essential cultural characteristics - rather than today's figures. If you get the first part right, the second part shouldn't need too much of your time.