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Making Sure Your Law Firm Goes Down in History

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Some law firms make history, others write their own history.  At least, that’s what I gathered from this Humphrey Keenlyside’s article  in Bloomberg, discussing the apparent tradition of large law firms producing an auto-biography of a sort, tracing a firm’s history from its humble beginnings to its current powerhouse status. Kennlyside writes that law firm histories aren’t just an exercise in vanity, but can serve worthier purposes, such as:

  • providing insight into the firm’s culture, and helping it find a way back to its original mission if it’s lost its way;
  • serving as a recruitment tool for new lawyers by showing them the legacy that they’ll become part of by joining the firm; and
  • supporting marketing initiatives by demonstrating the firm’s longevity and experience in particular types of cases.

Of course, Kennlyside writes law firm biographies, so he has reason to pitch firms on producing them. Plus, he focuses on large firms. But can solo and small firms benefit from documenting law firm histories – of course, in a less formal manner than hiring a biographer?

I’d say yes. First, at least two of the benefits of law firm biographies that Kennlyside identified apply with equal force to solos and smalls as for large – perhaps even more so.  The ability to demonstrate longevity is important for solos and smalls because otherwise potential clients might suspect that the firm is fly-by-night or could go out of business any day. And of course, an interesting law firm history – showing your reason for opening your firm, the original mission and how you’ve stuck with it over time – can also prove valuable both for clients and potential hires.  Finally, because many solo and small firm practices will effectively vanish from the face of the earth you retire, a law firm history memorializes your firm’s legacy – perhaps serving as inspiration for a future grandchild who hasn’t even yet been born but wants to become a lawyer, or as guidance for a younger friend who’s running a firm and going through rough patches who can learn how you made it through.

Still, though law firm histories may be worthwhile, it isn’t necessary for solo and small firms to actually hire a biographer and publish a tome like Vinson and Elkins or Sullivan and Cromwell — or a multi-volume history if you’re Cravath .  Perhaps the simplest way to record your firm’s history and accomplishments is through preparation and compilation of annual reports. You might also keep a journal or blog about starting your firm, and make some of that personal commentary part of your firm’s history as well. Or, you could simply take photos of your office and staff over the years and pull them together in an online photo book so you can view the changes over time – the desktop that went from typewriter to monitor to laptop; the law library of books that’s since been replaced by online research and the changes in clothing style from daily suits to more casual wear.

Some day in the future – maybe not the next decade, but perhaps the next 20-30 years, the practice of law will change even more profoundly than it has. Some work that solos and smalls do will be replaced by technology, or by larger conglomerates (think Kaiser Health for law) employing lawyers to handle most consumer problems instead of independently operated practices. Whether that system will be an improvement over what now exists or will expand access to justice, who can tell (I’m skeptical), but when those changes come, we will want to document for posterity that the work that we did as lawyers and why it mattered.

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