The writers of the hit television series, The Good Wife, are onto something. Recently, Alicia Florrick and several senior associates left Lockhart & Gardner to form a new firm. They took a big client with them.
Art imitates life
One scene in particular is a reminder that fiction can reveal profound truth. Sitting in his office, Will Gardner concludes that Florrick and other former colleagues betrayed him just by leaving. He resolves that he’s going to get even by making his firm the biggest in the country: “I’m going to destroy the competition.”
Gardner wasn’t looking for a few talented attorneys who would serve particular client needs while enhancing the culture of his institution. He wasn’t seeking to shore up an area of lost expertise. He wasn’t even pursuing growth because it would benefit his firm financially. Rather, he wanted to preside over a big firm that would be significant – even intimidating – solely because of its bigness.
He instructed fellow partners to target rainmakers at other firms as potential lateral hires, announced the opening of a New York, and rolled out the firm’s new logo — “LG.” He wanted growth for the sake of growth. No other plan. No strategic vision. No institutional mission beyond getting bigger.
Real-life managing partners wouldn’t be so stupid, right?
Many large law firms are making news with their efforts to grow. This phenomenon is somewhat perplexing because law firm management consultants have reported for a long time that there are no economies of scale in the practice of law. In fact, they say, maintaining the infrastructure necessary to support growth pushes the bottom line the wrong way.
But in today’s no-growth era, many managing partners worry more about the top line. They want to acquire books of business through aggressive lateral hiring of other firms’ rainmakers and, in some cases, the ultimate lateral event – merger with another firm.
A path to where, exactly?
For the profession overall, the lateral hiring/merger craze is a zero-sum game. For individual firms asserting that clients somehow drive the process, it’s dubious at best.
“I’m pretty skeptical about the value these big mergers give to clients,” IBM’s general counsel, Robert Weber, said recently. “I don’t know why it’s better to use a bigger firm.” And that’s from a guy who spent 30 years at Jones Day — one of the biggest law firms in the country — before joining IBM seven years ago.
In The Good Wife, creating a big firm is part of Will Gardner’s personal vendetta. In the real world, vindictiveness isn’t the reason that most managing partners build bigger firms. But personal ego is often part of the equation. Many leaders see themselves as modern-day versions of Alexander the Great. The desire to stand atop an empire is irresistible.
In the coming weeks, Gardner will probably press ahead to create a large enterprise where name recognition alone confers an illusory prestige. Even if his fellow partners are inclined to question or, God forbid, disagree, they won’t speak up.
If Alicia Florrick were still there, she might have had the courage to challenge him. After all, she and Will had a steamy affair and her husband is now Illinois Governor-elect. But Alicia is gone and Will rules his firm with an iron fist, bare and unadorned with a velvet glove. At Lockhart & Gardner — as at many big firms – dissent is not a cherished partnership value.
There’s one more interesting aspect of Gardner’s battle cry. He hasn’t learned from his mistakes. In season two, Lockhart & Gardner merged with Derrick Bond’s Washington, DC firm. The clash of cultures and personalities nearly destroyed Gardner’s firm. Like all talented lawyers possessing the skill to distinguish away adverse precedent that doesn’t suit their current views, Gardner must think that this time will be different.
Luckily for him, Lockhart & Gardner is fictional. Notwithstanding his poor leadership decisions, the writers can craft a story line that will keep him and his firm going until the show’s ratings fall. Some real law firms won’t be as fortunate.