In a study conducted last fall of managing partners, general counsel, and other legal leaders, Altman Weil identified five key market trends and critical concerns.  It noted that people management was one of the highest priorities on everyone’s list, with one partner saying that he goes to sleep "never knowing who might be leaving tomorrow."  The limited pool of quality law graduates, the "free-agent mentality" of lawyers from new associates to rainmakers, Gen-Xers emphasizing work-life balance and achieving diversity were all cited as challenges to people management by this august group. 

To my mind, the other four critical areas identified– growth, competition, client service and even pricing– are also each dependent on achieving effective people management.  Growth requires wrestling with "cultural, office and practice integration," competition is felt most dramatically in the "war for talent," with quality people, superior client service skills and strong training and development programs giving firms the competitive edge.   Client service requires superior communication and relationship, among other, skills, and "improved project staffing." (See our entry today on KPMG’s success with their staffing model.)  Even pricing is acknowledged as a function of the quality of a firm’s work and service– which general counsel have consistently linked to people skills.  (See our entries Do You Know Why You Were Fired? dated November 8, 2005 and Companies Unhappy with Their Law Firms dated December 20, 2006.)

So why do law firms and law departments not take advantage of the extensive body of expertise available on hiring, retaining, developing and motivating people?  Maybe, as David Maister has suggested, it is the herd instinct that keeps them from going for the glory– rather go down as a group than risk a "new-fangled" approach.  Interestingly enough, that is what our psychological profiles of lawyers tell us– that they are risk-averse, often low in resilience, optimism, and emotional intelligence, all of which has helped mire them in an 18th-century business model. 

Here’s the question– which firms will be the real leaders, the ones who actually take the out-of-the-legal-box steps toward addressing these critical people management areas?  Because there seems to be a consensus that that is the only effective way forward.