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February 06, 2014

Curse of the Silo: "An Aggregation of Narrow Views."

If there’s anything that kills customer experience, it’s the territory wars inside organizations.

--Jeannie Walters, Founder, 360Connext, Chicago, Illinois

The creation of "silos" inside the largest Western law firms became an issue a few years ago. For those firms, a "silo", of course, meant something other than a tall agricultural storage device for grain. It had become instead a metaphor for the following: a part or process of a business that operates in isolation from other parts and processes of that business.

Silo mentality and silo cultures develop in organizations which are growing, multi-specialized and committed to separately managing and promoting each new area of sales. As a result, distinct "feifdoms" arise which seem to compete with or, worse, cavalierly ignore one another. The feifdoms (a) don't collaborate with each other to serve clients, (b) don't cross-sell together to acquire new clients or to keep existing ones, (c) do compete with each other internally for shares of the client's legal spend or (d) have all of the foregoing problems. Both the firm and client/customers it serves are compromised, and in ways that are probably measurable.

About five years ago, Carolyn Elefant, a Washington, D.C. energy lawyer, and then chief writer at Legal Blog Watch, gave us a memorable short-hand description for cultures at larger law firms where silo mentalities inevitably take hold. Elefant had been inspired by an article authored by Rees Morrison, a lawyer and well-known consultant to corporate legal departments. Morrison's article, "Why Law Departments Should Beware Super-Sized Firms", appeared in the New York Law Journal in November of 2008. Elefant wrote that large firms with the cultures Morrison had described lack "the ability to offer [clients] a broad perspective", offering instead "an aggregation of narrow views".

Morrison and Elefant had a compelling point. To take just one example, and based on my own experiences, I do have the sense that corporate lawyers in smaller firms or boutiques are better issue-spotters than their counterparts at larger firms. They excel at seeing "the big picture". They may even thrive on working in, or at least identifying, cross-practice issues. They are like quarterbacks and point guards. Kaleidoscopic is another word that comes to mind.

Lawyers at larger firms work at some of the most storied and exciting problem-solving labs in the world. They are well-trained, energetic, smart and often gifted (even if the gene pool is a bit diminished from the good old days). Not only do I trust them, I tend to prefer them. And while they are sought-after professionals of rare abilities within a given specialty or sub-specialty, their excellence comes at the price: the myopia of uber-specialization.

Lawyers with similarly superior credentials in smaller shops who service the same corporate clients--yes, that does happen, folks--are arguably more versatile and broad-gauged. Smaller firm lawyers issues under practice areas about which they are not expert, but know enough about to have a competent instinct. Silo mentality and the "aggregation of narrow views" is not part of their day-to-day experience.

Silos, of course, can arise almost anywhere. Clients, the companies we serve, can have the same problem. In fact, most of them do. Last week, Jeannie Walters, the Chicago-based consultant and writer, and founder of 360Connext, wrote on "How To Expand Your C-Suite Without Creating New Silo" at Business2Community. It's an interesting piece, confirming that silos cultures can hamstring our clients, if under much different circumstances. If your firm represents large or sophisticated companies, you should read it. Here's an excerpt:

As the C-Suite becomes more crowded, it’s important everyone feels heard. ....Chief Digital Officers are not necessarily replacing Chief Information Officers. So where is the line? Do they know? What about the Chief Marketing Officer and the Chief Customer Officer? Where does one role end and the next take over? It’s so tempting to think another role, another department or another leader will fix all the ills. But that’s just not the case. Leaders show the way to their teams, and if they are confused or worried about overstepping, their people will pick up on that.

530px-Silo_-_height_extension_by_adding_hoops_and_staves.jpg
Photo: Dale Mahalko, Gilman, WI,

Posted by JD Hull at February 6, 2014 11:22 PM

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