News from across the pond that CMS Cameron McKenna, the 11th largest UK law firm, has outsourced its entire business support function, including IT, HR, finance, business development, communications, knowledge management, facilities management and administration services. 

I leave it to others to assess the impact of this decision on functions other than business development, but from my perspective as head of a law firm sales and marketing department, I can see advantages both for the law firm and for the support team.  (I also can see disadvantages, which I may cover in a future post.)  But for now….

For the lawyers, this development may mean that they can better focus on the practice of law and on client service.  Anyone who works in a law firm is well-aware of the many, time-consuming meetings led by equity owners to discuss the minutiae of technology, recruiting, communications, staff compensation and the like.  If the new Cameron model reduces the administrative demands on senior lawyers who otherwise might be serving clients and billing, then the outsourcing represents an important step forward.  A key question will be:  If the equity owners of the law firm truly shed the day-to-day oversight of staff functions, will they successfully redirect themselves to their highest and best utilization? 

For staff, this development may mean a quantum leap in productivity and innovation.  While lawyers over the last 20+years have indeed acquired nonlawyer experts in staff arenas, the equity owners of law firms have not fully taken advantage of the knowledge and innovative impulses that these staff experts bring, for instance in arenas such as procurement and social media.  Years ago, law firm business development professionals spotted the ascent of procurement professionals in the buying community, but it has only been in the last two years, since the advent of the ACC Value Challenge, that law firms have seriously considered the need to create business models more aligned with buyer needs/wants.  Another easy example is the relatively slow adoption by law firms of social media, which is now commonplace in the commercial world and in fact played an enormous role in the election of the U.S. president nearly two years ago.  Key questions will be:  Will staff executives be able to better express their creativity and business acumen within an outsourced organization?  And, will law firms be more, or less, inclined to adopt innovation conceived by support functions as a result of not having direct and immediate control over them?

The new structure represents, perhaps, the last gasp of the notion that lawyers, themselves, are supposed to be self-contained experts not only in the practice of law, but also in administration, technology, human resources, and sales – to name a few of the functions that over the past 20 years lawyers have at least partially ceded to nonlawyer executives

Don’t get me wrong.  An enormous and stimulating part of being a staff executive at a law firm is the challenge of innovating in a horizontal, matrixed, risk-averse organization, and I think many senior staff professionals in law firms are energized by that very complexity. 

Still, I think Cameron’s decision to outsource sets a precedent (so important to law firms) and is a potential watershed event – one that I’ll be watching closely.