The Emergence of the C-Suite

Today’s law firm looking to achieve a more business-like operation is often replicating many of the senior officers that businesses have, setting up or bulking up a C-Suite.  In addition to a Managing Partner or CEO, there may well be a Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Marketing or Business Development Officer, and Chief Human Resources Officer.   Larger firms also may include in their C-Suite a Chief Strategy Officer, Chief Value or Pricing Officer, Chief Diversity Officer, and Chief Talent Officer.

But how does a firm manage this plethora of C-Suite positions so as to achieve maximum productivity and profitability?

Silos as Usual or Collaboration?

In her blog “Is Your C-Suite Siloed or Collaborative?”, commentator Susan Saltonstall Duncan, president and founder of Rainmaking Oasis, noted that “many in the c-suite often are too busy managing their own departments to spend time and attention strategizing or even communicating with their peers who run other departments in the firm. As a result, c-suite executives in firms often mimic the type of silo culture that partners, practice groups and offices often operate in.”

She cites studies that have found siloed management impedes growth, collaboration and innovation, and that emphasize the importance of C-Suite leaders collaborating “across business lines and organizational boundaries as key to unlocking hidden talent, identifying new opportunities and exploiting their companies’ innovation potential.”  An HBR article entitled “The First Two Steps Toward Breaking Down Silos in Your Organization” reports that “When we ask executives, What is the number one innovation killer at your company?, one of the first words we always hear, always, is ‘silos!’ ”

Saltonstall Duncan recommends the following steps for firms wanting to better collaborate:

  1. Establish a Firm-wide Culture of Collaboration
  2. Communicate Transparently and Often
  3. Take Advantage of Collaborative Technologies
  4. Establish Cross-Department Task Forces and Mentoring
  5. Measure and Reward Collaboration
  6. Celebrate Collaborative Successes

The Geography of Collaboration

One way to promote cross-department communication lies in the physical layout of offices, including those C-Suite offices. Steelcase made a study of corporate workspace geography and culture in 11 countries, and reported the results in “How Culture Shapes the Office” in the May 2013 Harvard Business Review.  Some of their conclusions may be relevant to increasing collaboration in our law firm and law departments.

For example, the study noted that more traditional countries like China, India, Russia and Morocco are extremely hierarchical, keep lower-level employee offices small and provide for minimal sharing of space. The “autocratic” layouts of Russian companies are noted for producing “minimal communication and collaboration.”  This actually sounds like the law firms of 30 years ago and perhaps like some still today.  Senior partners have large corner offices, young associates share small spaces, departments are segregated and there are few locations or opportunities for various teams and departments to meet together.

More progressive countries, like the U.S., UK, Germany and the Netherlands, according to the study, allow for sharing of spaces by all levels of employees and liberal use of off-site “hotel” space and telecommuting.  The Netherlands is noted for having a “feminine” office layout that promotes cooperation and harmony through fluid spaces that allow everyone to easily move in and out and that encourage equality and communication.

The U.S. has a focus on fast returns and minimizing investments, so spaces often “allow for quick toggling between individual and group work.”  While Google and other more progressive corporations in the U.S. are best known for such innovative layouts, most modern law firms and law departments are at best reflecting the “insurance company” layout of a couple of decades ago that features cubicles, theoretically to allow for layout flexibility and increase above-the-partition discussions.

If innovation is one of your goals, hopefully cubicles are mostly a thing of the past.  Recent research reported in the Harvard Business Review found that people who literally “thought outside the box”, that is, “who sat just outside a 5’x5′ cardboard and plastic cube–got 32% more correct answers on a test involving verbal creativity than did subjects seated inside the cube.”

When it comes to C-Suite geography, we know that centralized meeting space surrounded by open executive offices encourages the most communication among senior executives, and allows for meetings of outlying groups, and easy participation in those meetings by senior executives from other departments.  See our July 16, 2012 entry entitled “The Politics of Place: Where’s Your Office?” for a review of both standard corporate and more innovative trends in office geography.

The size of the firm can effect the desirability of such a layout.  If the senior group is in the center of a floor (contrary to the usual widely-dispersed window-side locations), offices radiating from that central core have easy access to all of the relevant decision makers. Having an entire floor devoted to this version obviously raises the issue of how leaders interact with the rest of their teams and monitor their compliance, and effectively requires more departmental meetings and clear communication, not such a bad mandate.  This layout also offers experience in leading the troops to those waiting in succession.

The location of elevator banks and the dispersal of departments and amenities along the various floors and banks is also crucial in assuring collaboration within the firm. Elevators either mark a barrier to increased collaboration, or create an opportunity to mix expertise and attitudes. (See our experience with one firm and their elevators.)

Smaller Can Be Better

Space is one of the more significant expenses that a law firm incurs–profitability can often be traced to when and at what rate space was obtained.  So it’s not surprising that in the current tight legal market, firms have worked to reduce their office costs, either by renegotiating leases or reducing their space.   Steve Martin, a Principal at Gensler, an architectural and design firm that does work for a number of law firms, recently confirmed that the space law firms are using is decreasing, in some cases dramatically.  Clearspire, an innovative firm on the legal delivery front–“Clearspire has reimagined everything a law firm can be.  And brought it to life with highly innovative business practices and technology.”– has 5500 square feet for 45 lawyers in its Washington DC office, compared to what according to Martin would normally be 30,000 square feet.

In one of its brochures reflecting attorney input, Gensler contends that “law firms are facing what corporate America has been experiencing for years–finding that to successfully compete, they have to change” and, to do so, Gensler promotes “a purposeful approach to collaboration.”  While “for attorneys… work will still largely happen in private offices, these offices will evolve to be more nimble and more virtually connected… more flexible and multi-purpose… in an effort to bring dispersed groups together and foster… impromptu collaboration.”

Regardless of how large or hierarchical your firm is, or how much you reduce rental expense, your culture and office geography can work together to shape a more collaborative future.