The Case of the Lost Law Firm

“I’m so pleased you could come!” said the managing partner, seizing my hand so furiously I feared he would detach it from my arm.

As we made our way made our way through the rush-hour traffic of this drear yet prosperous city far from the London bubble, this dear man explained his predicament.

My new client was responsible for an office which boasted remarkable success, yet the continuation of this happy state was, he feared, threatened not by any business factors, but by a set of cultural maladies, not least the presence of a small number of ‘600lb gorillas’ – partners whose billings sustained significant practices but who were at the root of a number of communications and management issues.

Among other things, my client was keen to give voice to a number of junior partners who were feeling disquieted.

I felt I had just the solution to the predicament.

“May I present what I call the Partnership Cultural Questionnaire,” I said.

This document would be sent to each partner’s home address and returned anonymously. It would invite agreement or dissent across a range of options to over thirty questions covering everything from work ethic to intra-office relationships, work practices to diversity.

“The questionnaire provides a huge amount of cultural data, effectively mapping the attitudes of the partner body across the chosen range of issues and creating a cultural map of the firm,” I explained.

He nodded his assent, and we began, first designing the questionnaire, then collating the data and presenting it to the partnership during a retreat.

I can do no better than let my client explain its effect in his own words:

“It quickly became clear that because the questionnaire was conducted anonymously, this gave everyone in the room an option. Either they could remain anonymous, and hear the reactions of their colleagues to their – perhaps outlying – opinion, or they could choose to expand their thinking as part of a discussion.”

“The effect was quite electric. Quiet partners spoke out, encouraged by the fact that their previously unexpressed opinions were in fact mainstream. Meanwhile, some of the stronger personalities, whose loud voices had created what they had assumed were dominant positions suddenly realised how isolated they were.”

“I think in some ways it was the most productive day we’ve ever spent together as a partnership,” says the managing partner.

“Crucially, this was not a consultant telling the firm what he thought of it, this was the firm confronting its own truth, and some of it was pretty ugly. I think the greatest benefit to the firm was in isolating some outlier opinions and demonstrating just how far from the rest of the partnership they were. A year later, and aside from the odd brush-fire, all the major issues have been dealt with, and the firm is a happier, more stable place as a result, and ultimately more profitable.”

“When we decided to undertake the process we knew there was some specific issues we had to address, but in all honesty, we didn’t know exactly how partners would respond. When we saw the results, it didn’t feel like a gamble at all. It was more revealing than I could have hoped.”

“The process exposes the truth of underlying partner concerns on a wide range of issues from performance, strategy and partner behaviour, but more than anything eliminates the dynamic where the loudest or most aggressive partners are allowed to dominate and the others keep their heads below the parapet.”

“All in all, I’d say it was phenomenally successful”.