Yogi Berra on Law

Yogi Berra empirestatebuildingOn September 23 the Empire State Building sported pinstripes in honor of the pinstriped Yankees uniform worn by Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra who died this week at the age of 90.

Over the course of his storied career, Berra attained both professional acclaim and cultural stardom. The professional acclaim was due to his extraordinary record of achievement:

  • He played on 14 American League championship teams.
  • He won 10 World Series titles.
  • He was voted most valuable player of the American League three times. (He shares this accomplishment with the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.)
  • He was an All-Star every year from 1948-1962.
  • As a manager, he led the Yankees to the 1964 American League title and then led the Mets to the 1973 National League title.

His status as a cultural icon had less to do with his athletic prowess and everything to do with his distinctive manner of speech. Berra is famous for things he said and, possibly, for some things he didn’t say. What may be less well-known is that many of his witticisms were directed at the legal industry:

  • “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” When he said this, Berra could have been speaking for law firm partners throughout the United States who sincerely believed in 2007 that the sky was the limit to the unprecedented growth in rates and profits they were enjoying.
  • “The future ain’t what it used to be.” This was the reality law firms faced at the end of 2008. Their future did not seem nearly as rosy it had been just a few months earlier. In fact, at that time the future of many firms was completely unclear. Even today, the situation is challenging. According to the Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group, growth this year is possible but will not be stellar: “While we remain optimistic that revenue and profit will both grow, we believe that they will now fall short of 2014’s results.”
  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This has been the so-called strategy of some firms that have tried desperately since 2008 to find a winning formula. De-equitize partners? Done. Throw associates and staff overboard? Done and done. Alternative pricing arrangements? We’ll do it. Legal project management? We’ll try that too.
  • “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Strategy has been a real challenge for law firms. In 2013 I asked a large group of law firm managers how many of their firms had a business strategy. Only a handful responded positively. Fast-forward to the autumn of 2014 when I asked a large group of law firm knowledge managers the same question. In this instance almost everyone responded positively. That’s great news for the industry, isn’t it? Well actually, no. When I asked that same group how many of their firms had agreed metrics by which they measured progress against their strategic goals, almost nobody raised a hand. So there you have it — strategy without true accountability for implementation is merely window dressing.
  • “We made too many wrong mistakes.” When you consider the way some lawyers have attempted to run their businesses with little or no management training, it isn’t altogether surprising that they’ve made some “wrong mistakes.” What is more frustrating is that even in the face of these errors, some partners remain reluctant to turn over the management of their businesses to professional managers, much less accord those “non-lawyer” managers the courtesy of professional status within the firm.
  • “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” A change in value changes everything for law firms. Consider the change in the way clients value the services firms once provided. Increasingly, clients are moving legal services in-house or to special service providers. And they are demanding that their external counsel demonstrate the value of the services they continue to provide. At the end of the day, the one thing that holds its value is intelligently calibrated business advice informed by legal knowledge and judgment. That is something clients will still pay for.
  • “You can observe a lot just by watching.” If you are looking for examples to emulate, don’t limit your observations to the firms with the highest profits. Look for the firms that are doing the tough structural work: establishing a strategy that guides operations, implementing internal disciplines to manage costs in both the practice of law and the business of law, revising roles and responsibilities to reflect the reality of client needs in the 21st century, hiring world-class managers and then giving them the authority to run the business in a rationale way.

As you can see, Yogi Berra had a lot to say about the legal industry. Yet despite the doom and gloom, his optimism still shines through. After all, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”