Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Would you marry your business partner?

No, I don’t mean literally. Most people spend years looking for the right person to marry. But, when it comes to business, they spend very little time by comparison looking for the right person. Especially lawyers.

In order to build Law Firm 2.0 (the law firm of the future), I need to add lawyers to the firm. They could be partners or associates. I am open to either one. But, I know whomever it is will have a profound impact on the direction and culture of the firm. How do I find the right lawyers to work with?

You cannot build the law firm of the future unless all of the lawyers have (or adopt) a similar mindset. It just won’t happen. When I think about adding partners or associates (or anyone to the firm), I think about finding other people who are open to change and want to continually challenge themselves to make improvements.

Over the past five years, I have been approached several times by other lawyers asking whether I would be interested in joining them, or suggesting that maybe we could build a firm together. Each time, I approach those discussions with openness and a willingness to share my vision for the future. I explain that I want to build a new type of law practice for small business that leverages technology, increases efficiencies, provides high quality service, and reduces costs. I further explain that if the practice can be profitable with small businesses, it will be even more profitable with larger businesses.

Even before I finish explaining my vision, the other lawyers often lose their attention and start talking about what they want in a firm. Too many lawyers are looking for “bodies” or functional specialties. They think if they just have some number of lawyers (typically 5-20) with complementary areas of practice, then they can build a successful law firm. They are most concerned about physical size, physical location, and overhead. They talk about buildings, technology, and clients, but they are surprisingly silent about people, values and goals.

Don’t confuse new technology with new law firms. All of the computers and communication tools in the world will not change a law firm if the lawyers themselves are not open to change. It’s all about the people. What kind of law firm do they want to build, how will they build it, and who will be involved. Building the Law Firm 2.0 is not about technology, it’s about people implementing technology in new ways that will facilitate and improve the practice of law.

So, what does the ideal partner look like? What type of lawyer is needed to build Law Firm 2.0? Bruce MacEwen said it best when he declared that these lawyers would need to be “exceptional individuals of uncompromised vision” and suggested that they would have the following characteristics:

-deeply inquisitive
-risk-taking, open-minded, and eager to experiment
-trusting (by default – until crossed)
-instinctively dissastisfied with the a static status quo, and
-unwilling to settle for unimaginative, brute-force business models.

(David Maister's article entitled "Are Law Firms Manageable" and Bruce MacEwen's commentary are must reads for anyone trying to build a law firm today.)

In the past, I have had good partners and bad partners. Having a good partner expands my ability to generate business and be successful; the relationship breeds synergy. Having a bad partner contracts my ability to generate business and be successful; the relationship breeds mistrust and anxiety. The one thing I have learned is that it's all about the people.

What do you look for in a partner? How will that partner help you to build Law Firm 2.0?

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