Law firms are unique creatures.  On the one hand, lawyers seem to hate working in teams.  Most view themselves as licensed professionals and have trouble being dependent upon anyone else.  Some feel this solo operating style is instilled by law schools where students directly compete with each.  As a result, lawyers as a profession are ill-equipped by training and temperament to embrace working with a team of equals.   Whatever the reason, law firms’ problems in getting their members to work in groups are legendary as evidenced by problems with cross-selling initiatives or practice group activities.

On the other hand, when it comes to managing themselves law firms have always been consensus-based organizations that, in many ways, operate more closely to universities or governmental organizations than businesses.  The result is that the default decision-making structure of a firm typically involves using committees.  This paradox is no more apparent than when a law firm attempts to deal with complex but highly subjective issues such as strategic planning.   In some cases it is clear that firms create committees to provide the illusion of taking action and being inclusive in the process of determining what that action will be.  In other situations there is a sincere desire for the committee to actually do something.

All this is coming to a head right now as many firms are creating special planning committees to properly position the firm to take advantage of the economic recovery, whenever that occurs.  Firms frequently start by creating a 20+ member planning committee designed to represent a cross sample of the firm.  This means the committee has members from every practice area, office location, race, generation, gender, philosophical position and sexual orientation.  The committee is by definition designed to be: (a) too large to function, and (b) so diverse that any reachable consensus will most likely end up being useless pap.

But the use of committees for critical functions such as strategic planning can be a powerful tool for the managing partner who is willing to drive the process of structuring such committees to maximize their functionality.

Committees are Good…and Bad
A camel is a horse designed by a committee* is the way most people view how committees operate.  Yet, humans almost innately seek the opinions of others even when they are confident in their own thought processes.  The world-wide hit television show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” offers contestants the opportunity to poll the audience or use a lifeline to help with a question.  Since the contestant can use anyone in the world that is willing to accept their call as a lifeline, they will presumably choose the smartest person they can find.  On the other hand, the studio audience is made up of people whose primary qualification was their willingness to stand in line for hours to get an admission ticket.  Clearly one carefully selected, very smart person must be better than a random collection of average people.   However, the results show that lifelines come up with the correct answer only 65 percent of the time while the studio audience gets it right a staggering 91 percent of the time**.

The point is that two heads are indeed better than one and, despite their bad reputation, committees are routinely capable of producing better results than individuals.  To the extent that there is a problem with committees, the problem isn’t that they exist, but rather the manner in which they are constructed.

So, if you are planning to create a committee to plan your response to the recession or for any other reason, the following are some observations on creating committees that work.

1. It sounds silly to say that the creator of a committee must have a clear purpose for the committee, but establishing the committee’s reason for being is issue one.  We have all served on at least one committee in our lifetime where the members had no idea what it was they were supposed to do.  This is not necessarily a problem so long as the people creating the committee have a strong grasp of what it is they are trying to accomplish.  In dealing with recessionary issues and firm planning there are, in fact, all sorts of objectives for committees.  They include:
a. Providing the illusion that action is occurring.  This is the law firm equivalent of a congressional hearing and has the sole purpose of being busy, loud and large.  No end product is particularly desired because such committees operate like a magician’s assistant — directing the partners’ attention away from the real activity that is going on elsewhere.  While this may sound cynical, high-profile committees are a good way for firm leaders to get the partners off their backs and gain some breathing room to understand situations and develop appropriate responses.
b. Demonstrating broad-based input and support.  These committees usually have the word “advisory” in their title and are made up of partners with large billing bases and a history of rarely having had an interest in firm management issues.  Their job is to study and endorse the preferred actions of firm management.
c. Recommending action.  Predictably, action-oriented committees are small and made up of decisive partners who are capable of absorbing large amounts of information but don’t have a lot of available time to study every arcane detail.

2. Don’t mix multiple objectives within one committee.  If you are looking for a committee to develop strong recommendations, it can’t be a huge, highly representative committee.  If your firm’s culture and politics require that every committee has diverse membership, then also create a steering committee whose job it is to do the real work.

3. Keep the committee very small and homogeneous.  Use diverse committees for input but stick to three to five members for decision making and implementation.

4. Include one committee member who is geographically separated from the rest — but no more than one.  Research*** seems to show that committees with one remote member were more effective than committees where all of the members were from one location or where there were members from multiple locations.  The worst teams are where there are multiple people in each of two locations, (e.g., three people in office A and two in office B) because a competition develops.

5. Meet in short bursts.  If you are looking for creativity and decisiveness, employ time limitations and never meet for longer than 90 minutes at a time.  Don’t mix meetings with meals — stick to business.

6. Manage the inflow of information.  Provide summaries and conclusions with enough data to establish credibility.  Dumping too much data on a committee dilutes decisiveness and dulls instincts.

Planning for Recovery
If your firm is sufficiently farsighted to be thinking about positioning itself when the recovery occurs, now is a good time to create whatever committee structures are necessary to meet your objectives.  It demonstrates the things that most law firm partnerships are in need of: optimism, long-range thinking and leadership.  And, if done well, it may position your firm to rapidly surpass competitors in whatever the new economy has to bring.