Corporate structures have long been likened to military organizations, though this is the less popular style today. In attempts to increase productivity, morale and loyalty, corporate managers and analysts of corporate management have looked to sports models for fresh ideas which go deeper than the cliched sports metaphors.
Several models of the organization's operations and culture have been identified: football as epitomizing managerial control and centralization; baseball as a model of individual autonomy and situational teamwork; basketball and soccer as focusing on voluntary cooperation and shared decision-making. Which characterizes your firm - or the culture you desire?
Professional firms also have begun to rethink their governance systems in light of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the past two decades. Competition for clients' business is only one of the pressures; recruiting, better client service, tighter financial management, more complexity in every aspect of practice and greater time pressures are intertwined with competitive and profitability issues.
Consequently, firms need workable systems to make decisions - quicker decisions based on carefully considered, rational judgments but still within the constraints of a partnership culture. Those firms that are structured around several sizable departments and divided among several offices, even if connected by the latest technology, find the problems of governance compounded.
The sports team analogy can serve as a starting point for a creative look at the organizational alternatives available to today's law firms. Let's examine the three basic law firm organizational structures and some hybrids in terms of the sports team analogy.
The old-style law firm governance model may be likened to baseball. Characterized by brief, infrequent interactions among the lawyers who contribute to the firm relatively independently, coordination may be minimal. The individual lawyers are the key, and "stars" can have a very significant effect on the success of the firm. If stars retire or leave, as occurs more frequently now, clients can be lost with them.
Though there are advantages to this type of organization, especially if the firm consists of entrepreneurial individuals, it may have serious disadvantages. Does it provide the necessary coordination for serving large and institutional clients? - the depth to cover for the absence or busyness of the star or partner-in-charge? - the ability to problem-solve and quickly correct with the help of other lawyers' experiences?
Equally significant, the baseball model (compared to other team models) does less to promote cohesiveness. Loyalties may shift from one firm to another or one client to another. Some lawyers in the firm may become isolated from each other. Clients may not regard the firm as a source for a wide range of services, but only for one specialty which a personally known or big-name lawyer performs. Client loyalty is not easily transferred or services cross-sold.
Although this old-style or baseball model may permit highly individualistic tasks to be accomplished effectively, it may hinder the teamwork, communication and across-the-board cooperation that is necessary to sell a firm as an institution and to organize a high performance marketing machine.
Football - highly disciplined, hierarchical, vertically integrated -is almost the opposite of the baseball model and the partnership culture. While a firm adopting the football model can be highly efficient and call on resources within the firm to solve problems and respond to crisis, there are also disadvantages.
The football model tends to organize by functional departments which may favor their departmental interests over those of the firm as a whole. This may limit their responsiveness to firm business development. Further, since marketing and delivering of firm services must overlap, law firms cannot realistically compartmentalize into rigidly sequential tasks.
Nor does this type of organization foster innovation. The coach (father figure/"boss") makes the decisions. And new types of problems arising for which there are not ready answers may fester, affecting the whole firm.
Though many large firms have moved from democracy to centralization of much decision-making, the football model with its assumption of stability may no longer be a viable structure for the increasingly mobile and vulnerable legal profession.
This model, based on basketball (and soccer) is flexible and called upon to adapt to quick changes. Individuals, stars or not, must interact, communicate and cooperate continually. Like a jazz combo, players switch rapidly from star to support roles. Decision-making is shared, and individual contributions are blurred to produce a team (or "institutional") outcome.
Author Robert W. Keidel of Game Plan: Sports Strategies for Business says that in the basketball model, planning and action are brought together. The planners and doers are peers, often multi-disciplinary, sharing information extensively and frequently. The business lingo for this model is "horizontally integrated."
In particular, this type of structure and culture is almost ideal for the marketing oriented firm. For one thing, everyone at all levels must understand the business, its objectives, capabilities and resources. They must appreciate that all personnel will benefit from the firm's success and new business brought in.
The necessary environment is one in which innovation is encouraged by interaction, access to information and stimulation of colleagues. There is opportunity for people at all levels to lead on some project and to advance their careers by achievement - shared as well as individual. Synergy, the combination of skills to generate better, is prevalent.
Efficient law firms are probably not suited to the pure basketball model, however, since it tends toward ambiguous structure and does not sharply differentiate the status of the player. Law firm culture traditionally has been based on clearly defined personal status, and lawyers are not likely to quickly abandon that mindset. In fact, if anything, they are adopting more levels of status as time goes on. Additionally, at a time when individuals and entire firms tend to be highly specialized, the basketball model places a premium on the bility of generalists.
Some variation or hybrid of sports models may be appropriate for the law firm of the 21st Century.
In his book, Robert Keidel defines four hybrid models. These come closer the governance structure required for a partnership which is both collegial and efficient.
Most law firms will have to change their structure gradually toward encouraging and adopting the above set of characteristics in the appropriate proportions to suit their cultures. Communications patterns and vehicles are often a wise first step. Change in physical location or office layout and design can also bring people together and modify perceptions of status and expected interaction.
Certainly top management must lead the way toward encouraging responsiveness, cooperation and teamwork, sharing of information and rewarding joint efforts. A firm culture which exhibits these characteristics has the basis for strengthening its marketing, retention and service delivery capabilities.
© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 1990.