This Law Firm Became Self-Managed In Just 6 Months
One of our first Bucket List organizations was Holland’s most progressive law firm, BvdV. Recently, we discovered another progressive law firm, but this time as far as you can possibly get from Holland—indeed on the other side of the world. Where? In Wellington, New Zealand, where we found The Wellington Community Law Centre (WCLC).
We met with Geoffrey Roberts on his last day as general manager. The centre is a hybrid between a law firm and a community centre. Founded in 1981, it consists of ~30 full-time staff, 200 part-time volunteer lawyers, and 100 volunteer law students.
Their purpose is to offer unmet legal needs as a community service. They organize drop-in legal advice sessions, during which lawyers provide free legal information to anyone in need. Sometimes, they support someone as a client for longer periods.
But what is so innovative about this firm? It became completely self-managed within 6 months! Geoffrey told us about the remarkable transformation he initiated a few years ago.
Geoffrey has now been general manager for about 10 years. When he started they had only 5 people. Over time, staff numbers grew in leaps: from 5 to 10, then from 10 to 20, and finally from 20 to 30 lawyers.
But how do you grow? And what kind of organization model do you use? These questions were on Geoffrey’s mind. “The only organization model I was aware of was the model with middle managers.” And that’s what they tried at first—a traditional hierarchy.
“Eventually, this worked well, because we all trusted each other—until 2015, when some people left, and we suddenly needed new people. Coincidentally, the trust kind of disappeared. It felt a bit weird.”
So, he looked around for alternative ways of organizing. “Until that time, I was only aware of the traditional pyramid. This was a problem. So I asked myself: What do we do now?”
Here’s what they did next, summarized into four major steps.
First, get rid of all the managers
Geoffrey’s confusion didn’t last long. He adopted a very pragmatic approach. “I just went to Google and searched for things like: Do you need a management structure? Do you need to do performance reviews?”
He soon realized there were alternatives. “I realized we could do things differently. Especially I realized it was time to get rid of all the managers, to open up all information and to implement an advice process.”
Establish a culture of radical transparency
“I decided to organize an off-site meeting for everyone. There I proposed the first steps for transforming to an alternative, self-managing structure. Luckily, everyone was on-board from the very first moment. Only when I started to talk about transparent salaries did they get a bit nervous.”
The first step was to move the few lawyers that were in management positions out of their positions. They went back to being full-time lawyers by joining one of the teams.
Once they got rid of middle management, Geoffrey cut to the chase once more. He directly shared all the information and communications with the team, including financial data. “Why did I do this as a first step? Because opening up the information was the easiest thing to do. So, I just did it.”
Implement an advice process
Establishing a culture of radical transparency overnight seems typical for Geoffrey’s pragmatic attitude to transformation. “I told myself: Let’s do it and see what problems we run into. And if we run into problems then we will fix them. The trust level was high.”
Next, after radical transparency, the advice process seemed to be key. “We knew that consensus was not going to work, so we implemented an advice process—which is now practiced very well. How to implement it? Just start doing it. Experiment, and start to figure out what works best for you and your team.”
Then, get rid of processes
Once they got rid of managers, embraced radical transparency and implemented the advice process, it was time for the next step: getting rid of unnecessary processes. By doing this, Geoffrey wanted to create a vacuum for others to fill.
“We did not know what would happen. But the staff and board trusted me, and allowed it all to happen. This was key. We created a vacuum and let the staff figure out how to fill it. The big one for me to let go of was the recruitment process. Suddenly, people could choose a person I might not have chosen.”
“But it isn’t easy for the new person either. Their first response is often: I don’t have a boss? What? We respond with: Just talk to your colleagues. They know perfectly well what needs to be done.”
The changing role of the general manager
Now Geoffrey is soon to leave. Is a new general manager needed in their (now) self-managing organization? They are convinced the role is needed now, and will be in the future. “But not in the traditional way of doing things. In our model the general manager is mainly there to:
- Communicate purpose and values by constantly telling our story, and
- To protect the organization from outside forces by constantly defending the model.”
Actually, the fact that they still need a general manager turns out not to be an issue. They do, however, struggle with another issue. “Since we became completely self-organizing, and all information is transparent, we started to ask ourselves why do we need a board?”
A good question if you ask us.
It took WLCL only six months to complete their transformation. They have been self-managing now for about two years. All seems to go smoothly. And all this from just trying new kinds of things, by constantly experimenting and by evolving.
The main advantages? “When you treat people with high levels of trust, then they will live up to that. They will give you much more than you can imagine. Anecdotally, I argue that high levels of trust result in high levels of engagement and flexibility.”
And the main disadvantage? “You have to constantly keep articulating what you want to do in terms of the model. And, you have to solve your own problems. Even as the general manager!”
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As a lawyer who now works in-house (I worked in private practice for 14 years), I'm very sceptical that the traditional partnership will ever adopt a self-managing model. The real issue isn't the need to embrace radical change but instead, the partners have so much tied up in the firm -- i.e. capital, earnings and prestige -- that they'd fear losing. I'm sure this is no different to a corporate structure but in that space, we're much more likely to see radical change and innovation being embraced. I'd love to continue this discussion at some stage and share my experience but for now all I can do is to continue to raise the issue and hope that a few more firms follow the way of BvdV and WCLC.
This is a very interesting post. I am trying to apply similar concepts to the Insurance Industry. However, I would like to remark that there is a bit of a stretch in this post when making the link between a "law firm" and a "community legal clinic". The organizational structure of companies and organizations usually respond to their environments, and it would have been interesting to have information on how self-management is actually implemented in a business such as a law firm. It would have been interesting to know as well how the legal clinic described in this post transformed into a self-manged organization. "Getting rid of the manager" or increasing "transparency" are just a few aspects that are the basis for a self-manged organization, but in my experience as an organizational development consults, the task is a little more intricate. Thanks for the post!
In a previous post on Haier's RenDanHeYi forum in Shanghai we shared which speakers we were looking forward to, hoping they would provide “Management Fireworks”. Last year we were hosting the forum, but this year we could sit back and listen. Now it’s time to share with you. So, strap in and enjoy!