When individuality is not all its cracked up to be

8 01 2010

It’s great to be an individual, right? Creativity, expression, setting yourself apart? We celebrate these things in many areas of society, but in the business world, it’s not always so straightforward. Take law firms for example; individuality can help drive the creative streak of the business to break the mould. It’s pretty difficult to stand out as a law firm (take a look at a few websites to see what I mean!) and similarly (particularly in some larger firms) difficult to stand out as a lawyer. Individuality at firm or personal level can help you stand out and be distinctive, and when you think about the practice of law, there are many ways to do it. You can be super pragmatic, and just get things done, you be a technical master, whose contract drafting is a work of art, a master negotiator who gets clients a great deal, a tenacious litigator who fights to the death for clients; the list goes on. It’s very much horses for courses, but the point is, the law as a discipline and a career does offer opportunities for individuality, and many people and organisations don’t make full use of that.

What's up punk?

The flip side of the coin, the yang to the yin of individuality, is the need for consistency and a common approach. If a client engages with a particular law firm, while there will of course be variations between lawyers and work types, the firm will have a particular theme or ethos. If a lawyer is so individual that they regularly act outside these cultural norms, how can the client know what to expect from the firm? And therein lies the challenge for management. Lawyers are notoriously independent thinkers, and getting any sort of conformity to a particular practice or approach can be very difficult. This can be the case, no matter how compelling the reason for implementing a particular practice or following an approach. Consistency and conformity also have benefits; it may be standardisation reduces costs (translate into “higher margins” to make that seem more appealing), it maybe it gives more consistent quality, but if lawyers, and particularly partners, don’t play ball, dark clouds may gather.

Ok, so it maybe change management 101, but for the New Year, have a think about where you and your business (whether lawyers or not) fit on the continuum of individuality to conformity, and think about the pros and cons, it maybe there are some you hadn’t thought of.

Have a great 2010.


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4 responses

19 01 2010
Robert Breedon

This is very interesting and thought provoking. I am not sure I can point to the solution to the management challenge – indeed there is no right answer. It depends on the type of firm that the management wish to develop.

Perhaps that’s why I have opted for life as a sole practitioner! I always stay within the firm’s rules which allow for my individuality.

Some good food for thought here for assistant lawyers and managers.

Robert

21 01 2010
intelligentchallenge

I think one of the key points you raise, is the role of management, and an observation I’d make is that often it’s not clear who the management are. Yes, the board/partnership committee or other elective body are management, and often team leaders, practice heads etc fit comfortably within that label, but often much of the day to day management (particularly of junior lawyers) maybe done by others who are neither labelled as managers, think of themselves as managers, or indeed have much management training. Contrast that with many of the large accountancy firms, where often the first job title in an audit team where a junior accountant moves up to the first rung after qualification (and starts managing trainees) is called “audit manager” or something similar. That said, I’m sure there are many accountants who would argue that their profession hasn’t yet cracked the connundrum of individuality v consistency, so the hunt for answers can go on!

4 02 2010
Anna Cook

The other alternative of course is to work at a firm in which independent thinking is prized! This means that everyone can concentrate on the difficult stuff: ensuring that the clients get exactly the right services from the right people. I am not sure that consistency is prized because the lawyers have been moulded in the same way: when clients of mine have commented on consistency, they seem to be addressing whether the lawyers across the firm are knowledgeable about them and also the work that has been done by the firm on their behalf.

4 02 2010
intelligentchallenge

Thanks for the comment Anna. The firms where individuality is prized are an interesting case in point. Offering autonomy and the ability to really focus on service delivery. They do then create another challenge, which is how to communicate this to clients, and how to position these firms in the market, when the lawyers may have very different approaches to creating client value.

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