Yesterday, the Harvard Business School named its new dean.
According to the Wall Street Journal (May 5, 2010, p. B9), Professor Nitin Nohria says “his focus will be on business ethics, a cause he has long championed, particularly during the financial crisis. He has also been a vocal critic of management education and the leaders it produces.”
What does that have to do with the legal topics that usually occupy this space?
As the Great Recession deepened, Nohria and a colleague wrote that management should become a profession, complete with a code of ethics similar to that for lawyers. (“It’s Time To Make Management a True Profession,” Harvard Business Review, October 2008) Nohria wants to move business leaders away from a myopic focus on maximizing shareholder value toward a broader social vision of their roles as institutional custodians and citizens. Looking to the legal profession as a model, he hopes to restore legitmacy lost over the last decade.
Maybe he has Atticus Finch in mind. Sadly, Finch is a fictional character. It’s too late for the most lucrative and influential segment of the profession to help him.
The tide has already taken most of biglaw out to sea in the direction he seeks to reverse. Following their corporate clients’ examples, firm leaders have embraced an MBA-mentality. Increasingly over the past 20 years, large law firm managers themselves have MBAs and have relied on business-school metrics — billable hours, leverage ratios, and profits-per-partner — to dictate decisions that shape the culture of such places.
How that happened and the unfortunate behavior that adherence to such deceptively objective metrics can produce are subjects for another day (and the novel I just published — The Partnership.
For now, the point is this: If Dean Nohria is looking for a new model of something that is a profession, rather than a collection of bottom-line businesses where MBA-type metrics set the tone, he’ll have to look elsewhere.
Does anyone have any candidates?