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On Organizing Law Firms Around Professional Values

Competence, autonomy and connectedness.

These factors are correlated with a sense of well-being and life satisfaction among lawyers. They far exceed money, status or prestige.

In plain terms, lawyers who feel a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy and a sense of connection with others are the contented ones. These factors, the study also found, are less often experienced in large law firms than they are in public service jobs. But note well: the satisfaction achieved in public service is not said to come from the greater nobility of the work, or from reflection on a life well spent. Rather, it’s because public service lawyers are more likely than big firm lawyers to experience a sense of personal competence and autonomy and meaningful connections with others.

Surely, achieving those modest conditions are within the grasp of virtually anyone with a law license – big firm or small, private or public. It’s not about the job; it’s a matter of how the practice environment is structured.

In fact, it might be argued that law practice, certainly “classical law practice,” is the natural home of competence, autonomy and connectedness. Those factors align remarkably closely with the traditional culture of the legal profession. And, now-days the emerging culture of all knowledge work, not just legal work, (think Google) seems to be aspiring to the same principles.

Traditional legal ethics. The heart of legal ethics has always been in the lawyer’s duties of competence, independence and loyalty. It’s not much of a stretch to see competence-autonomy-connectedness as equivalent to those ancient ethical precepts. This is where lawyers began.

Maybe in some ways, large, leveraged and departmentalized law firms have moved away from this core. Large organizations inevitably limit autonomy and may dilute personal connections with clients and colleagues, and they concentrate individuals on narrower and narrower circles of competence. Even so, few law firms, large or small, do not claim competence (they call it excellence), some form of autonomy, and professional connections (collegiality) among the foundations of their culture.

Knowledge workers.  Even as lawyers may have moved away some from this original core, organizations of knowledge workers are moving rapidly toward cultures that prize flat or non-hierarchical structures,  a sense of community and, of course, excellence.

My best guess is that business organizations of the future will look more and more like what law practice might have looked like in the 19th Century. (OK. Please allow a bit of latitude here, but you get the point.)

Technology. Technology is abetting this. The thrust of 21st Century technology is to “commoditize” knowledge, to equalize the capabilities of small organizations with larger ones, and to create new capabilities for networking and for social connections – in every instance promoting individual competence, autonomy and community.

Millennials. Is it a cause or is it an effect? In 2013, Millennials made up a third of the population of the United States. They constitute a majority of the work force.  And, they are often characterized by attributes that line up with these same factors. Legal employers are commonly admonished to provide work cultures that meet Millennials’ expectations of professional development and recognition of individual achievements, while anticipating their independence from institutions coupled nonetheless with a desire to work as part of a community or team broader than themselves.

So, it’s simple enough. The pillars of professional satisfaction are competence, autonomy, and connectedness. Traditionally, these values have been at the exact center of the professional lives of American lawyers. And now American business culture generally is creating new forms of organizations founded on these same things.

So – as law firms find themselves being reshaped by technology, by non-lawyer service providers, by the expanding role of legal departments, and by limited-service law firms, a key to recruiting and retaining talent will be to create future firms in which professionals can build their careers around competence (professional development centered in meaningful experience), autonomy (participation in a non-hierarchical business organization) and connectedness (collegiality, shared values, and close connections to clients).

Achieving this in law firms that handle larger, complex matters is harder than it looks, but it is imminently doable.

Copyright © 2022, Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard LLPNational Law Review, Volume V, Number 202
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About this Author

Edward C. Winslow III, Brooks Pierce, Greensboro, Banking Lawyer
Managing Partner

Ed Winslow represents business and corporate clients with an emphasis in the fields of banking and financial services. Principal clients include bankers associations, banks, savings banks, insurers, and other financial services firms within and outside North Carolina. He is a frequent speaker and writer on topics involving financial services law and authors a blog on law practice management, called MidLaw and Divers Items. 

(336) 271-3112
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