Maintaining a Culture of Collaboration

From The Practice September/October 2015
The growth of Duane Morris in uncertain times

In the case study “Collaborating for Growth: Duane Morris in a Turbulent Legal Sector,” Heidi Gardner and Annelena Lobb examine whether the collaborative culture and structures developed by the law firm Duane Morris can survive in the midst of a unstable world economy and an increasingly cutthroat and bottom line–driven legal profession.

Duane Morris was founded in 1904 in Philadelphia and for decades had very few lawyers outside of the immediate metropolitan area. That all changed in 1997, when Sheldon Bonovitz became chairman of the firm. Over the subsequent decade, the firm opened offices in nine cities across America and grew from approximately 200 lawyers to more than 650. in 2009 the firm passed the 700-lawyer mark, having nearly tripled in size from the previous decades. It expanded to cities across the United States and began opening offices internationally.

As the firm grew and took on increasingly sophisticated legal work, its success hinged on its ability to combine its lawyers’ diverse expertise. To do this, the firm developed strong cultural norms and values and produced formalized systems that emphasized collaboration and consensus building over individualism and segmentation. For instance, the firm developed an innovative financial reporting and analysis tool—a quantitative system that calculates profitability by client, matter or individual attorney. Used to help determine compensation, and unlike methods typically used in law firms that track hours billed, the Duane Morris system was geared to reflect individual profitability.

What is a case study?

A case study is an educational tool that allows students to analyze a factual situation confronting an individual or organization. Case studies, which are historically accurate, address topics such as the evolution of an organization’s business model, cooperation within teams, a corporate lawyer navigating his or her turbulent career, or a difficult merger between two law firms. Cases are not meant to provide definitive answers but instead to show multiple points of view and to highlight the complexities and ambiguities of particular situations.

In addition to rethinking how compensation is calculated, the firm also developed innovative methods for recruitment and for onboarding and integrating new lawyers to maintain the firm’s culture and values in the context of growth. These tactics were particularly important as 70 percent of new-partner candidates came through external recruiters. The best candidates were collegial, task-oriented team players. According to the firm’s director of legal recruitment, “We don’t have 100 percent hiring success, but everyone, including the lateral and everyone else at the firm, did the very best they could to get this person integrated.” At the end of the day, the goal was to develop and maintain a culture and systems that promoted collaboration and trust among Duane Morris lawyers. That was the path toward client service, growth and ultimately profitability.

Does this sound too good to be true? Take the global financial crisis that sent shockwaves across virtually every industry and profession, and insert it into the middle of Duane Morris’ rapid growth and expansion. Add to that the ongoing shifts to the legal services market brought on by globalization, law firm consolidations (and failures) and huge increases in lawyer mobility, and one has the recipe for a perfect storm—the underlying strategy of “success through collaboration” was being challenged from all angles.

The Duane Morris case reveals a number of ways that collaboration might become increasingly difficult, even in a firm in which the lawyers have historically worked well together. However, the case also suggests ways in which a firm might foster collaboration among its colleagues.

It is from that context that this case study pushes one to think about the challenges of fostering collaboration among highly skilled, autonomous workers who must work together to grow their business while facing incredible outside competitive pressures. Among the questions one is pressed to consider:

  • What factors led to Duane Morris’ success? What challenges is its model likely to encounter?
  • How was the firm able to maintain culture and its emphasis on collaboration as the firm grew and exogenous pressures arose?
  • How transferable are its models to other firms?
  • Would the firm’s culture help it continue to grow in the years ahead and bring in more-sophisticated legal work, or would its lawyers inevitably start to keep work to themselves as the firm navigated an ever-more competitive environment?


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