Forget the network, go organic

I’ve always disliked the term ‘networking’. For me, a network conjures images of pipes or rails, conduits soullessly transporting stuff from one place to another. Networks have almost no resonance for complex interrelationships between living beings – the very heart of legal services.

Thinking about law firms – and their relationships with their work-givers – in organic terms has always made far more sense to me. So, rather than think about networks I like to think about organic systems, and how the law firm (entity, organism) might exist in a complex ecology consisting of other law firms, clients and non-clients.

It seems to me manifest that the law firm itself is better described in organic terms – as a collective entity perhaps – than a network. Each firm consists of differently-sized organisms (departments, groups, teams) with differing characteristics, all existing under the same environmental conditions but with very different needs and outputs.

These different components exist in a symbiotic relationship with one another, where degrees of dependency will vary; very often a function may not be strictly necessary, but may enhance the function of another part of the system.

Law firms are often subject to inorganic (network) thinking. A good example is having a single system for rewarding referrals. This will naturally discriminate, as one type of partner may have referral work coming out of their ears while another type of partner might have to work like mad to get them, and this will inevitably affect income and lead to accusations that certain partners are not “pulling their weight”.

This kind of thinking extends to all manner of other inputs and outputs – identical target hours across departments, the ‘firm rate’ for work whatever it happens to be, the same credit system for business development where different businesses work very differently – and keeps on going, until those whose work-type gifts them with the most opportunities get most reward and those who don’t, er, don’t.

Support teams tend to suffer grievously under this regime, notwithstanding the plain fact that the better your bells and whistles – commercial regulatory, tax, financial services – the better your core transactional practices will be.

Your corporate practice, for instance, probably has a symbiotic relationship with the tax team. The corporate team functions better when the tax team is happy and thriving, and the tax team would probably struggle without the corporate team. The workflow is almost always going to be in one direction, but how many firms have a bonus or appraisal system which reflects this asymmetry or accords the tax department the true value of its expertise?

Organic systems also provide not just for growth – you can do that with a network – but cultivation.

Some of the parlance has made its way into law firm thinking – it is quite common to hear about cultivating your clients, though I wonder how many clients feel nurtured. Think of them as you might a kitchen herb-garden – a thing of beauty and utility which rewards careful and consistent attention and which will go out of control and eventually die off if you neglect it.

Alumni are also worth cultivating. There may be obvious benefit of having a friendly leaver go in-house, but most associates and partners go to other law firms, and there can be – alas – some kind of grief when this happens, which often defies logic.

Applying the more sophisticated logic of diverse, symbiotic ecologies works here too. If a departing partner is going to a much bigger firm, they’re going to be able to do work they can’t do on your platform, and if you nurture the onward relationship, you’ll stand a good chance of pleasing your mutual clients and getting work the partner may not be able to do in their new firm.

Equally, if the partner is going to a smaller, perhaps cheaper firm, there’s no mileage in necessarily fighting them for what could quickly become unprofitable work; you’ll both lose. Much better to nurture that connection. For some really advanced thinking, there’s nothing more powerful than sending an associate you aren’t going to make partner into another situation with a guaranteed income-stream from clients where they have a good relationship.

If you’re still sceptical, remember that your alumni know you – the cornerstone of any successful referral. Make it a natural, even pleasant, thing to do, and everybody wins.

If you’re in law firm management, ask yourself: are you going to be more successful as a gardener, or an engineer? Cultivating or controlling? Tending or telling?

My advice, forget the network and go organic. You’ll be healthier for it, trust me.