Sex, War and Stability In The Firm – A Clash of Cohorts

The following post originally appeared on Forbes | Jan 22nd, 2014


Tracing its lineage back to a partnership in 1899 between Arthur Hill, Robert Homans and Robert Barlow, Hill & Barlow was one of Boston’s oldest and most highly respected law firms. Due to Hill’s intensely rigid character and strong sense of civic duty, the group was synonymous with integrity and professionalism, and was perhaps best known for representing underdogs, the most infamous of which were the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. By 1965 Hill & Barlow grew to approximately 20 attorneys, and due to market pressures, realized the need to expand. Fate brought a suitor to their doorstep in the form of Peabody Koufman & Brewer, a much younger, and at the time, more aggressive law firm. While a number of shared values and interests held their union together for years, the gravity of a generational gap gained critical mass and Balkanized the firm, ultimately forcing its dissolution in 2002.

Generational friction is normal. What adult hasn’t lamented about “kids these days?” In the workplace, in particular, it is a common theme to be unimpressed with the mettle of younger generations. This is rightfully so, in some cases, as numerable papers and surveys show a general decline over the decades in institutionally-beneficial traits like work ethic, collectivism and acquiescence to authority. Though intergenerational disdain may seem orthodox, if not attended to in a professional environment, gaps can fester and turn malignant. The failed law firms of Doherty Rumble & Butler, Herrick & Smith, Lord Day & Lord and Pettit & Martin, among others, were exhausted by the current of a generational clash. And with the rapid pace of change these days, few firms can afford to test the same waters. To avoid generationally inflammatory environments requires understanding the nature of the phenomenon. For our answers, we turn to sex and war.

Prior to writing their article “Male Age Composition and Severity of Conflicts” for the September ‘99 issue of Politics and the Life Sciences, authors Christian Mesquida and Neil Weiner of York University made an interesting anecdotal observation – nations who populations exhibited large groups of younger men were more vulnerable to violence. For instance, in 1985, war-torn El Salvador maintained a young-to-old ratio of 97 to 100. Compare this to a much, much stabler Sweden whose ratio was 35 to 100 in the same year. While these are just two countries, the authors gathered the ratios of over 150 countries and 12 tribal societies and plotted them against the severity of their respective conflicts. Mesquida and Weiner’s findings turned anecdotal observations into an empirically grounded theory: nations with a large ratio of 15 – 29 year old men (young) to 30+ year old men (old) tend to experience much more coalitional aggression and outright war.

Since their article was published, several authorities have taken note, including the likes of Graham E. Fuller, former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, Jo Boyden, Professor and Director of the Young Lives Research Project at the Department of International Development at University of Oxford, and Dr. Craig Roberts, Researcher and Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling. In fact, R. Bruce Hitchner, Professor of Classics & International Relations at Tufts University, blames Roman expansionism on this very phenomenon. At first blush, these figures seem simple – youth equals more testosterone, and therefore, violence. But Mesquida and Weiner found the underpinnings to be much more intricate and complex, involving a struggle for limited resources, such as money and property, which are the mechanisms by which to start and support families and otherwise achieve security. The most fundamental component to the equation, however, is sex.
Many anthropologists and evolutionary theorist contend that evolution was driven by mate selection rather than simple survival. While avoiding any religious or moral debates, let’s agree that aside from eating, drinking and ensuring one’s safety, mating and all of its complexities are some of the more incessant biological and psychological drives in human nature. Inherent to these drives is the goal of connecting with the “best” mate one can acquire. We’ve all experienced this in one way or another, and as clinical as it sounds here, the process may be a bit more familiar when couched in terms like “love at first sight,” “I’ve got butterflies,” “she’s out of my league, but I’m going for it anyway,” “he’s a keeper,” or “this is the one.” Seeking intimate connection, courtship, marriage and children are the real world manifestation of a genetically perpetuated, biologically driven impulse to find the best mate possible, and subsequently pass on our genes.

While it is hard for some to admit, much of what we do is elementally geared toward this very thing. A good job, a safe home, a reliable vehicle… these things and more are tools in our courtship and familial provisioning boxes. Perhaps less obvious are other actions or props we engage. You want a sports car? Why? Because it is fun to go fast? Malarkey. It is because it (supposedly) attracts women. You want to climb Mt. Everest? Why? Because it is a thrill? Maybe, but it also sets you apart from the pack – a powerful mating signal. You want those incrediblepumps that Zappos.com just flashed across your screen? Why? Because they, “make you feel good?” Well, they make you feel good because they make you feel attractive, and attractiveness culls mates. Accept it, deny it, it doesn’t matter; this is one of a handful of our most basic and powerful motivators whether you like it or not. And if this motivation is not allowed sufficient room to breathe, and resources to unfold, it can cause issues, especially when it affects groups or entire masses. This raises a question that is vital to our discussion: what might prevent such a restriction from happening in the first place? To answer this, we need to look at what specifically drives and attracts desirable mates. The answer derives from three parallel processes of selection:

