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INSIGHT: Leading Law Firm Committees Through Downsizing

May 19, 2020, 8:01 AM

The coming round of law firm downsizing presents chairs of firm committees no ordinary challenge: having to let talented lawyers go.

Partners generally start off in denial of the need for such action—most weren’t in leadership roles in 2008-09. Then, because business analysis is new to many, planning moves slowly. As the necessity of action sinks in, people can devolve into being representatives and protectors of particular constituencies rather than behaving as a cohesive unit. Nerves get taut and progress stalls.

Breaking the logjam isn’t easy. Fact-based assessments and analyses, so compelling in substantive legal work, fall short because the challenge is not rational but emotional. Committee chairs can be tempted to ram initiatives through. Such imperialist actions produce short term results but come at the cost of destroying forever the prospects of effective committee functioning.

Getting Through It With Frank Discussions

There is no one surefire way through this. But there are elements that can help.

A first is for the chair to be explicit with the committee as to how it should function. There are to be no sacred cows; members are to speak openly, disagree without being disagreeable, and close ranks behind decisions. Members must also agree both to be held, and to hold each other, accountable for delivering on that which the committee determines is to be done.

It’s especially important that committee chairs model the behavior sought of others and avoid being protective of specific individuals or initiatives. By openly taking measures that others know are painful personally, the chair evidences to others that the situation is serious and, moreover, attains the quiet moral authority that allows them ask that others give in like manner.

Committee meetings should break from their normal logistics to underscore that the initiatives being embarked upon are not normal course. Pre-pandemic, a committee would have met off site on the weekend to make this point; a virtual equivalent is now called for. Committees should meet at a frequency set not by the calendar but by the expediency of taking the actions required. This will include short daily meetings as particular milestones are approached.

It’s critical to get the communications with partners right in terms not just of substance, but of tone. This is almost impossible to do from the start. Instead, committee chairs should establish the norm of an honest after-action review at each significant step. What went well and why? What could have gone better and how? There should be no holding back out of politeness; all have to learn and improve.

Committee heads should task members with developing recommendations on who to transition in their particular areas. The chair, on behalf of the committee, sets an overall goal or target and allows discretion as to how to achieve it. In some cases, the chair may want to ask for a range of alternatives, not a singular plan—e.g. cuts of x, y, and z—so no one can stymie progress with an unrealistic ‘plan’.

Tactical Plans Are Essential

After a painful decision is reached, it’s critical to push for explicit articulation of the “‘who will do what by when.” It can be tough after an emotional discussion to be so tactical. But it’s the lesser evil compared with the backsliding that can happen when the way forward is not articulated specifically.

The chair’s most painful role is to hold people accountable for enacting the decisions agreed upon. It can help to have it be apparent to the full committee when a member is being derelict in their duty. But some powerful partners will be prepared to brazen their way through such disapprobation. It falls on the chair, off-line to save face, to push for implementation.

Lastly, on analytical support: the heavy lifting on analysis and numbers should be delegated to the operating partner, COO, or support personnel (even to outsiders if necessary) so that the committee chairs and members can focus on the myriad one-on-one conversations with partners necessary to oil the machinery of execution.

Unfortunately, the need for law firm downsizing gets clearer day-by-day. Leaders have a duty to humanely, intelligently, and steadfastly carry out the painful and personally distasteful task for letting people go. There’s little in the way of even a silver lining. But at least it’s not a permanent state; this too shall pass.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Hugh A. Simons is formerly a senior partner and executive committee member at the Boston Consulting Group and chief operating officer and policy committee member at Ropes & Gray. Early retired, he now researches and writes about the business side of law firms and does some consulting for old friends.