Here’s a shocker: law firms have difficulty with implementation.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that even firms with a really good grasp of their future and the capability to put together thoughtful strategies to cope with change, often seem to get stymied when it comes to trigger pulling.  Now, lets face it, every individual, little less organization, has some trouble with implementation. I, personally, don’t have to look any farther than my own history of new year’s resolutions to observe implementation failure of a monumental scale.

Much has been written about why law firms are so bad about implementing.  The reasons range from the precedential mindset of lawyers to the ineptitude of law firm management.  But I suspect the root of our problem lies deeper in the consensus based structure of law firm partnerships.  Recently I was describing a traffic jam I had been in on an interstate highways to a colleague.  It was late at night and cars were bumper to bumper for miles.  Then suddenly after inching along, traffic returned to normal speed with no evidence anything that would have caused such a jam up.

My colleague explained that the traffic problem was probably the result of a “caterpillar effect.”  What happens is that a motorist taps his or her brakes for no particular reason, which causes the person behind to cautiously ride their brake.  This goes on car after car causing an eventual traffic jam.

Amazingly, I see the exact same effect in play with lawyers – particularly in mid-sized firms.  The firms’ desire to maintain a culture of consensus drives them to become almost fanatical about achieving buy-in among their partners.  All it takes is one or two partners to metaphorically “tap the brake” and implementation comes to a screeching halt.  And usually, no one even knows why.

Some law firms brag that they never actually take a partnership vote; everything is achieved through consensus.  Not surprisingly, these are the same firms that have problems with implementation and usually with profitability. Consensus is defined as a decision making process that requires the consent of all participants.  In most law firms that is a virtually unachievable goal.  And, if consensus is achieved, the process typically takes so long and the decision is so watered down, that implementation effectively never occurs.

Building complete consensus is a wonderful concept, but in a rapidly changing environment, the key to success may be going with a simple majority to avoid the traffic jam caused by a few “brake tappers.”