Identity Crisis

Many Faces

LAST WORD: Identity Crisis

Lexpert, May 2007

by Marzena Czarnecka

Hey. How’ya doing? Come, come, sit down. I hope you don’t mind me calling you to meet me like this, but it’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to talk. Really talk. And whenever we’ve passed each other by lately, I couldn’t help but notice that you haven’t really been yourself. Out of sorts.

No? Are you sure? Come on, don’t bottle it up inside. This is how firms implode, you know. Think of me as your safety valve. Or psychiatrist. I won’t tell anyone—and I might even write you a prescription for Zoloft at the end. Now, tell me—is it another identity crisis?

Why do I say that? Well, that has been the traditional problem in the past, right? I mean, first, you went through that soul-wrenching “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” period. Do you remember that? God, I do. You were unbearable to be with. There’s only so much navel-gazing and introspection a friend can stomach, you know. And I know it wasn’t just you. Everyone was doing it. Am I going to a regional powerhouse? Am I going to be a full service national law firm? Am I going to be an energy boutique? A two-city or tri-city business law firm? A cross-border law firm? A mid-market law firm? A second-tier loser?

I’m not calling you a second-tier loser! I’d never do that, swear on my pocket book. But be honest—that was the implicit question behind most of those questions, for you and your peers. Not so much what you wanted to be, but what you were afraid of becoming. Maybe you didn’t really want to be a national law firm. Maybe you didn’t really want to go through the expense of greenfielding or the growing pains of merging. But you sure as heck did not want to be the withered bachelor all the paired off law firms would be laughing at, right?

Yeah, that was a tough period. But you made your choices, made your decision. And then—do you remember? You’d never say you regretted it—and no, I’m not implying you regretted it, but there were some consequences, right? Some tough days. Now, you chose to make the leap, to become a national law firm. It took guts. Even if you did it just because everyone else was doing it—it was a hard decision. There was fall-out.

Remember those first months? Well, the first two years, really. I was really worried about you. Talk about an identity crisis—I thought you were developing full blown multiple personality disorder. There were times where I didn’t know who I was talking with—the Toronto law firm, the Montreal law firm, the Calgary law firm… I mean, each of you claimed you were the national law firm (well, except some of the guys in Montreal—remember them? And then there were the guys in Calgary who… well, it’s an old story now), but really, it was like hanging out with Sybil.

You sorted it out. Kind of. Hey, don’t get mad. It’s hard to become a new person. It requires a lot of motivation. So tell me—right now, what is your motivation? What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you on your toes? What’s the fuel in that brainy engine?


I think I see your problem. I don’t think that’s good enough. What do I mean? Well, it’s fear, right? Fear of being left behind. Fear of being made irrelevant, redundant. Fear of competition. You don’t actually want to move. You’re just afraid of standing still. But you have no idea where you’re going.

Do you get me? You’re just looking at what the others are doing, reacting to it. They open up a New York office—hmm, maybe we should be in New York too. Cross-border work is the wave of the future. Or China—everyone’s paying attention to China, what about us? They’re putting lots of effort into a technology practice, intellectual property, competition—yeah, let’s do that too. One size offices for partners and associates? What’s the point of that? Oh, they’re doing it? And they? Well, maybe we should look at it too…

You can do better than that. Can’t you? Hundreds of the most brilliant—or at least ambitious and overeducated—minds in the country at your disposal, all anxious for your ultimate success… surely, you can come up with something a bit more… oh, how should I put it? … strategic?

Hey, don’t leave! Hey! I’m only saying this because I care about you! You think you solved all your problems just ‘cause you didn’t end up a withered old bachelor? They’re just beginning, baby. Back then, you had to make cohesive, strategic and long-term decisions and get the consensus of a few dozen partners. Now you’ve got to make hundreds and hundreds of them move in the same direction, and quickly. Because there are still too may law firms.

Now, the silver lining—can you still hear me? Look, slow down and stop slamming doors, you need to hear this—the silver lining is that most of them haven’t figured it out much better than you. But a couple are getting it. And when we have this conversation five years from now (of course we will be on speaking terms five years from now, you’ll forgive me, you always do), you’ll either be one of the three to five law firms that got it, or you will be completely and utterly irrelevant.

A second-tier loser. And then I’ll tell you how to remarket yourself as a mid-market firm. Of course, it might be too late to do that then. Because the mid-market belongs to law firms without an identity crisis.

Marzena Czarnecka is also in the middle of an identity crisis. So she understands. Hey! Will you stop slamming those doors?

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Photo (Many Faces) by whoaitsaimz