Who is responsible for the future of BigLaw firms?

Who is responsible for the future of BigLaw firms? discusses one the biggest challenges facing BigLaw firms: Investing in the future.

The world is changing rapidly with regard to technology, security, international agreements, and national laws (certainly in the US). So, in the near-term there’s plenty of work out there to keep lawyers busy. However, that does not mean you can neglect the growth and future of your law firm. Who is going to make sure you stay on top and keep up with all these changes and opportunities? Who is responsible for the future of your law firm?

Which function is responsible for the future of your law firm?

Which function is responsible for the future of your law firm? Many of the big law firms are literally more than a hundred years old. Yet, such longevity is no longer a given in today’s dynamic world. Nowadays, law firms also have to keep up with today’s technologies and tomorrow’s client demands.

Which function is going to keep an eye on the future and ensure your law firm is there to stay for the long haul? Who is accountable for the future revenue streams, the profitability of your services, and the long-term job security of the firm’s attorneys and other staff?

There are a few candidates to take on this responsibility:.

The managing partner / executive committee

The managing partner and/or executive committee are responsible for the profits and losses of the firm. In that sense, they are ideally suited to also be responsible for the long-term growth of the firm.

While the tenure of managing partners has been on the rise (from about 7 years to about 10 years), that alone does not guarantee they have a long term focus.

Most problematic is that the managing partner is often a part-time position. “Few lawyers went to law school to become managers and a criterion for filling a leadership role in most law firms is recognition and respect as a practicing lawyer.  Most successful lawyers like what they do and are unwilling to fully step away from it during the peak of their careers to enter management.  At the same time, legal skills, client relationships and industry knowledge fade quickly for lawyers who fully remove themselves from practice, and are difficult to subsequently recover.  Finally, full time managers rapidly lose their “street cred” with their partners as being too far removed from the practicing lawyers.

With managing partners already being overcommitted, they may not be the ideal candidates to also be on the lookout for the long-term future of the firm. Especially because the future of the law firm is an important, yet rarely urgent issue. As such, it is likely to be the first thing to disappear from the agenda.

Business development

Not all law firms have a business development group, but many do. A dedicated group that supports the sales activities of the lawyers of the firm. The rationale behind such a group is clear. Business development takes away valuable time a lawyer can otherwise spend on client matters.

The business development group helps with exploiting current business opportunities, networking, and marketing.

While the goal of business development is to obtain (new) clients, this task does not include the development of new services. The function is probably badly equipped for the latter task. Since sales and marketing of existing services is totally different from the development and creation of new service offerings.

In addition, your business development function probably also lacks the necessary insights and legal knowledge to know where the market is heading and what the next big thing in law is going to be.

Operations managers

The operation manager is another increasingly common function. Operating managers are tasked to manage just about everything in a law firm: “Financial management, vendor management, outside counsel management, human resources, department operations and management, systems and technology, knowledge management, litigation support, program management, freeing attorney’s time”.

It seems relatively easy to add another task to this long list: innovation management. Yet that would be a huge mistake.

Operations managers are there to make sure the firm runs as efficiently and effectively as possible today. Any innovation effort will derail that goal, as innovation efforts – even the smallest ones – bring disruptions to the current work processes. There is overwhelming evidence – just read the innovator’s dilemma or about the performance versus innovation engines – that operations and innovation don’t go well together.

Human resources

Since law firms are people businesses, does it perhaps make sense to task human resources with securing the future of the firm? After all, they are responsible for the hiring and development of new talent and lateral hires.

True, but that does not make human resource managers innovation experts. They know how to develop your talent. They do not know how to develop new services.

What about the lateral hires? Well, evidence suggests – contrary to the common belief – that lateral hires rarely meet their growth expectations. Research suggests that lateral hires are not very capable of driving change and exploring new growth areas either.


What then is the solution, if currently nobody has the responsibility or capability to secure the future of your law firm?

There are several options, all derived from how innovation currently happens in the professional services:

Within ongoing client relationships

When working with a client there is often room for creativity and innovative solutions.

Some clients really appreciate such innovative approaches, others don’t.

