In some committees, the shareholders/partners literally vote on matters within the law firm. And if there is no majority vote, no action can ultimately be taken on behalf of the law firm in many instances. These committees and votes can relate to important issues such as marketing, management, facilities, technology, financial issues and other important matters.
For those who like the idea of committees and votes within a law firm, they likely prefer this approach because it mirrors the idea of democracy — and a majority will carrying the day. In a lot of respects, this can make sense because it can make people feel involved. It can help ensure that folks feel as if they are a part of something, that they have a say, etc.
On the other hand, just like institutions of government, committees can get stuck in gridlock. On lots of issues, it might hard to forge a majority based on the size of the law firm. Even when a majority is forged, many might be upset that their view didn’t carry the day. This can result in divisions, alliances and various politicking within the law firm — when the point of many committees in the first place was to avoid rankor.
Decisions can often times require a lot of debate and take a long time as well. The inability to make decisions, or the delay in making decisions, can sometimes be really problematic in a lot of law firms.
The law firms that are able to act quickly and efficiently, while making prudent and wise decisions, can have a leg up on other law firms. With law firms that have lots of committees, it can be important to have procedures and policies in place to ensure these committees move expeditiously.
In other law firms, they might not opt to have committees in the first place. This is counter-intuitive to many, but Steve Jobs, from Apple, openly bragged about the lack of committees he had at Apple. Instead of having multiple committees, Jobs indicated that he had Apple organized as a start-up where one-person was in charge of a specific area within the company. The individuals in charge of these portions of the company would then meet regularly to discuss what they were doing, collaborate and bring it all together.
While the approach of Jobs didn’t take place within a law firm, his style is one that lots of law firms should at least consider. Not every law firm should run itself from the classical committee approach — without considering alternate possibilities. In many law firms, the committee process might slow things down and lead to more dissension.
So, if you are running a law firm, you should think long and hard about the role of committees in your law firm. Committees shouldn’t simply be a given.
If you have any thoughts, feel free to share them below.