To manage or not to manage

As the first MBA for lawyers starts, Barbara Lantin looks at why the legal profession is signing up
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Not so long ago, anyone who tried to talk to a solicitor about the need for management skills would have been laughed out of court. Lawyers had to know the law, nothing else. Today the picture is very different. Most firms have a managing partner and most have at least mastered management buzzwords. A growing number take the matter even more seriously.

Stephen Mayson, a management consultant and professor of legal practice at Nottingham Law School, thinks there has been something of a sea change in lawyers' attitudes to management since the recession.

"When the economy is growing it is frankly difficult for lawyers not to make money and hard for them to see why good management is so important. The recession, combined with other changes such as legal aid franchising, has heightened awareness," he says.

Management embraces virtually everything other than the practice of law itself: finance, information technology, marketing, partnership matters, human resources and practice development. The well-run firm has systems for dealing with all these issues but the skills required are not intuitive and there are a number of means available for legal practices to acquire such expertise. Calling in management consultants is one well-trodden path. The advantage is that consultants can tailor a package of training and strategies for each firm. Also, they may identify areas of weakness of which the practice itself is unaware. It is quite common, says Ian Harvey of BDO Stoy Hayward Consulting, for his team to end up taking on a much more fundamental issue than that which prompted the initial inquiry.

"We may be called in to advise on information technology, for example. When we ask questions it turns out that the firm wants more information in order to run the practice better. It realises it doesn't have a strategy at all and we start by going right back to basic long-term business planning.

"We try to give the firm practical methods to help them do what they do rather better. The prompt is almost invariably the need to increase `per partner' profitability. Firms of all sizes are realising that with increased competition they need to make better use of their resources, particularly human resources. Too many firms are working without clearly defined targets."

Rather than summoning outsiders to help solve management problems, some firms send one or more of their insiders out. Before Jonathan Tatten took up the reins as managing partner of the City firm Denton Hall two years ago, he joined the advanced management programme at Harvard Business School. The four-month course, aimed at chief executives in companies with a turnover of more than $100m, cost around $45,000. What did Mr Tatten think he had gained?

"It was a terribly good exercise, being forced to think like a businessman instead of living and breathing law, law, law all day. Above all it taught me to have the courage of my convictions. Becoming the full-time managing partner was frightening and would have been more so had the course not given me the confidence to do it. It taught me that there is no great mystery to management."

Mr Tatten does not think the course has changed his management style - for the previous three years he had run Denton Hall's litigation department while retaining a full caseload. It has, however, made him more aware of the need for management training at a senior level and he has instituted a programme for the 12 work group heads at the firm.

His main criticism of the course is that it offered little to those working in service industries in general and the law in particular. "It was rather too broad in content and it involved a constant translation exercise. For example, the finance element was based on American accounting standards and profit and loss accounts. I would have preferred a course more oriented towards professional firms if not solely to lawyers."

Had Mr Tatten been moving into management now, such an option would have been open to him as the country's first MBA in legal practice starts at Nottingham Law School. The two-year course is aimed at those involved in the management of legal practices and departments. Of the 38 who have enrolled, around a third are managing or senior partners and five are in commerce and industry. There are representatives of every kind of firm from international and City practices to those with two or three partners. The course is built around eight modules each involving an intensive residential weekend and some 80 hours of private study and project work.

At £4,850 a year the cost compares favourably with that of generic MBAs and, says its architect, Stephen Mayson, it should prove considerably more useful to lawyers.

"Our founding principle is that we see a difference between management of professional firms and management in industry and commerce. What I hear from talking to lawyers who have taken an MBA is that they have found it enormously valuable but have had to work hard to apply the principles they have learnt to professional firms in general and law firms in particular. We shall be taking the basic elements of an MBA course and giving them a specific legal focus.

"For example, the marketing module on a generic MBA course might ask students to outline the steps they would take to launch a new product for ICI or IBM. There will be a lot in there which is totally irrelevant to lawyers. Our case study might ask them to promote a new service their firm is introducing so that they can go back to their offices and immediately use what they have learnt."

Mr Mayson believes that the lessons learnt in this way are more likely to filter down through a legal practice than if they had beep imposed from outside by consultants. However, he does not see the two forms of management training as mutually exclusive. "The old distinction between consultants and training is breaking down. Whereas consultants used to come in and tell firms what to do, they now help them to help themselves. Although doing the MBA in legal practice will help students to carry out some jobs that might have been done by consultants, I don't think it will stop them using outside experts altogether. In fact, it may make them better buyers of consultants, because they will understand the issues more clearly."

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