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The inner workings exposed

For this month’s cover story, we convened a panel of experts on law firm management with representatives from firms of different shapes and sizes as well as lawyers and non-lawyers. We gathered in Toronto in late June to discuss the hottest topics — vexing issues, even — on the minds of law firm leaders. Some of them resonated across all the firms, including that of transparency within the firm. Law firms are partnerships and one thing everyone at the table agreed on was the need for openness, particularly the sharing of financial information and strategies. That doesn’t mean everyone has to know how much everyone else makes, but being open about how it works so everyone from articling students to senior partners feel they understand the system, where they fit into it, and what to expect.

Transparency within the firm is, of course, only half of it. As a number of the panellists pointed out — clients want it too. If they understand how your law firm functions, who is working on their files, how the budgeting works, and so on, it puts them in a comfort zone when they know what to expect when the bill comes. It helps in negotiating alternative fee structures, and in and of itself such transparency leads to better and open communication with clients. Everyone wins.

Also discussed during the roundtable was the management of people. In the aftermath of the fall of Dewey & LeBoeuf the issue of lateral hires (and the enticements they’re offered) has become a big focus. But money isn’t everything — all that other stuff is becoming increasingly important.

I am writing this on the plane as I return from the annual Canadian Legal Conference in Vancouver, at which the Canadian Bar Association launched a new online guide to measure diversity in law firms. The guide was created in response to requests from law firms looking for ways to assess their diversity performance. It offers two options to track progress: a self-identification survey (I am X) and a diversity climate survey (I think the firm is Y). The legal profession is definitely behind the rest of the corporate world in its focus on diversity so having a guide such as this to help firms frame the questions and survey their lawyers and staff is an important first step. For now, it’s simply a way for firms to establish what’s going internally.

However, publishing benchmarks and making the information on diversity public is really how this will outwardly benefit firms. In the U.S. and other markets, diversity statistics are available for articling students and lateral hires — as well as clients — to peruse as part of their decision-making process. In Canada, it’s all still a bit murky. It’s time for Canadian firms to step out into the light.