Law: An English lawyer abroad: Jonathan Tatten was a rare breed at Harvard Business School. He tells Sharon Wallach how he managed
Friday 12 February 1993
Mr Tatten has recently taken over as managing partner at the City firm Denton Hall Burgin & Warrens. He believes that he is only the second English lawyer to have attended the Harvard programme, widely considered to be the premier management course. It is intended for top executives of companies worldwide with a turnover of more than dollars 100m. Few US lawyers undertake the course, either; they do not take management seriously because they are so rich, Mr Tatten says.
The 11-week course is expensive and tough. Advance preparation includes acquiring knowledge of American accounting standards (the Law Society accounts requirements are tame by comparison, in Mr Tatten's view) and of speed reading. The latter makes sense when you are considering a work programme covering up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Course participants are immured for the duration, inhabiting spartan cells dominated by personal computers, with tunnels connecting to lecture and dining rooms.
Mr Tatten thinks the school takes itself far too seriously. 'It's a very arrogant institution and enormously rich. It is also male dominated at all levels.'
Naturally, the ambiance is American and so are the teaching methods. 'They used case studies that we studied privately and then discussed in class,' Mr Tatten says. It sounds fine in theory but in practice was 'utterly frustrating'.
'You found the same people speaking again and again, and they were not obviously those with the greatest experience or wisdom.' The views of the group leaders, largely world-renowned figures, remained unheard, as they guided the discussion rather than taught. He says he gained more from reading the course books.
Criticisms aside, he none the less learnt a lot. 'I am thinking and doing things quite differently from before,' he says. 'Harvard teaches you to consider a much broader canvas.'
He has recognised that the wealth of the legal profession in this country depends on the economy, and if the economy continues to be badly managed, the profession will suffer. 'The course has underlined for me how important it is for a law firm to be international and not to think parochially. More of the country's gross national product is now concentrated on the services industry and on investing this country's wealth abroad. At the corporate level, we have to think internationally, and we must export legal services.'
How has the Harvard experience shaped Jonathan Tatten's plans for Denton Hall? 'I am very keen to put in place a properly considered quality programme,' he says. 'I am convinced that you have to have quality at the top of the agenda. And technology should be a strategic cornerstone of the practice, particularly in view of the revolution in information technology that is just round the corner. Both will radically alter the way we compete.'
Quality, says Mr Tatten, primarily means giving the client what he or she wants - not what the lawyer thinks the client wants. 'The profession has been arrogant; we have tended to dictate and to say, a bit like doctors, we know what's best,' Mr Tatten says.
'But the world is changing, clients are smarter and they know what they want. They want the best, which is defined by their perceptions of what our competitors offer, at a price consistent with their perception of value, not ours.'
The firms that learn the new rules the fastest will be the best able to compete. This will involve identifying new products and services and re-examining issues such as speed of response and cheapness in existing services. 'To devise new products, you have to be good at learning,' he says. At the moment, City law firms are a cosy fraternity, he adds, with no real incentive to pioneer.
He predicts an exciting future in which, by the time firms get round to copying others, it will be too late. The gloves are off already, with 'serious underpricing already going on'. But in his view, this is not a sound long-term pricing strategy. 'It could drive legal services down to commodity status, when no one will win, least of all the client.'
Mr Tatten's agenda for a review of the firm includes sensitive issues such as partners' remuneration. A good system stops partners becoming introspective and, he says, reflects the values the firm is trying to bring out in people. Another important issue is a good career structure for fee-earners, as partnership prospects grow ever dimmer. Mr Tatten would likemore staff to be involved in profit-sharing, though he stresses that at this stage it is just an idea.
'Our way of competing will be quite different from others',' he says. 'I'm not yet sure what the answers are. I have given myself eight months to find the right way for us.'
Mr Tatten, who has been a litigation partner at Denton Hall since 1983, would like to be the last partner to manage the firm. 'I hope it will see the sense of having a professional manager,' he says. 'For one thing, it is very expensive for me to do it.'
The firm did employ a professional manager seven years ago - a pioneering experiment that lasted only two years. But one problem then, as now, was the combination of the anarchic nature of a collection of partners and the lack of status, and therefore of authority, of a non-lawyer. Until the Law Society allows partnerships between solicitors and other professionals, the non- lawyers will continue to be treated as second-class citizens.
'I suspect the day will come when multi-disciplinary partnerships will have to be allowed,' Mr Tatten says. 'Added value means new services, including those of other disciplines. The cornerstone of our business must be that if the client wants it, we have to offer it.'
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