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Lessons from Loss
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Lessons from Loss

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Keeva on Life and Practice

Lessons from Loss

Nov 12, 2004, 11:43 am CST

“Partnerships are very precious.”

“When you think solely about the amount of money you make, you can die by that metric as well.”

“If you don’t speak up for what you value, it may disappear from one day to the next.” These are a few of the conclusions that Harvard researcher Paula Marshall reached in the course of writing “Facing the Storm: The Closing of a Great Firm.” It’s an article about the last days of the venerable Boston law firm of Hill & Barlow, which shut down in December 2002 after 107 years of operation.

Marshall wrote the piece in the course of her work as a project manager for the Good Work Project, an ongoing effort piloted by three world-renowned social scientists to study individuals and institutions that exemplify what they define as “good work.” Such work must be excellent in quality, socially responsible and generally in sync with the values of their communities and stakeholders.

“At Hill & Barlow most of the lawyers held on for an unusually long time to the ideals of their firm, rather than being dominated by the business mindset that was overwhelming the practice of law,” Mar­shall says. Indeed, right up until the mid-’80s the firm could boast that it had never had a partner leave for another downtown firm.

After so many years of being the very model of collegi­ality--a deep source of pride to partners--facing certain market-driven realities was particularly difficult.

“For quite a while the law was half-business,” Marshall says. “But now it’s a business that happens to be a profession. The danger of that is to the profession, but also to our society as a whole, because the law is the infrastructure of our democracy. If the market overtakes all other values, we’re in real trouble.”

The market certainly played a role in Hill & Barlow’s final years. This became most apparent in the well-reported story that the lucrative, 23-lawyer-strong real estate group decided to leave the firm en masse. Although that defection was cast in the spotlight, Marshall makes it clear in “Facing the Storm” that the troubles began long before that, when lawyers devoted to the bottom line began to clash with those devoted to the old ideal. In years past, lawyers at the firm understood they were not the highest paid in the city, and, as Marshall puts it, their badge of honor was quality of life, excellent law­yering and conviviality.

As the firm’s ethos slowly shifted, Marshall writes, new alliances were made and loyalties reconfigured until “H&B became a firm faced with discordant expectations.” Some partners were eager to earn more money; others were deeply disappointed at the firm’s changing goals.

Those lured by money began to leave, and those left behind sought to increase profits--in one case firing four partners. By the time the real estate group left, on Dec. 6, 2002, the remaining lawyers were demoralized and unsure of the firm’s continuing viability. They were foun­dering, lashed by a perfect storm.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

For an institution to survive the changes in the economy and in the practice of law, Marshall says, “The collective goals and values of the veterans and the young partners need to be in sync. At H&B they ultimately were not.”

Now take a look at Marshall’s comments, in quotes, at the top of this piece, each a heartfelt lesson that she took from the H&B experience.

1. Why are partnerships precious? “They contain a huge amount of insti­tutional history, lore, knowledge and skill,” says Marshall. “When a partner­ship disintegrates, all that disappears. Of course not all partnerships are meant to last 107 years, but all the lawyers I interviewed recognized H&B’s best qualities-- and now it’s gone, and with it went some of the ideals of what a good lawyer could expect from a practice.”

2. “When you think solely about the amount of money you make, you can die by that metric as well.” So many lawyers in these cash-and-carry times, particularly in large law firms, see themselves as merely renting space and a telephone from the firm that bids highest for their services. That may not actually kill anyone, but it sure can cause parts of you to wither.

3. “If you don’t speak up for what you value, it may dis­appear from one day to the next.” In the course of interviewing H&B lawyers for “Facing the Storm,” Marshall came upon something that surprised her: a strong sense of passivity. It became clear when partners told her that they should have done more to help keep the ship afloat but never chose to step forward.

I wish I could say that such passivity, even among superb, caring lawyers, is unusual. In fact, I think it’s rather common, particularly in the face of quality-of-life issues. In such situations, professionals who can artfully negotiate a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars or put together hugely complex IPOs simply cannot cope with asking for something that would make their lives easier. I’ve seen it again and again. In fact, I’m going to look at that phenomenon next month.

To read “Facing the Storm,” go to this Web page: www.goodworkproject.org/papers.htm.

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