Old Ways, New Means

Powdered wigs aside, law firms have long been keepers of antiquated traditions. Lawyers are among the only professionals to still bill by the hour, to strictly enforce corporate hierarchies, and, tragically, to still wear ties to the office. They also cling to outdated business models: thousand-lawyer global firms are administered by managing partners, not professional CEOs, and sometimes calamity ensues. Enter the executive education program.

cats

If only.

Executive programs for lawyers, which cover skills from understanding a corporate client’s industry to managing a law firm as a business, are being assembled at schools from Harvard University to IMD, a Swiss business school. Storied Boston firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, LLP, is working with Northeastern University to develop something similar.

The movement is partly a response to economic pressures, in which corporate clients expect more and pay less, and partly a long-overdue restructuring of a basic business model. American law firms have operated in much the same way since the 18th century, with the most senior attorney handling both the legal and business ends of the organization. Complicated global firms, which are themselves multi-national corporations, have made this model difficult to sustain.

Programs like Harvard’s are a response to the new terrain firms find themselves in. And so once-hallowed halls are defiled (though at least by Harvard), and where once men wore pocket watches and discussed questions of Constitutional importance, now there are PowerPoints and conference calls about market segmentation, development pipelines, and all the rest. The firms are adapting, slower than most but rapidly by their own standards, and in many ways it’s a shame, but such is progress.

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