Ongoing client relationships are thus certainly a breeding ground for innovative approaches (for inspiration see the yearly Financial Times special editions on innovative lawyers). However, the solutions developed are often one-of-a kind that fail to scale to other client relationships and practice groups.

The biggest drawback of relying solely on this approach is that the future of your law firm will depend on the grace and intent of your current clients. There is little you can do to orchestrate or steer these efforts to align them with your strategic intent. So, to rely on this approach as your innovation strategy will not get you very far when it comes to securing your firm’s future.

Temporary project teams

Temporary projects teams are common vehicles to execute a particular task. For example, the implementation of an e-discovery management tool or the implementation of a matters management system.

Such teams could also be used to address more ambitious projects – such as the creation of a new practice group that will focus on FinTech, cyber, or space law.

One of the challenges temporary teams face is that they start from scratch. Team members are brought together because of the shared passion they have for the topic, or because of their role in the firm. That does not mean that these teams are well-versed in project management, let alone have the expertise and experience to manage an innovation project. While not very complex, there are do-s and don’t-s when it comes to executing an innovation project. Common pitfalls make it so inexperienced teams have little chance of creating a new service successfully, let alone that they are capable of doing so in a timely and cost efficient manner.

Business units / practice groups/ centers of excellence

Business units, practice groups and centers of excellence have in common that they are keenly aware of the state-of-the-art in their respective fields. As such, they are perfectly situated to identify future opportunities and to create the strategy for getting there.

However, most centers of excellence currently have a relatively passive and reactive role. They are responsible for knowledge management, sharing of best-practices, distribution of information etc.. The active pursuit and development of novel services is not their scope. Most centers of excellence lack the resources and capabilities to do so.

Moreover, business units, practice groups and centers of excellence are islands within the firm. They are not well equipped to address any activity that would supersede their specific focus, while most new service and innovation opportunities are often multidisciplinary and address firm-wide issues and concerns.

R&D groups/ innovation units

R&D groups and innovation units are best equipped to address multidisciplinary issues and innovative opportunities. Unfortunately, while such groups and units are great at fostering and creating new solutions, the impact on the revenue and profitability of service firm like, law firms, is limited. Among others, because it is difficult to transfer the state-of-the-art knowledge that lives among the practicing attorneys to and from such an isolated unit.

Innovation support function

Since none of the above practices are ideal, the better solution is to create an innovation support function. A function that can address and overcome the weaknesses and challenges experienced in the client relationships, temporary projects, and center of excellence approaches.

An innovation support function can bring the necessary innovation expertise to each project team and ensure that all innovation projects are executed in a smart, timely and cost-effective manner.

Such an innovation support function cannot be held responsible for the performance of each single innovation project, as it will not have the power to select or initiate these initiatives.

However, it can be held responsible for the effectiveness, the number of initiatives that surface, and the number that make it to practice successfully.

In short, the innovation function can be held accountable for the process that will secure the future of your firm.

Who then is responsible for the future of your law firm?

Ultimately, it is the managing partners that are responsible for the future of their law firm. Their tenure is long enough, that they should care.

However, they need support in that role. Firstly, because it is just one of the many tasks on their plate. Secondly, because they cannot be expected to know what it takes to execute an innovation project, let alone manage a portfolio of innovation projects, or manage the innovator process as such.

That is where your innovation support function comes in. When the innovation support function is accountable for the innovation process, it can take the management aspects of the innovation efforts off the plate of the managing partner. Among others by giving the managing partner the data and oversight that is needed to make decisions on which projects should get funding and which projects should not.

Together, the managing partner and the innovation support function can be held accountable and responsible for the future of your firm.

An additional advantage of the latter approach: the time investment for a managing partner or executive committee to address and secure the future of the firm – this important yet never urgent topic – will be less than 30 minutes per month.


Dr. Blindenbach-Driessen is passionate about innovation management and new service development in the professional services, which led her to start Organizing for Innovation LLC. She teaches courses related to innovation management and strategy implementation for executive education programs around the globe. Her research focuses on the innovation challenges and opportunities of professional service organizations. Her work has appeared in academic journals such as Research Policy, IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, and the Journal of Product Innovation Management.

Who is responsible for the future of BigLaw firms? was first published on Floortje’s blog Organizing4Innovation as Who is responsible for the future of your law firm? 


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