The Death of Deference

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By Nick Jarrett-Kerr | Jan 29, 2019

Lawyers have always been a distrustful bunch, but in the last twenty years the growth of larger law firms on the back of increased accountability and performance management seems to have repressed independence of thought amongst professionals, who have been encouraged to focus much of their effort on fee generation and to leave leadership decisions to the leadership team.

Things are, however, changing. Getting the important decisions made is becoming more arduous, and when the firm leaders think they have pushed a decision through in a professional-service firm, they are increasingly finding that decision being thwarted or ignored by the partners afterwards.

In an environment where speed and flexibility are critical, there are of course an increasing number of decisions that can no longer be channelled laboriously through partners’ meetings. Clearly every-day and week-to-week decisions, such as staffing levels, pricing and infrastructure resources, have to be made swiftly and efficiently. And it is universally accepted that all firms need strong and robust leadership, with a minimum level of consultation and discussion and a maximum level of drive and authority. But in some areas, particularly those requiring long-term change, leaders are also acutely aware of the need to gain wide-spread agreement to their strategies and plans – the need for ‘buy-in,’ to use that overworked phrase.

I am also perceiving somewhat of a sea-change within our western cultures generally – less deference to authority, less respect for tradition, less blind acceptance of leadership. As an example, in my country – the United Kingdom – parliamentarians are flexing their muscles and refusing to vote just on party lines, and many institutions are seeing a rise in ‘people power.’ In the arena of professional services, we have witnessed a huge rise in independent lawyers working as freelancers in virtual and dispersed firms in order to regain their autonomy. In traditional firms, we see an even greater level of scrutiny by partners of the leadership team’s performance, and less tolerance of bullying tactics, amateur superficiality or badly-thought-through proposals

The brutal truth is that there are some decisions where achieving a favourable partnership vote is becoming more and more tricky, and usually not enough on its own to ensure implementation – especially in situations where partners feel the leadership team appears to be trying to enforce blind compliance with the decisions they are promoting. Take decisions that need partners to change behaviours, for example. Partners are unlikely to make large alterations in working practices or in how they do things unless they have been part of the decision-making process.

The trick, for any leader, is to be able to judge between three types of decision. First, there are the sorts of decisions which can successfully be made by the management team without consultation. Second are the proposals which need some level of consultation, but which can be pushed through or negotiated with minimum discussion. Third come the more difficult areas of long-term change which need wide-spread support and ‘buy-in’ to stand a chance of success.

Those in the third category present occasions when the leadership team needs to work hard on ensuring participation and involvement of the partners in the decision-making process. Simply telling the partners what to do is not enough.

Recognising this, many firms have developed a communications approach that at least has the partners feeling that they have been consulted, or that attempts have been made to achieve some level of consensus. But in essence, the scenario often merely changes from a ‘telling’ style to a ‘selling’ one, with the management team employing every trick in the book to railroad and cajole partnership agreement through persuasion and negotiation. It is perhaps no surprise that many partners feel at best guarded and distrustful about the whole process. The sorts of complaints I hear from partners are along these lines:

  • “I feel disenfranchised. I don’t know what’s going on.”
  • “What’s the point in saying anything? The management team never listens.”
  • “It makes no difference to me what’s decided. I’ll probably just ignore it all anyway.”
  • “The managing partner has lobbied to ensure he has enough support – so opposition is pointless.”
  • “I figured everyone else was in favour, so I kept my mouth shut.”
  • “I just wanted to keep my head down.”
  • “Frankly, I didn’t have time to read the papers. I had no idea what we were agreeing went so far.”

Accordingly, to achieve success the modern professional firm needs a greater degree of flexibility, professionalism and inter-dependence with the firm’s partners. I believe a better approach for tricky and important decisions is to try to facilitate some genuine views and feedback so that the partners actually do become involved in the decision-making process and are not merely negotiated into acceptance of pre-ordained solutions. But even where attempts are made to achieve this, success is not easily won. What typically occurs is that the leadership team arranges a partners’ retreat or conference, or a departmental away-day, at which the team will attempt to lead an open discussion and ultimately to feel their way to an agreement. Plans and papers are produced, analysed and discussed, break-out groups established, and action points developed. Sometimes, the partnership will end up agreeing with the management team’s checklist and plans. At other times, little seems to be achieved except a lot of hot air.

But however open and genuine the intent, the consultation process will almost invariably suffer from a fatal flaw if internally led or facilitated. The problem is that it is almost impossible to facilitate a genuinely open discussion if you have already made up your mind that your carefully thought out plans and proposals are the right or only way forward.  Even if the proposals are accepted, a feeling of resentment can often be evident if the partnership feels it has been manipulated in some way, or that the result of the discussion is a foregone conclusion.  What is worse is that superficial external agreement by the partners can in fact mean deep-rooted internal rejection. In other words, it can be dangerous to take silence as consent. In some cases, I have even seen genuinely well-thought-out and sensible proposals voted down by the partners just to show the management team that it cannot always have its own way.

I am not for a moment trying to suggest that the management team should abrogate its leadership and management role in favour of some limp and long-winded form of group decision-making process. But what I am putting forward is that it is often good to get some level of feedback and constructive suggestions from a consultation process before a decision is ultimately made – particularly where long-term change is involved. A genuine facilitation process can achieve powerful results here, so long as the leadership team can avoid being seen as thumping its own particular drum and is prepared to listen and influence rather than control and direct. And it generally can only achieve all that if the process is facilitated by someone other than the leadership team itself. Whilst it is, of course, sometimes possible for these purposes to find an internal facilitator, with the necessary facilitation skills and experience and with no axe to grind, I am finding that it is also an area where the use of an external consultant can add enormous value.

Edge Principal Nick Jarrett-Kerr is one of the leading UK and international advisers to law firms on business issues, strategy, leadership and management. In addition to matters of strategy, Nick has a particular interest in law firm governance, partner compensation, partnership performance criteria and partner development. He regularly leads or facilitates strategy days, retreats, partner conferences, practice group retreats and away days.