At the first in our series of AuDela VRTs designed to accelerate creative thinking around the new shape for legal services in the post Covid world, there was a promising start to some serious shape shifting from Slaughters’ Nigel Boardman who clearly felt that a crisis of this magnitude gave leaders an unprecedented mandate for change:

“The truth is that in professional organisations, leaders are generally not that important.”

“Organisations have become less hierarchical across the piece, with technology advancing and removing some of the power levers like universal information flows, increased labour mobility, social media and multiple stakeholder engagement – this has changed the dynamics for leadership and made it a more democratic process”

 Ah, for the days when lobbying partners down their corridor was enough for leaders to instigate change!

“However, the one exception to this is in a crisis when leadership can be crucial. It is the one time when nearly everyone will not only accept, but actually welcome, strong leadership.”

“The Covid Crisis represents a unique opportunity to leaders of professional service organisations – whether they are managing partners of law firms or heads of legal divisions – to exercise their leadership to an unparalleled level…they should seize their unprecedented authority to reshape the organisation for the future.”

“Regrettably, I do not see much sign of them seizing this opportunity.”

Oh dear. And here I was thinking law firm leaders had done pretty well so far. Nigel’s predictions from our 2009 roundtable post financial crash (rather cutely called “Blinking from the Wreckage”) all came true. So, personally, I’m inclined to sit up and listen.

Ever helpful, Nigel gave 2 tips as to what law firm leaders should do:

First, they must deal with the threat presented by the recession Covid is causing but this also gives them the mandate to take action they have not previously felt able to take: getting rid of low performers, closing unprofitable operations and branches, pegging back salaries, reducing office rental costs by optimising space usage, and swinging an axe at excessive cost. Frankly, if any managing partner or GC is left with a weak performer in their team at the end of this crisis, they have failed to take advantage of the crisis.”

 It might sound a little heartless, and ‘axe swinging’ is definitely in the category of bold leadership, but we all know that a crisis is the time to do some serious house-cleaning.

Secondly, they should seize their unprecedented authority to, rethink and re-engineer their organisation for the future. They have only themselves to blame if they do not take advantage of this crisis.” 

So ‘axe swinging’ is not enough. We are definitely into Shape-Shifting territory. Bring it on!

“ If all law firm leadership have managed to do by the end of this period of special authority is to make their organisation leaner, they have failed.”

 Ouch. The word ‘fail’ repeated twice. An unmistakable challenge to law firm leadership.

Ben McGuire, Innovation & Business Change Director at Simmons & Simmons took the conch. A former Army Officer of 15 years with a track record of challenging leadership roles, followed by an MBA, a role as COO at The Takeover Panel and now Simmons & Simmons. His kind of experience lends a certain weight to his words. Plus, as a relatively newcomer to the law firm partnership model, his views are fresh and have perspective.

With a few exceptions, if we are looking at leaders in law firms to take this crisis and really make something of it, we will be disappointed”. 

Wait, what?!

In the Army [where I suspect leadership failure tends to have more immediate consequences than in law firms] the core of what you are learning, your profession is leadership, and this comes before the skills you must master in the profession of soldiering. It’s almost reversed in professional services… inasmuch as it’s your skill which is prized and that is why you gain influence and soft power and hard power, eventually.”

 That certainly used to be the case without exception. Less so, now, surely?

 “Law firms don’t and haven’t developed leaders”

 Oh dear…

 “So unless you are very lucky and have a good leader in position at the right time, they're going to do what they always did and the partnership will expect them to behave in the same way, crisis or not.” 

 And just in case you weren’t depressed enough:

 “if you are not a very good leader in a crisis, a crisis isn't going to make you one.” 

 Couldn’t agree more, Ben.

 “A really clear example of leaders “doing what they always do” is in the really challenging conversation people have about how to handle a drop-off in transactions. The default, at senior partner level, is that we cut costs, by which they mean non fee-earner costs, immediately.”

 So let’s not then, because it may be the non fee-earners who will become your greatest engine for transformation and growth.

This AuDela SmartTM is part of a series of AuDela virtual roundtables designed to look at “Shape-shifting: the new shape for legal services in a post Covid-19 world”. Click here to access the whole series.