Old men and trees: partners as guardians of the future

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit”.

Dan Kayne of O-Shaped shared this Greek proverb with me and it has stuck. As with lots of proverbs, if you ‘google it’ there is some controversy as to its provenance. I don’t care about that, I think the sentiment is a strong one and it links to something that I have been thinking about recently. That partners are the guardians of the firms that they run.


The idea of partners holding their firm in trust for those that follow was first brought to my attention by a client of a client who I was interviewing as part of a listening exercise. I liked the concept. Partners not being there to make their money and run, but to support and nurture those coming up through the ranks.


This mindset would drive so many behavioural and cultural shifts, wouldn’t it?


There would be a shift in purpose


If partners existed not to provide for themselves now, but for the future generations, the first thing their firms would need to be is sustainable. Yes, they would need to make money today, but they would also need to make money tomorrow.


For professional services firms to be sustainable, I would argue that they need to be able to leverage the diversity that exists within them. The issues companies are facing are increasingly complex and demand that advisors are more than just technical experts. For example, there are tech solutions that solve legal problems now. Think AI and due diligence, to provide just one example. Another example, is the increasing importance of the reputational risk when making decisions – answers are nuanced now, it's not "can we?" but "should we?".


Lawyers need to work with experts outside of the law. They need to bring in the business development team, they need to work with IT experts, environmental experts…..the list goes on. Why? Clients are increasingly demanding it and the future needs it.


To be sustainable businesses need to have a bigger societal impact than just making a profit. Stakeholders are increasingly demanding it. Regulation is likely to demand it too (think Better Business Act, as an example). A firm’s purpose needs to reflect its societal impact. ESG needs to become the way things are done.


The hard stuff wouldn’t be avoided


Cultural change is hard. Systemic change is hard. Coaches know that – it is what we train for years and years to help with. For many coaches, it is a learning journey that never ends. We help leaders sow seeds.


Sometimes when you sow a seed you know that the fruits of your labour will be visible in a year or two. Sometimes when you sow a seed it can take many, many years to feel the benefit. This requires faith.


How many times have I heard “things won’t change, those that can make change happen are only a few years off retiring.” “Change won’t happen, they are making money this way, what’s the incentive?”.

It comes as no surprise that Dan nearly got a standing ovation at a recent conference when he mentioned the crass financial incentives given to entice associates to stay in a profession that has lost sight of its purpose. This is unsurprising as the audience was professional services marketers – integral team members but not enticed with the same pay packets. How can firms start to collaborate as one diverse team when there is such inequality within firms? Law firms are more than just their lawyers.


The next generation’s voices would be louder


When I speak to lawyers on my podcast Lawyer’s Coach, I always start by asking what it was about the law that attracted them. Money is never offered as a reason. The rule of law is. The desire to help others is.


If a partner’s role were to be seen as guardian for those that follow, younger voices would need to be heard. Younger voices would need to hold those in power accountable.


What do the trainees want from their leaders? What do they need the firm of the future to look like? What attracted them there in the first place?


Old men!?


Dan Kayne speaking about the proverb flagged that someone had suggested to him that the proverb should be gender-neutral and say “leaders”. You can’t change a proverb, I also think retaining “old men” isn’t unhelpful.


We are starting to see diversity in law firm leadership. However, it still saddens me that when speaking about diversity from a gender perspective it is the women who come forward. 75% of those who read my report were female, despite my network being predominately male, despite The Lawyer referring to it as "It's the men we feel sorry for" and despite the fact I identified many issues that affect men too. When you speak about race those who have been affected step up. When you speak about well-being and burnout those who have struggled with mental health step forward.


If “old men” means those who have benefited from privilege to get to where they are, who have survived the road, who are the ones who don’t usually step forward because they don't need change or growth, then the proverb is the more powerful for it.


How to get there?


It sounds self-serving to mention coaching but I do believe it holds the key to unlocking so much of this. The problem with coaching is that there is no requirement to be certified. Many go off to do a couple of weekends' training, get a badge, and off they go. This means that many people have bad experiences with coaches and don’t see the value.


Accredited coaches study the psychology behind coaching, they hold themselves up for scrutiny, undertake continuous learning and attend supervision. They understand the power of listening and of asking the right questions. They have a range of tools at their disposal which, I think, are part of the solution. These tools are designed to generate systemic change.


There are studies that show that coaching interventions can support reflection, self-confidence, and focus. We need our leaders to reflect on their roles, we need them to have the confidence (and humility) to go out and ask questions of those around them AND we need them to refocus. Not on PEP or year-end, but in the future.


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