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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is widely known for being the title of an award-winning film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (the Coen brothers). The film was released in 2007 and has won no less than 76 awards on 109 nominations. The title is taken from the opening line of 20th-century poet William Butler Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium". The lament that can be heard in this poem’s lines, is for no longer belonging to the country of the young. It is also a lament for the way the young neglect the wisdom of the past and, presumably, of the old.

As a consultant and as an observer of the legal industry, I frequently encounter situations where the title ‘No Country for Old Men’ springs to mind. Like business in general, the business of law has predominantly been led by senior white males. Although the numbers are slowly decreasing, a substantial chunk of all revenue created in the global legal industry is produced by firms that are managed (board and executive committee) by white men who are 60-plus years of age. Increasingly this is becoming a problem.

In their latest issue (February 6, 2020) The Economist published an article ‘What it takes to be a CEO in the 2020s’. This article points in a way at the same issue: the traditional white elderly male is ill equipped to navigate the future. “The nature of the job is being disrupted. In particular, CEOs’ mechanism for exercising control over their vast enterprises is failing, and where and why firms operate is in flux.” Most of the tools and techniques that have worked so well in the past, do not work anymore. Think of “Neutron” Jack Welch, who ran General Electric between 1981 and 2001, opening and shutting plants, buying and selling divisions, and ruthlessly controlling the flow of capital. There is absolutely no room for a Jack Welsh in 2020. New times ask for a new type of leader.

If you do what you did, you get what you got

About a year ago I attended a large legal market conference in China as one of the keynote speakers. Other speakers included Harvard professor Ashish Nanda and the well-known Richard Susskind. Part of the program was a panel discussion on the future of the Chinese legal industry by the managing partners of China’s top law firms. As the first commercial law firms only emerged in the 1990ties, many of the MPs where also the founders of the firm. Starting literally with nothing some 30 years ago, they undeniably had now achieved tremendous success. These MPs were all impressive and powerful personalities. Their discussion however made me feel sad. Based on their achievements they all strongly believed that their way was the right way, as they had a proven track-record. They completely failed to recognize that what had brought them where they are today, will not bring their firm where it needs to be tomorrow.

Like the Chinese law firms, law firms in our part of the world have seen unprecedented growth. No-one being a partner in the year 2000 could imagine, not even in their wildest dreams, how much money a partner in the same firm would be making 20 years down the line. The increase in PEP over the last two decades has outpaced almost any other industry. Like the Chinese MPs, many MPs in Europe and in the US are convinced that their way is the right way. Turning a blind eye to apparent changes in the market and the needs and demands of the younger generation.

Even in my own profession I see many retired managing partners setting up shop as law firm consultants. Invariably they try to replicate their ‘successes’ from the past. Almost invariably they fail. They attract business on their former experience or on the reputation their former firm. They don’t see that they were way overdue when they left, and that the world has moved on since. If you do what you did, you get what you got at best. More likely you will be doing worse.

“OK Boomer”

I doubt if many of you are familiar with the term “OK Boomer”? OK boomer is an internet phrase that went viral in 2019. It is used by young people to write off, usually to a humorous or mildly mocking effect, opinions that are perceived as emblematic of attitudes of baby boomers and older people more generally. These attitudes include a resistance to technological change, inclusivity of marginalized identities, and a belief that the problems of youth are due to their laziness or entitlement. If you have children in the age between 15 and 25, ask them. They will surely be able to explain what it means.

The business of law is standing at the dawn of an era of unprecedented changes. While for sure many things will remain the same, what changes will be fundamental. You will need to ask yourself the question who is best positioned to navigate the firm through these unknowns. Is it the person with the most experience and the most impressive track-record, or is it the one with the most open and creative mind? Is it the person who will have no stake in the future he/she is creating, or is it the one who’s own future it concerns? Is it a proponent of the past or a herald of the future?

“Hey Jaap, is this not age discrimination?”, I can hear you ask. The answer is: no, it is not. The surprising thing is that it has less to do with age, than it has to do with a state of mind. The problem lies not in being of a certain age. It lies in relying on what worked in the past, instead of being curious for what will work tomorrow. The aforementioned article in this week’s Economist puts it like this: “Mastering the tricky, creative and more collaborative game of allocating intangible capital is essential. A CEO must be able to marshal the data flowing between companies and their counter-parties, redistributing who earns profits and bears risk.” For law firms things are not fundamentally different. Leading a law firm is no longer territory for old men.


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