For some reason, something must end before we learn our lessons. That is precisely the reason that Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls attended her own funeral. She wanted to hear how much people appreciated her while she was still alive, correctly realizing that eulogies are much more valuable at a “funeral” where the individual is still alive to hear the nice things said about her.
This is also why every tech blogger and new source is discussing what we can learn from the retirement of Steve Jobs. My favorite “eulogy” is from a Wall Street Journal blog, The Juggle, recalling a commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005 about never settling. While I am pretty sure I did not listen to his advice, it is nevertheless sound. He said:
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.
If we can learn from the loss of a loved one or the end of an era, we can likewise learn from the “death” of a small firm.
Consider Stryker, Tams & Dill (1898-2011). The 113-year-old New Jersey small firm closed its doors on August 1, 2011. The firm was once considered one of the elite “white shoe” firms in New Jersey. At its height, it had 47 lawyers. For the past twenty-five years, this elite firm had slowly been dying a death by a thousand cuts.
The first blow came in the mid-1980s, when Burton W. Horner, the son of one of the former name partners, took over management of the firm. According to the New Jersey Law Journal, firm alumni complained of Horner’s “lax management style and poor strategic planning,” which led, in their view, to the loss of many top attorneys. The attrition continued until the firm’s collapse.
There were other problems. First, there was a failed expansion attempt. In 1985, the firm opened a Princeton office. The office closed in 1988. Second, the firm fell prey to out-of-state firms that attracted top legal talent. Finally, the firm failed to adapt to changes in the legal market.
Bennett Wasserman, who was counsel at Stryker Tams for nine years before leaving this past January, says the firm’s single greatest mistake may have been failing to keep pace with the times. “The legal environment is changing so rapidly,” said Wasserman in an interview with the New Jersey Law Journal. “Stryker had a very fine reputation, but I guess it’s a testament to the nature of the changing practice of law and the need to think of yourself as being forward-thinking, rather than backward-thinking.”
In sum, “the final demise [of Stryker, Tams & Dill] was anticlimactic, as the firm had been declining for 25 years, dogged by a host of troubles: cherry-picking by out-of-state firms, an inability to compete with regional firms, a leadership style that appeared to some as weak, ineffective marketing, poor business decisions and an apparent reluctance to adapt to practice-area and other changes in the legal profession.”
So, if I were giving a eulogy for the fallen firm of Stryker, Tams & Dill, I would say something positive about the firm’s history and former glory, and then discuss the lessons that we can learn from the firm’s passing:
(1) Make sure that your small firm has a strong vision and plan for the future;
(2) Do what is necessary to keep top talent;
(3) Continually adapt as the practice changes; and
(4) Do not grow solely for the sake of growing.
And, to those small firms still alive, take this opportunity to reflect on your firm’s past, present, and future. Do not wait until your own funeral to take stock and learn your lessons.
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.