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Leadership in Law Firms: Hidden Hierarchies
Harvard Law School | The Case Studies is happy to announce a brand new case study based on the exciting research conducted by Professor Laura Empson on leadership in professional service firms. Read more about the case study below, and check out the Allen & Overy (A) and (B) case study product pages.
Post by Professor Laura Empson of Cass Business School and Senior Research Fellow in the Center on the Legal Profession, Harvard Law School
What inspired the case?
I won a major grant from the UK government in 2009 to study leadership dynamics in professional service firms. In professional service firms, concepts such as ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ don’t necessarily make much sense. Traditional hierarchical power dynamics are replaced by more ambiguous and negotiated relationships amongst professional peers. As a result, leading professionals is phenomenally difficult, yet there is very little rigorous academic research into this phenomenon. So I won funding to study leadership dynamics across a range of professional firms and I am now writing a book based on this research.
David Morley, Senior Partner, heard me present my ideas at an event I was organizing at the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School in London. He came up to me immediately afterwards and said: “We want you to study us”.
What challenges and opportunities did the research process present?
The leadership of Allen & Overy gave me fantastic access to interview their partners and consult their records. Partners trusted me sufficiently to talk really freely. Yet I found the research process tremendously difficult. I have been studying professional service firms for over 20 years but I really struggled to make sense of what I was hearing – things seemed to be so confused and unclear. Then I realized that this lack of clarity, this ambiguity, was my key research finding. The leadership dynamics didn’t make much sense to an outsider because they were so ill-defined and informal, but they made absolute sense to the people who were embedded within them.
What is the case really about?
The case has two themes embedded within it: constructing ambiguity and navigating ambiguity. It shows how an extended leadership group of about 30 people can work together through a process of “intuitive mutual adjustment”, which enables them to function very effectively within a profoundly ambiguous authority structure. When they are confronted with the global banking crisis of 2008, the leadership realise they will have to substantially reduce the size of the partnership. The firm has never done anything like this before and the leadership has no authority to do this. The case maps the process the leaders follow over a five month period, to identify colleagues to be “culled” and to persuade the partnership to accept their decision.
What are the major takeaways in the case?
First, the case encourages students to question some of their fundamental assumptions about leadership, power, and governance in partnerships. Management text books and business schools emphasise the importance of creating clarity around roles, responsibilities, and reporting lines. The case explains how, under certain conditions, clarity may not be necessary. It emphasises how individuals with the interpersonal skills to understand and navigate an ambiguous authority structure can exercise considerable informal power.
Second, the case explains how it is possible for leaders of partnerships to take action when they lack the authority to do so. In Allen & Overy the partnership restructuring is made possible because the leaders are able to mobilise the hidden hierarchy within the firm. Students are encouraged to consider the hidden hierarchy within their firms. Are they part of it? If so, how do they mobilise it? If not, how do they join it?
How did the students react to the case?
The first time it was taught at the Leadership for Lawyers course at Harvard Law School a couple of Allen & Overy partners happened to be attending the course. They loved the case, which is great because a law firm’s rank-and-file partners will always be a case study’s toughest critics.
Professor Laura Empson is Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School and Senior Research Fellow in the Center on the Legal Profession, Harvard Law School.