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Musing on Lawyers

by Linda Green Pierce

As if the jokes aren’t bad enough, today’s lawyers are faced with intense competition in their compacting industry, servicing high-demand clients on an immediate basis, as well as being told by expensive consultants to pay attention to leadership at their law firms or perish.

How’s a lawyer to cope? Business lawyers with MBAs may be on top of this, but what about that nice ‘trusts and estates’ attorney who just wants to write comforting wills and set up cushy trusts, stay under management’s radar and keep out of those pesky partner meetings? Coming out of law school in the boom of just under a decade ago, a lawyer was probably told by his employer law firm not to be concerned about such things as competition and to just concentrate on completing the crush of available work. That lawyer is now a partner who understands, perhaps for the first time, the awesome responsibility for the success and longevity of a firm he now partially owns. Perry Mason would pack it in.

I recently sat among more than 100 managing partner ‘suits’ at a law firm leadership summit in San Francisco (yes, those lawyers present at such think-tank episodes of study still do – or do again – wear suits) and listened for two days to the sound bytes of a new breed of lawyer:

“….mid-market client share…focused high value work…branded image…
aligned internal environment…adaptable competitive strategy…
Vice President of the West Coast offices.”

Many reading this may say: “It’s about time.” These ideas and words, however, are innovative to law firms and will change their structure and culture in upcoming years. Finding those lawyers within the firm who will drive these new approaches in the practice of law and become visionary leaders will be challenging at best and wrenching to some firms.

Future law firm management will be sized down from those big committees typical in law firms so that the firm can move more quickly in response to market changes or client opportunity. There will be a solitary, non-billing CEO who no longer produces individual billable hours, but instead focuses on the viability and public image of the law firm. The CEO may supervise key managing partners or VPs who will focus exclusively on areas of importance to the firm, such as: (1) the law that is practiced in that firm; (2) legal personnel (including partner issues and peer reviews); and (3) the operations issues of IT, finance and marketing. Those VPs, in the largest of firms, may also not practice law, but they will be the lawyers who were the drivers and leaders within the firm in their respective practice areas and who “got it.”

Slowly, but surely, the number of women in these VP and CEO roles will increase. A high-profile one -- Mary Cranston, Chair of San Francisco’s 750-attorney firm Pillsbury, Winthrop -- says she views this time of market competition and segmentation with an “opportunity perspective” and that lawyers need to look at it that way instead of the traditional perspective lawyers have of spotting problems.

Ultimately leadership and power at even the very largest of law firms will reside in a smaller number of partners – the hands of a few – a shocking change in culture for these entrenched democratic outfits. Partners will have to change the way they practice or even what they practice for the overall good of the firm.

Hang on, Della, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Linda Green Pierce is President of Northwest Legal Search, Inc., a lawyer consulting and placement firm established in Portland in 1987. She can be reached by email at or through her web site at