loss of faith

I note with interest the latest partner ‘defection’ from SJ Berwin to Taylor Wessing, reported in The Lawyer: www.thelawyer.com

I note it only not because it is necessarily either interesting or surprising – I’m not saying it is, or isn’t either of those, by the way – I just note the use of the word ‘defection’ in the story.

‘Defection’ is a particularly charged word, a latinate expression with its root in failure or revolt. It has a political side to it, indicating a move away from a ruinous situation, or a loss of faith, and the transfer of allegiance to another faith.

So, law firm partners do not leave law firms. They defect.

I don’t think this is the press ‘sensationalising’ departures, as much as lawyers would love that to be true. The fact that this word crops up time and time and time again in the profession for good reason.

Perhaps I was overegging this particular pudding, I thought. So I checked. The Lawyer has used the word ‘defection’ in news stories 88 times in the past five years, and has referred to ‘defections’ 28 times this year alone, in each case referring to partner or senior moves.

Its sister-title, Marketing Week, by contrast, which has a circulation roughly 30% greater than The Lawyer (indicating the much greater size of its sector) has only used the term five times this year, and only in two cases was it referring to high level moves (the others, ironically enough, were talking about defects in products).

Lest you might think this is a Lawyer quirk, its direct competitor Legal Week has itself used the term 24 times this year…

I have long believed that law firms are, essentially, held together more by a combination of faith and inertia than by underlying business logic. Business positions or new initiatives are rarely evidenced, plans usually no more than cursory, and recruitment often relies more on faith than business substance.

To me, the word ‘defection’ perfectly encapsulates the peculiarly personal nature of the law firm business. Not that we need proof of that, but then law firms will insist on trying to run themselves as if they are ‘normal’ businesses (rather than flat, low-hierarchy collegial collectives) so these days I don’t shy away from pointing out this curiosity.

A ‘defection’  is not just about business logic, about aiming higher, changing tempo or going niche; it is about the failure of a psychological contract between the firm, its management and its partners, with the individual(s) concerned. This is a loss of faith, and, where there isn’t a leap-in-the-dark to another ‘faith’, can even be similar to bereavement, psychologically-speaking.

A ‘defection’ is too-often charged with feelings of bitterness, guilt, regret and recrimination, in stark contrast to, say the McKinsey “stay friends” approach to its alumni.

This set me thinking about the balance between closing ranks and self-examination within the abandoned firm. When I was a recruiter, I did not get the impression firms spent much time analysing what might have gone wrong to make the person leave and what might need to change before they recruited again.

No, the impetus was to recruit to fill the gap, often with the result that the position was essentially unfillable or that whoever went in there ended up failing for substantially the same reasons. After all, much easier to recruit than spend time ‘navel-gazing’ or grasping political nettles, and much better to feel that something is happening, even if the end-result might be the same waste of time, money and energy. You never know, might work, eh?

It is in the commercial interest of no recruiter to challenge this standard law firm response, except in the most gentle way. Here, the adage “the client knows their business best” works well for recruiters too. Setting aside for a moment the fact that it doesn’t do for recruiters to bite the hand that feeds, opening yourself up to your resellers may put them off suggesting you to candidates, which could be disastrous.

Of course, this is all a tidy little fiction. The plain fact is that recruiters know full well which firms are failing, stumbling and crashing as they’re acting for exiting partners who are giving them all the gory details. But it is a fiction that works for both parties. Only the very best recruiters will really go out on a limb to suggest changes, and even they will only go so far; most will simply take a pragmatic view and take the money, and who can blame them?

I, of course, would posit an alternative view, that of getting your house in order before you spend the time, money and energy trying to bring someone over to your ‘faith’. That route may be full of uncomfortable truths, nettle-grasping and disruption of old ways but, I think, purifying your recruitment ‘context’ and clarifying the sell makes for a faster, easier and cheaper process and makes hires much more likely to stay for the long term. It’s not a quick or easy fix, but the benefits are manifold.

I started on a semantic note, and I’ll end on one. The word ‘defection’ has various antonyms, according to www.dictionary.com : joining, remaining, loyalty.

You can buy new recruits. You can pay people to stay, up to a point. But you can’t buy loyalty. So be careful about losing it in the first place.

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