Guest post by Edward Fennell: Law Firm History – Use it, don’t lose it

The public’s fascination with the TV series ‘Who do you think you are?’ is more than just a symptom of our celebrity-obsessed society. It also reflects a wider popular interest in where individuals have come from, where their roots lie and the strange and sometimes dramatic stories that lurk in the past. Genealogy-for-all is now the watchword of our times – with the added spice that our new understanding of the importance of DNA gives us a closer sense of involvement with our ancestors.

Curiously, there seems to be a growing ‘read-across’ from family history to the history of law businesses. Having been involved in writing the stories of two firms of solicitors and one set of chambers in the past couple of years it has been fascinating to see how much interest is stirred up by the unfolding of the past. Often it is a revelation to today’s partners and members of chambers when they come to understand the historic roots of their practice and how it has shaped up into its current form. Very often people have not thought much about it before. They take it for granted. By digging into the past the nature of the present becomes much more interesting and comprehensible.

Yet there has been another motive added into this search for the organisation’s roots. Like many others, the partnerships and chambers which asked me to write their histories  had expanded rapidly over the past decade. In one case this was due in large part to mergers and absorbing other firms internationally. The chambers, meanwhile, had undergone several moves and had also absorbed significant teams from elewhere. In the course of all this growth, however,  there was a slightly uneasy feeling at the top, among the most senior people, that the culture and character of the organisation was coming under threat. The bigger the organisations became and the more that newcomers arrived (with no connection whatsoever with the history) the greater the danger of the culture being lost – and that would be destructive of the success of the business. That was why it was important both to capture and tell the story of where the business had come from before it was all erased entirely. They would be stronger institutions as a result.

Changing fashions ———–

This appreciation of the power of past – echoing the cult of ‘Who do you think you are?’ –  is a relatively new phenomenon. Or at least it is a revival of an older tradition.

Thirty odd years ago and more law firms and chambers were very much smaller. These were the days before they could market or promote themselves. But almost the first things they might mention was their age and traditions.

That all changed radically in the late 1980’s with the arrival of Big Bang in the City, the liberalisation of the professions and the general remoulding of British society under the Thatcher reforms. Within a couple of years everyone wanted to show how modern and progressive they were. Nineteenth century portraits of founding partners were out. Images of computers and high tech engineering were in. Rather than being a source of enlightenment and stimulation the past was often an embarrassment and certainly was seen as a constraint on what lawyers wanted to do in the future. Whereas the organisation’s history had been the first thing that lawyers would talk about, it became almost overight the last thing on their minds. ‘There’s a bright new world out there driven by globalisation and technology so let’s get out there. Who needs the past anyway?’ was the general message.

It was understandable – up to a point. The deep conservatism of the legal profession had made it resistant to change and excessive awareness of their history was symptomatic of that ‘stuck in the past’ attitude.

So lawyers went from one extreme to another. But in doing so they ignored the reality of what was happening in many other sectors.

Meanwhile, elsewhere  —–

Take sport. In football, the Premier League, as we know, has some of the most successful football teams in the world. New players, often non-British are coming in all the time. But that is why football clubs constantly remind their players and supporters of the heritage of the club. Bars and stands are named after former players and managers. There are pitch commemorations when players – who might have departed the club fifty years ago – die. The match programmes constantly remind fans of great matches of the past. And having a distinguished history is seen as being vitally important to the character of the club.

Great technology companies work hard at remembering their past. IBM is a classic example, The story of its founder Thomas J.Watson is constantly retold and, maybe, one of the reason that IBM survived the arrival of the Apples and the Microsofts was its powerful sense of its own identity and its heritage.

So for law firms and chambers, my suggestion is simple, Don’t dump your past. Recalling it and seeing the lessons it offers may be one of your greatest assets. There is an arrogance in thinking that you are creating your destiny on your own. In the old cliché, you are standing on the shoulders of giants – just remember who they are.

Edward Fennell is a legal columnist at a national newspaper