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2012: A year that could be

Definitely Mabey
|Written By Stephen Mabey
2012: A year that could be

Among my holiday readings I came across a concept long forgotten from James P. Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games, which has some real relevance to law firms in 2012. To paraphrase it, law firms will gravitate towards two types of firms:

Finite law firms

•    Exist for the purpose of winning in the short term

•    Will play (operate) within the boundaries

•    Unanticipated events cause a stoppage in operations

•    Collegiality is spoken about

Infinite Law Firms

•    Exist for the purpose of continuing to exist as a legacy

•    Will play with the boundaries

•    Unanticipated events are the reasons that they continue

•    Collegiality is lived

Managing expectations is critical in any endeavour and no more so, I have learned the hard way, in writing a column. So readers that have or instinctively gravitate towards a finite law firm, please don’t waste your time with this column in 2012. Definitely Mabey will likely just be a frustrating experience and one not representative of the value-add to the profession delivered by Canadian Lawyer magazine.

Now before the concern arises among those folks kind enough to read the column monthly that I have had too much free time these past couple of weeks, rest assured that is not the case. The column’s intent will continue to be to deliver practical sensible commentary and solutions to issues currently facing law firm management.

This commitment, fuelled by a belief that the power of information is in its communication not its control, led to a change that will be seen in Definitely Mabey in 2012. I decided to follow Harry Kaiser’s advice of “I make progress by having people around me who are smarter than I am — and listening to them.” So I have contacted a few individuals whose “smarts” I really respect and asked each of them to guest write a column in 2012 and the only boundaries I have for them about the column are:

•    It has to be relevant in its topic;

•    It has to be practical in its message;

•    It has to potentially impact law firm profitability in a positive way.

I am pleased to say they all have graciously agreed to take on the task and write on a variety of topics that will exceed all of the above boundaries. The first of these columns will appear in February and will tackle some practical challenges around business development in all law firms and how to overcome them.

Whether a perfect segue or not, I will use it to address some other holiday reading that in the tradition of the industry appears to focus on identifying the challenges, not the solutions.

While it can be a hugely rewarding profession to be part of, I agree that there are some challenges to practising law that may be unique to the size of the firm. However, the real growth in the profession (much like the economy) will be from the activities of the small- to medium-size firms and boutiques so it is not enough to continue to identify the challenges of practising in such size firms without equal time being spent on possible solutions to these challenges.

Below is a sampling of the “challenges” raised about practising in a small firm:

1.    Local perspective — local client base lacks multi-jurisdictional presence which limits both type of work and type of clients;

2.    Little formal training — more on-the-job training than formal training, which can lead to a transfer of bad habits;

3.    Social and professional isolation — limited personnel reduces opportunity to socialize and share knowledge and seek guidance;

4.    Little prestige — not the same prestige or name recognition of the larger firms;

5.    Limited firm resources — requires lawyers to assume roles outside of “job description,” i.e. make their own photocopies and file their own documents with the court; and

6.    Modest salaries and fewer benefit options — generally paid lower salaries and small firms have less leverage to negotiate volume discounts on benefits.

I am not saying these are not real challenges, but rather that many firms have faced and addressed these challenges in innovative and creative ways and in fact have changed weaknesses to strengths. Some of their successes are public knowledge and others will only be for internal consumption.

While no one elected me their defender, nor would they want to, I do think it’s only fair to provide some commentary to the challenges raised by various authors so that a balanced perspective is maintained about how some of these challenges have and may be dealt with in the future. The attached chart provides those details.

Lest there be a small perception of hypocrisy on my part, there are clearly advantages to working in a large-firm environment that can’t and should not be discounted. But since they are espoused by many, including active PR campaigns by the larger firms themselves, hopefully we can achieve some balance in looking at the pros and cons of where one practices, no matter the size of your firm.

Until the next column, remember as Anthony J. D’Angelo is attributed as having said, “In your thirst for knowledge, be sure not to drown in all the information.”

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