As we continue to see law firms fail, and dramatic efforts at restructuring continue at a heady pace, market analysts can’t help but look for a common denominator. Is there a quantifiable predictor of tomorrow’s troubled law firm?

While a number of things can push a firm into a transition mode, there seems to be at least one universal theme. Firms that wrestle with the most traumatic forms of transition once consisted of a group of professionals who found joy and satisfaction in working together, but today, to some degree, that joy and satisfaction is gone.

It may be a loss of confidence in the direction in which the firm is headed, diminished trust in leadership, or just an overall degradation of the pleasure that once came from sharing one another’s professional pursuits.

Repeatedly we see instances where leaders talk of their firm being a cohesive group with everyone committed to growing a firm together.

That’s what we hear.

But what we see is a key partner’s departure one day, the loss of a group the next…… A year later a floor is empty or an entire office closes. And before we realize what has been happening, a once committed partnership finds itself in bankruptcy court.

Admittedly there are economic and industry variables that contribute to the trouble. But it is almost always the case that to the degree that enthusiasm and joy of yesteryear is absent, the firm is at risk.

Is it possible to spot early warning signs? Can the leadership of a law firm monitor a partnership’s feelings?

We believe it is possible to spot the signs of diminished joy and impending trouble. And more to the point…there is something you can do about it.

How To Know

Most law firm leaders feel as though they are “in touch”, and have a finger on the pulse of their organization. Unfortunately, many are sadly mistaken. Follow these steps, and you have a shot at eliminating some of the blind spots and surprises:

  • Make it a routine to query individuals that are representative of segments of the firm. It isn’t easy; but if you’ll make it a habit to communicate often and listen hard, you’ll hear about feelings — personal as well as individual perceptions of the institutional feelings. (Warning: try faking your way through this and those who are most unhappy will spot the insincerity a mile away.)
  • Conduct a confidential survey of the organization periodically. The survey should be short, structured by professionals, and shed light on issues that are of significance to stakeholders of the firm.
  • Involve an outside perspective. The occasional use of independent facilitators at firm events can be a very effective tool in identifying areas of concern, and probing issues of importance to firm members.

What To Do With What You Learn

In order to get to the heart of the matter, you have to go deeper than simply spotting the fact that you have an issue. Addressing concerns in a way that makes a substantial difference requires that the driving force behind the concern or dissatisfaction be dealt with.

Using a drill down method for discovery will typically lead firm leadership to the center of the issue(s) being faced. Once again independent outside resources can be of great value in discovering what is at the center of any trouble that might be brewing.

Don’t wait until the joy is gone. Take steps today, and preserve all of the positives that brought your firm together in the first place.