Classic: What I would do if I ran a 20th-century law firm in the 21st-century

John Chisholm returns as agent provocateur with this classic: What I would do if I ran a 20th-century law firm in the 21st-century. Many have commented that remaking a BigLaw business model law firm is like turning the Queen Mary or changing a 747 engine at 12,000 meters. Now – slowly – more and more of these traditional firms are taking remaking steps. John’s polemic post, first published in 2015, is at once humorous and deadly serious. Enjoy.

If I wanted to start up a professional firm in the 21st-century based on a 20th-century model, here is what I would do.

  1. If I could find other 20th-century thinking professionals I would form a partnership.
  2. My business model would be to leverage my employees x time x hourly rate.
  3. I would undertake retrospective billing and bill by time for as much as, and for as long as, I can.
  4. I would distinguish my people between  “fee earners” and “non-fee earners” ( and make the “non-fee earners” feel very guilty).
  5. I will hire the best and brightest “fee earners”  that I can find and make them record their days (and nights) in 6 minute increments.
  6. I would provide all my “fee earners” with annual, monthly and daily billable hour targets.
  7. I would measure and reward my “fee earners” solely by their performance to their billable hour targets.
  8. Each of my “fee earners” will be assigned the same hourly rate for whatever task they are performing solely based on their title and seniority.
  9. I will provide estimates of my fees to my clients based on expected time to be spent on their matter (but only when asked or made to) which will invariably be exceeded.
  10. I will undertake an annual performance review on my people when I can get around to it instead of regularly checking in on their health and well being.
  11. Under the guise of benchmarking, I will willingly share (and fudge) my hourly rates, the remuneration I pay to all my employees, my billable hour targets, my realisation rates, utilization and other retrospective financial information with my competitors to ensure we all look the same.
  12. I will tell everyone that I am a “full service” firm (because I want to be average at everything and not known for anything).
  13. I will proudly claim on my website that I am my clients “trusted adviser”;that I understand my clients business and the industry they operate in; and that I treat all my clients equally.
  14. What will make me different is that I am “innovative” (because I buy the same technology as my competitors); “progressive” ( because I don’t like the word “regressive”); “client focussed” (because our marketing consultants said we need to say that); we have a “collaborative culture” ( even though we work in silos and I don’t want anyone else in my firm to touch “my clients”) and as a firm we are “recognised thought leaders” ( this makes me feel good) .

Thank goodness there are no 20th-century professional firms around now.

Agent provocateur: John Chisholm

John is a recovering Australian lawyer and has been leading the charge for over a decade exhorting professionals to look at the value and outcomes they are providing to their clients, rather than their inputs and time.

John works with professionals all over the world assisting them with a mindset and business model change, as well as the practical implementation of moving towards a timeless practice.

Contact John on LinkedIn

An earlier version of this post first appeared on John’s blog on December 3, 2015. 



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