All for none, none for all

Pikemen engage musketeers during a re-enactmen...

Last Word: All for none, none for all
By Marzena Czarnecka

A lifetime or a decade ago, give or take a few months, one of the first features I wrote for Lexpert on the eternally fascinating (to us) topic of law-firm culture split all major Canadian law firms into two main groups. In the first group were the “individualist” law firms that placed a premium on individual effort and ambition, and we gave these groups the catchy moniker “Lone Rangers.” The second group comprised “the Musketeers,” firms that embraced – to varying degrees – the “all for one, one for all” ethos and valued teamwork over individual naked ambition.

It was a very elegant division — simple, neat and catchy, and like most such splits, wrong in almost every way. Still, it served its purpose, allowing me to make a variety of pretty much unsubstantiated predictions on how the Lone Rangers and the Musketeers would react, in their different ways, to the challenges of the coming decade and the increasingly competitive legal marketplace. The key question – one I’ve waited an entire decade to see answered – was as nakedly ambitious as the average Lone Ranger: Who, I wondered, would the future belong to?

Who would take the laurels come the 21st century — the Lone Rangers or the Musketeers?

The prediction in 2000 suggested the Musketeers would kick butt. They were turning into institutions on the whole faster than the Lone Rangers. They were indoctrinating their young (and their laterals) more successfully into the Musketeer hive-mind than their individually minded competition. And they were able to implement pretty dramatic business-model changes more quickly and more unilaterally, supplanting partner consensus with varying degrees of executive theocracy.

More alike and cohesive internally, we posited, they were able to present a more unified front to the talent market and thus would have an advantage in the war for talent. More team-focused, less-star dependant, and with shared client relationships, they would have an advantage in the war for clients and the retention of clients in a market characterized by talent mobility. In short, their unified culture would trounce the Lone Rangers, who would still be arguing in the boardroom over what the best strategy might or might not be while the Musketeers were relentlessly implementing it.

Stop laughing. It could have happened. If law firms operated on predictable and rational lines, that’s precisely what would have happened. But this, we learned, is not how firms operate. The past decade saw every sort of positive and negative development in the Canadian legal landscape – mega-mergers, mini-mergers; successful greenfields, embarrassing greenfields; sudden demises, slow lingering deaths by attrition; falls from grace, leaps into prominence – everything, that is, except a definitive trouncing of the Lone Rangers by the Musketeers.

What went wrong? Well, for one, the Musketeers turned out to be not quite as “all for one, one for all” as they claimed. It was more like “all for one, one for all — gah! It’s going to cost me how much?! No frigging way. I’m outta here.” Perhaps more importantly, selling a unified Musketeer ethos across five, six, seven national offices turned out to be much tougher than anyone had anticipated. Even if an individual office boasts an “all for one” kind of value, it’s hard to extend that two or three time zones away. The ultimate compliment Calgary greenfields continue to pay their Toronto or Montréal headquarters? “Toronto might as well not be there. They give us so much freedom — it’s great.”

The Lone Rangers, meanwhile, turned what we thought was a weakness – that is, their tendency to elect managing partners who were essentially dictators for life – into a strength. While their benevolent dictators were able to relentlessly implement unpopular but necessary strategies, the Musketeers had to work on selling hard decisions to the hive-mind … or coping with outright sabotage of some strategies by rebellious satellites.

Now, don’t misinterpret me: the Lone Rangers didn’t trounce the Musketeers. The past decade has by no means cemented the superiority of one model over another. And in any case, as I said, the division may have been elegant, but it was wrong in almost every way. If I were to offer a simple split of the entire Canadian legal landscape today, I wouldn’t divvy them up into Musketeers and Lone Rangers. No, I’d split them into firms that tolerate, celebrate and get rich off of mavericks … and firms that don’t.

Guess who the next decade’s going to belong to.

Marzena Czarnecka is a maverick Calgary writer.

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