Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, July 31, 2006


It takes a lot of time to write detailed posts even where I have lots of available material. I am therefore standing back for a short breather. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few snippets with you.

Talking to a colleague, I asked why so few lawyers were really interested in management. The response was succinct - managing partners!

This response actually meant two things. Managing partners were responsible for this, so others need not worry. Except, of course, when things went wrong. But the response also referred to another set of problems, the way in which managing partners actually exclude others from management, the desire of other partners to preserve their autonomy.

These two issues are linked in that many managing partners, and here my sympathies are with them, are forced into authoritarian get it done roles because of the need to actually make something happen. In turn, this leads others to leave it to the managing partner.

A recent edition of The American Lawyer carried an interesting article by David Maister, The Trouble with Lawyers that bears upon the role of the managing partner. The article begins:

"After Spending 25 Years saying that all professions are similar and can learn from each other, I'm now ready to make a concession: Law firms are different. The ways of thinking and behaving that help lawyers excel in their profession may be the very things that limit what they can achieve as firms. For firm managers, challenges occur not in spite of lawyers' intelligence and training, but because of it.

Among the ways that legal training and practice keep lawyers from effectively functioning in groups are problems with trust; difficulties with ideology, values, and principles; professional detachment; and an unusual approach to decision making. If firms cannot overcome these inherent tendencies, they may not be able to deliver on the goals and strategies they say they have. "

The full article is well worth a read.

While I think that Maister's points are generally well taken, I am not yet ready to give up on the point that professions can learn from each other. However, this has to be done in a particular way.

I have been involved with managing or consulting to professional services firms for coming up on twenty years. This includes a two year period as CEO of a specialist medical college. I know that there are quite profound cultural differences between different professional groups. I also know that there are a remarkable similarities, some of which of themselves make cross-professional collaboration difficult but which can provide a base for cross-professional fertilisation.

The challenge is to put this in ways both sides can understand.

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