Structural changes: act in haste, repent at leisure

The news of DLA Piper‘s recent management changes is sure to have been met with comments along the lines of: ‘Another law firm changes its management structure? Big deal.’

Is it a reflection of the current system not working? A desire to make it better? Or the need to put in place a framework that will allow the firm to realise its aspirations? I will let you decide. The ability and willingness to change are often the qualities that diminish with size. Change becomes more difficult. Is it really worth the trouble? Would things be so much worse if we just carried on as we are?Any business that has experienced exponential growth like DLA Piper over the past five years will understand that you have to be entirely honest about why change matters and what benefits you will derive from it. How you were in terms of structure will need to change in order to realise your future growth and vision. Embracing change requires commitment and desire from its entire staff, but there is a particular need for its existing and future leadership to step up to the mark. Dynamism from this group is critical. Never being satisfied, knowing that there are always more opportunities and ways to improve – these are all key in allowing you to meet these challenges.

DLA Piper is obviously a very different organisation from what it was five years ago. In understanding what allowed us to get to where we are, we can start to determine how we will get to where we want to be over the next five years. This process of understanding should not be rushed. Know the detail before you act:; and when you change, know that it is the right sort of change for the right reasons.

There can come a point where it becomes no longer viable to bolt on additional assets to an existing framework. You have to stand back and look at what would work better. Treating Europe as one entity, with the UK at its heart, is going to be crucial for DLA Piper’s success.

Our new structure reflects this. Europe is one entity, and this approach aims to provide a more diverse management team in our practice groups and open up opportunities for fee-earners across Europe to develop their leadership and management skills. However, these opportunities will not be at the expense of client-facing activities. Keeping our senior management team looking out as well as in will mean that we do not lose sight of what we are trying to do – namely improve the client experience. The existing matrix structure, with axes of geography and practice group, has been one of the key ingredients to our success in the UK. In order to improve this we now have to develop and identify these groups across all our jurisdictions, enabling us to better leverage our work from local to global. Having a defined group structure across all of Europe (in the first instance) will help us and our pan-European clients. Such organisation will also allow us to add one final axis, sectors. Their inclusion will strengthen the geographic and group structure by allowing us to bind our lawyers together by utilising their subject expertise, the mortar that cements us.

Of course, putting in place a new structure in no way guarantees success. We can learn lessons from those who have not succeeded, or from those who did not achieve what they wanted and needed to. The objective of the consultation and change process is often seen as putting in place an effective and dynamic management structure and team. Wrong. What is required is to put in place a structure and team, and for them to work their hardest by investing all the necessary resources to make it work. We are doing that; we know and understand what we have to do. Are we so confident that we will never have to change anything again? Of course not; we are realistic.

What benefits will we derive from these changes? It is simple: a law firm that aligns structure to strategy can do better than just having aspirations, it can deliver its vision.