“Lawyers focus very much on the intellectual aspects of their work and tend to think management will take care of itself,” said Mitt Regan, a Georgetown law professor and lead faculty member working on the executive education program. “A typical path at law firm is first you have to prove yourself as a good lawyer. Once you do that, you might move into a management position, but typically without any systematic training or guidance. Often, the skills that are necessary to be a good lawyer are not necessarily those that are required to be a good manager and leader. That gap has become more and more apparent.”
The 2011 collapse of the Washington law firm Howrey and the ongoing partner exodus at New York firm Dewey & LeBoeuf “really illustrate in a striking way that law firms are fragile,” said Regan, who has studied the legal industry through the law school’s Center for the Study of the Legal Profession. “They require the ongoing commitment of a critical mass of people, and those people are mobile ... the assets go down in the elevator and they don’t always come back.”
Regan developed the program with James Jones, former managing partner at Arnold & Porter, and Lisa Rohrer, a former director of research at consulting firm Hildebrandt Baker Robbins.
“One way in which firms can sustain themselves in the face of all the pressures — from the lateral market, pressure from clients, pressure for profits — is to try to focus on not simply having the smartest star lawyers, but focusing on how the work is done,” Regan said.
Law firms traditionally are structured as pyramids, with a large number of associates at the bottom who bill clients hourly, usually for many more hours than the respective partners on the matter. But the recession prompted big personnel cuts at many firms, and most are now hiring far fewer associates than in years past. Meanwhile, in-house lawyers — under economic pressure to cut legal spending — are using outside firms less, forcing law firms to offer more alternative billing options.
“Nowadays, clients are more reluctant to pay for junior lawyers,” Regan said. “The base of that pyramid is shrinking because there is less demand for entry-level associates, so firms have an opportunity to be more creative” with billing and firm structure.
The program will initially offer three courses, each held over two to three days: one in June on collaboration between law firms and in-house counsel, a second in September on law firm compensation policy, and a third in October on leadership strategy. The school plans to have a second round in the spring, and future programs will be tailored to government and nonprofit lawyers.
Lawyers will be partnered with “coaches” with whom they’ll check after the courses are completed to see how they’re incorporating new initiatives into their day-to-day jobs.