Job Description for the Midlaw Managing Partner
He was writing about something else altogether, and suddenly, there it was. Somehow, he had written the best job description I know for the managing partner of a traditional, mid-size business law firm in the 21st Century. He said,
Organizations are complex systems, in which cause-and-effect is nonlinear, path-dependent (history matters), and often unknowable in prospect. Deciding what to do (or not do), and how and when to do (or not do) “it,” is a matter of judgment and experience, as managers try to accomplish short-term objectives while keeping their longer run options open.
David K. Hurst, Why Business Books Still Speak Volumes, strategy+business, S+B Blogs (November 17, 2015).
Just now, law firm management starts from that place (that is, from the place of nonlinear, path-dependent unknowability). The same may also be true for other kinds of organizations (maybe all of them, as the author says), but just now it is more true of law firms than almost anybody else. Indeed, to the extent that this proposition is not true of a law or legal process organization, then – to that extent – I say it is not a law firm. Instead, it is probably best characterized as a “legal services organization.”
Firms in which cause-and-effect is linear and for which management outcomes are predictable, likely are process managers, and likely to be replaced one day by machines. Members of those firms are likely not seasoned and rounded “attorneys and counselors.”
The task of the manager of a law firm is to understand the path upon which the firm is dependent; to find the opportunities that path has created in the present; and, to identify new domains of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity, toward which to boldly go. Yes, keeping options open.
More grandly, the same writer says, “we all need narratives.”
Data is not the same as knowledge; information is not, in and of itself, insight. As humans, we need narrative “centers of gravity” to make sense of our experience.
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Although the advent of big data calls for a good deal of calculation, it also demands more judgment — “big” judgment, which will require more and better-disciplined analogies to help us synthesize our experiences and grasp their meaning.
Such is the nature of strategic planning for non-linear, path-dependent professional services organizations. The process is sometimes described as “herding cats.”