With the possible exception of doctoral students in the humanities, lawyers have one of the longest professional incubation periods around. Four years of undergraduate, three years of law school, perhaps a Master's degree or LL.M, and yet as a junior associate you're still doing work the higher-ups wouldn't deign to touch. By the time you reach the age when anyone of consequence knows your name, you're twice as old as Mark Zuckerberg was when he made his first billion.
There are some good reasons for the slow climb up the ladder at the major firms, but the existing structure benefits those at the top more than anyone else. Plenty of talented people jump off (or are just as likely shoved) before they attain the status of "rainmaker." For the sake of everyone who doesn't want to follow that path — from folks who want to take time off to build a family to those who might risk a year or two on a startup — we need a better way. We predict that the law firm of 2023 will respond by re-defining the “rainmaker.”
In our research, we discovered that nearly all professional castes have some deeply embedded cultural traits that aren't essential to the work they do for society. This goes all the way back to the knights of the Middle Ages. Once upon a time a knight was just a guy with a sword and a horse. Over time, though, an entire social order was built around training and maintaining these one-man war machines. Knighthood wasn’t just a way of fighting wars — it was a code of behavior that warriors ascribed to completely to achieve victory on and off the battlefield.
Then along came the archers. The advent of the longbow meant teams of troops employing radically different tactics could take down the knights every time. Yet the ranks of longbowmen had to be drawn from the lower classes because for the elite, knighthood was the path to prestige while shooting arrows from afar was considered dishonorable. Over time, the new elite became those who could craft tactics that helped entire armies win.
“Rainmakers" are the knights of today's firms. While this social role has fewer feudal foibles, it was still a position won by overwhelming individual effort. It was most easily attained by well-connected white men who were also willing to completely sublimate themselves to its particular code of honor — just because a handful of women or people of color are succeeding in this system today doesn’t mean it’s the best system for tomorrow. In many cases, collaborative teams that value technology and efficiency could bring firms more profit than one guy who brings down big deals. But when opportunities for advancement depend on knightly behavior, there are few incentives for the archers to convene target practice.
We predict that tomorrow’s firms will find the behavior of today’s “rainmakers” somewhat odd, in the same way a modern general might regard a medieval lord’s insistence that he dive into the melee himself. So how will firms get there? Small maverick partnerships and legal services startups can create a new culture from scratch, but established firms won’t have that luxury.
We imagine that over the next decade, the smartest firms will find ways to redefine the rainmaker role in their corporate culture as well as their compensation plans. One place to start is by looking at individuals’ contributions to profitability rather than revenue; while we’re all impressed with the humongous client John brought in last month, Jane’s collaborative style may have helped her satisfy ten mid-size clients at a fraction of the normal cost. Firms need ways of acknowledging that equally important contribution to the bottom line.
Another place to make new rainmakers is in the realm of innovation. An improvement to process that saves the firm one percent of its costs on every case is, over time, far more valuable than the next headline-grabbing suit. Discovering new types of clients or areas of practice is similarly useful, but could also be attended by months or years of failure first. Firms need ways of finding and acknowledging these stories not just to attract and retain top talent, but also to prevent themselves from getting sniped by their coming competitors.