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After listening to a panel of managing partners at the College of Law Practice Management’s Futures Conference on law firm culture, my thinking on the subject of culture and accountability came into focus. Culture (such as it is) drives decision making in firms. This is the case since firms make so many decision based on consensus, especially tough decisions since they want the partnership on-board. Unfortunately, ‘consensus’ has become a crutch for avoiding tough decisions. What underlies this consensus approach is a fear that a tough decision might lead to partners leaving the firm. This may be a legitimate fear, but it drives decision-avoidance behavior.

It is my humble opinion that at the core of this culture issue is partners’ fear of accountability. Any decision that adds a level of accountability to partners is DOA in a consensus world. Even if the accountability will show a partner in a good light today, tomorrow it may not. And with accountability comes the possibility of a negative reputation impact. And reputation is a core driver of lawyer behavior.

This thinking also ties back to my post on “Partners Act Like Workers.” No worker wants additional accountability and will fight against proposals that increase it. The primary accountability of lawyers currently is attaining a level of billable hours, which is a worker motivation. Accountability as an owner involves a whole other level of responsibility and reputation risk. And we all know how lawyers feel about risk.

But isn’t owner-level accountability exactly what firms need right now? The only way to effect real change is making leaders and owners accountable.

In the past, the culture of consensus was a positive. It helped firms keep a large group of individuals going in the same general direction. Now this same culture is holding them back from making tough decisions. I suppose the bottom-line is that law firm leaders finally need to … lead.