A wheelbarrow of frogs

The recent stories of senior City partners and their expenses are not very instructive, although perhaps we should not be so surprised – either at their behaviour or the reaction of their fellow partners. Lawyers are imperfect at the best of times.

What is far more interesting is what this says about managing partner risk in professional service firms, and in particular in law firms (we don’t share quite the same world view as accountants, architects and others).

The crux of the problem is the tension between a firm’s need to manage its partners and the fact that they are “highly educated individuals who require a large degree of autonomy and discretion to be able deliver very personal and highly tailored services to clients” – the quotation is from Too Many Chiefs, a study on decision making in professional service firms by Tim Morris, Professor of Management Studies at Oxford’s Säid Business School.

The problem with autonomy and discretion is not just the sense of ownership entitlement that so often accompanies them, but the risk of partners pushing boundaries when they can (and when they actually see them!). And to compound the problem, this type of behaviour is often culturally acceptable to fellow partners.

And going back to the expenses stories, don’t miss the on-line comments: I particularly liked this from Anonymous on the report in The Lawyer on Hogan Lovell and the allegedly errant Christopher Grierson,

The way that this has been dealt with, and the fact that the police have still not been involved, has simply confirmed my view of City firms as moral vacuums dominated by sociopaths.

I am not sure about the moral vacuum bit, but that anonymous commentator must surely have been reading a 2009 post by Venkatesh Rao (Venkat) in ribbonfarm.com, The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”, in which he identifies the “sociopath” layer as comprising ‘the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself’ and then states the Gervais Principle,

The Gervais Principle is this: Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

So now you know.

And why a wheelbarrow of frogs? I once heard Nigel Knowles describe managing his partners as akin to pushing a wheelbarrow of frogs uphill in the rain.

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