Who needs democracy in law firms?

An interesting paper put out recently by Laura Empson, professor at Cass Business School is doing the rounds. It focuses on the ambiguities of law firm leadership.

Catrin Griffiths

The study, titled Who’s in Charge? Exploring Leadership Dynamics in Professional Service Firms, parses the various structures of formal and informal power at several top (anonymised) private practice firms and reports on how three of them dealt with internal crises – and how their structures of power helped and hindered them.

Here’s the challenge to professional service firms, Empson asserts. It’s about the unsaid as much as the said: “Traditional hierarchical power dynamics are replaced by more ambiguous and negotiated relationships amongst professional peers.” Partnerships are vehicles regulated by social control mechanisms; I particularly like Empson’s assertion that in these highly political organisations, leaders have to foster the illusion they are apolitical, itself a sleight of hand.

Norton Rose, however, bucks this trend. With most professional service firms, the management has to persuade autonomous partners to collaborate with each other. Peter Martyr – who took over a decade ago when the firm was at its lowest ebb – has persuaded his partners that a benign autocracy is the way forward.

 Our feature this week examines how Martyr has managed to propel his firm to a global position. It mostly revolves around decisiveness but he is able to do this largely by cutting most of his partners out of the process of deliberation. What’s so intriguing about Martyr’s style is not so much that he has centralised power – Nigel Knowles of DLA Piper and Peter Kalis of K&L Gates are in a similar mould – but his evident relish in springing mergers on his partners. The Deacons deal, announced in June 2009, was pretty much kept secret from Norton Rose partners until a show of hands was needed. The Fulbright merger, while widely speculated upon inside and outside the firm, was accomplished with minimal information given
to the partnership until the time of voting.

 “The problem with portraying yourself as a leader in a professional service firm is that your most valuable colleagues are likely to resent being cast as your followers,” notes Empson. 

Just like at DLA Piper, Norton Rose partners are past caring about non-participation in decision-making. As long as Martyr keeps delivering, that’s fine by them.