A lot of law firms believe that before they can effectively engage in strategic planning they must clean up all their internal problems.  The thought is that they must establish a solid foundation in the present before they can even consider looking toward the future.  Since many internal issues are virtually irresolvable, I suspect that, in reality, firms are seeking any excuse that allows them to stall off actually doing strategic planning.

The single most common issue recently is the size of the firms governing board.  As part of the terms of opening new offices through mergers, law firms frequently dedicate a seat on the board of directors or executive committee to a representative of the acquired group.  This leds to the creation of some unwieldy governing committees with as many as 60 or more members.  However, reducing an executive committee’s size is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube and requires a lot of effort and horse-trading. Unfortunately, the firm often ends up with a committee that is less workable than the one they started with.

In dealing with the mob scene that some firms call management, we are often asked for benchmarks of the best size for an executive committee.  The difficulty is that there are firms with large committees – 20 to 25 people – that operate very effectively.  Other firms have small committees of three or four people and can’t seem to accomplish anything.  On balance, however, the best size seems to be from five to seven people and certainly not more than nine.

The big question is how does a firm go from a large nonfunctional committee to a smaller one that operates effectively.  I’ve seen two methods work.  The first is to fess up to the problems of having an oversized committee and create a management committee of three or five people, including the managing partner, who are elected by the executive committee from amongst their members.  The day-to-day responsibilities of the executive committee, especially those that typically require prompt action, are delegated to the new management committee.  The large executive committee continues to meet monthly by video or telephone conference call primarily to review the work of the management committee and provide input.  The primary role then of the executive committee becomes an information conduit between the partnership and the firm’s management.

Another way that seems to work for larger multi-office firms is to redistrict the membership of the executive committee by region so that the committee’s size is reduced but the concept of local representation is maintained.

But don’t get too carried away with governing committee size.  At the end, it is an issue of convenience that doesn’t have much effect on the firm’s success.