Inside: How long can firms tread water without adapting?

Economic recovery may buy firms some time, but it won’t buy a future unless firms use that time to complete what they've begun, under duress or otherwise

It’s been our pleasure — that of my colleague Kimberly Leach Johnson and myself — to ruminate on best practices for outside law firms in InsideCounsel magazine over the last couple of months. We’ve touched on “softer” issues such as diversity, trust and branding as well as operationally focused topics like collaborative practice of law and understanding client businesses and competitive environments. In this, our last column of the series, I’d like to tie it all together by relating these various concepts to the central imperative that lies before us all: the need for change.

A recent survey conducted by Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group found that managing partners at large firms feel more optimism about the near-term economy and predict a rise in revenues in 2014. That’s good news (if they’re right), but it may turn out to be less fortunate in the long run if we law firms interpret an improving economy as a signal that “we’ve made it through” and challenging times are over for the legal industry. Sure, our clients may be more in a mood to spend next year than they were this or last, but the fact remains that the industry has fundamentally changed since the economy took a header in 2008, and there will never be enough growth to put the change genie back in the bottle. Economic recovery may buy us some time, but it won’t buy us a future unless we use that time to complete what we’ve begun, under duress or otherwise.

Gone forever are corporate clients-for-life unless we spend every minute of our own lives actively keeping them.

Gone forever are hourly rates that rise like clockwork unless we keep adding value to our services, worth paying for.

Gone forever are legal services that fail to actively contemplate the client’s entire business, and the industry in which it operates.

Gone forever are the days in which attorneys have all the work they can handle unless they, themselves, go out and get it.

Gone forever . . . well, you get the picture.

The point is, this is no time to relax. In a previous column in this series, “Meet the new normal; same as the old normal,” I referred to James B. Schwartz’s book, The Hunters and Hunted. That book is 20 years old, which is to say it’s ancient news to our clients, but maybe not so much to law firms. As its title suggests, the book’s premise is that there are two kinds of businesses in the world: the hunters and the hunted. Perhaps more importantly, I would add that no matter how successful you are — no matter how big, no matter how wealthy, no matter what market share you control — the moment you stop being a hunter, you become the hunted.

To look at it another way, if you were to pull up a list of the Fortune 500 from 10 years ago and compare it to today’s list, you would find that about half of the names on the old list are gone, and according to some experts, that turnover rate has been steadily accelerating over the last 50 years. That’s the environment in which we all now live, so those of you who think a recovering economy signals an opportunity to slip back into old habits should examine your backs for anything that resembles a target.

In fact, the struggle to survive is just beginning.

To employ an analogy, the business current in which we all swim is one that drags us inexorably away from the place we once called “home.” Some of us may be overcome with despair, realizing we can never go back, and disappear below the surface. For others, staying afloat may have become all that matters, treading water until they can work their way ashore at some new “home.” Still others may have optimistically begun to swim with the current, looking for a new place to call “home” and steadily work toward it. And, of course, a few may be swimming stubbornly against the current, hoping to hold their positions and that the current somehow reverses course and takes them back. Regardless of our respective attitudes, any of us might drown because, often lacking formal business training, most of us were never taught how to swim in the first place.

But those who want more than simply to survive are going to dive into the turbulent waters of their own accord, recognizing that in the business world, there is no home at all; there is only the next destination. Home is where you lock your doors and windows, and hope nothing dangerous can reach you. Home is where you escape from the pressures of the outside world. Home is where you go to die.

For hunters, times are always good and the water feels just fine. In poor economic periods, the hunted stagger and flail, and are easy prey. In healthy economic periods, the hunted are fat and sassy, ready to be taken down. Hunters don’t think about how things used to be; all that exists is this hunt, now.

This is the proper mindset for change. This determines who swims and who sinks, who eats and who starves.

With the New Year, Quarles & Brady is embarking on a renewal of its strategic plan. We’ll take stock of what’s been working and what we should keep doing, of course, but we’ll spend more time thinking about what we have to change. As a 121-year-old firm with a great many traditions of which we are extremely proud, we won’t complete our plan and then implement the changes in it without some discomfort, but we’ll forge ahead with vigor nonetheless. There’s a thrill in the hunt, and rewards for sticking with it. In other words, we look forward to the next 121 years, wherever they take us. How about you?

Contributing Author

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Fred Lautz

Quarles & Brady Managing Partner Fred Lautz practices in the areas of mergers & acquisitions and corporate finance/securities, with a focus in...

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