Intrasexual competition refers to same-sex participants vying for a potential mate. This is generally much more intense in males, and can at times manifest in the form of social displays, verbal disputes, covert attacks, and in some cases, physical conflict. Why is this more intense in males? Because of intersexual competition, which occurs when one sex prefers specific qualities in the other sex, and as a result either directly or indirectly solicits those qualities. While this pertains to both sexes, Darwin called it “female’s choice” because it is generally driven by women; their interest/s in specific qualities can (and do) predict the emergence of particular male attributes over time. Why is this primarily driven by women? Because of parental investment: one’s propensity to invest their time and resources in rearing a child. Though women who display a greater propensity for maternal investment are usually more appealing to men, the ever-present maternal instinct renders this less of a concern in the mating equation because men assume that mothers will, indeed, care for their children. Of greater (relative) value, and therefore consequence, are paternalistic men because they are not as plentiful as maternalistic women. You see, due to the comparatively lopsided female investment in child rearing – they have to carry, deliver, and more often than not, raise the child – it is not only more imperative that they find a man who will stick around after the fact to offer support and resources, it is also more difficult because it is easier for men to leave in the early – sometimes, very early – stages of the procreative engagement.

So, when you combine these three processes, the broad stroke result is that the higher-investing females are naturally much more selective in their choice of mates, the lower-investing males are naturally more competitive in the courtship process, and based on the dynamic between these processes, a battery of desired qualities emerges for, and manifests within, each sex. Along with good genetics, women look for long-term, resource-oriented qualities and criteria, i.e., those that will better secure the quality of their children’s rearing, including displays of status, power, maturity, ambition and industriousness, among other things. The assumption is that along with stability, these attributes provide environmental control via access to resources such as money, networks and property.

There are limits to this, as should be obvious. The tyrannical despot who has acquired all of his possessions through brute force is not a chic magnet. However, where all else is equal, the entrepreneur who has the house on the hill, an upper-tier, but still sensible SUV and several lucrative investments will be much more appealing than the guy driving the gremlin and living in his mother’s basement. Tying all of this together, Mesquida and Weiner found that the collision of mating selection with too many competitors and limited resources was a breeding ground for coalitional aggression and wars. Without the ability to claim resources, and therefore attract and acquire quality mates, the backs of young men were pressed against the proverbial wall, and like any cornered but still capable person would do, they came out fighting.

Before we translate this to firms, I’ll add my disclaimers for any outraged readers. Does the process of mate selection apply to everybody? No. However, those that don’t fit the mold are exceptions and not the rule. Further, is human motivation more complex than a simple sex drive? Yes, of course. Are some men paternalistic? Yes, but they are not as prolific as maternalistic women. Also, some women may not need additional resources to adequately provide for their offspring. They would also be an exception to the rule – see here, and here, and here. Further, women are competitive, too, but where mating is concerned, they are generally more passive in their approach – see here, and here, and here.  Lastly, this article is not geared toward the male side of the equation due to chauvinism, but more so because men still comprise the (vast) majority of the major law firm partnership population, and therefore present the larger risk to stability. With these things in mind, let’s get back to our aggressive young men.

The mating selection triad poses a serious problem for younger generations because, generally speaking, older generations own the majority of financial and reputational capital, thereby creating scarcity. Progression in law firms is tied to tenure; whether it is direct or not is simply a function of policies and infrastructure. Even where business (a book of clients) and skill development are the articulated criteria by which to acquire compensation and achieve advancement, these are often governed by experience, which is a function of age. And depending on a firm’s primary psychology, and various other criteria – governance configurations, policies & procedures and practice matrix, among other things – this youthful drive may be thwarted or at least collard by the more senior partners who have already achieved power, status and control over firm resources. So a very common theme in firms is that younger partners who seek to actualize their skills, savvy, horsepower and newly minted titles are unable to generate the resources necessary to do so – high profits, books of business, political and social networks, etc. Where conflictive melting pots of this nature make for war in a political setting, in a law firm, they Balkanize and destabilize the partnership.

While the remedy may seem obvious – give the youngsters what they want, or the firm falters – actuating it is a different story. Once positions of power and control have been achieved by the more senior partners, unless their crowns are 100% secure – which, for myriad reasons, they can’t be – conservatism takes charge and defenses (practical and psychological) are erected to keep the status quo.  Further, along with experience and seniority comes the waning of practice time and cognitive and physical abilities, all of which spur a general values shift from the riskier pursuit of achievement and stimulation – the approach that earned them their current positions – to safer pursuits governed by security, conformity and tradition – an approach that will better maintain their positions. In the wrong environment, a grudge match of sorts can arise whereby younger, more aggressive and riskier partners seeking change in the resource structure are pitted against older, but wiser, wealthier and more conservative partners seeking to maintain the status quo. To an ordinary organization this is a really bad scenario; it is that much worse when the players are exceedingly entrepreneurial, overly intelligent and perpetually driven attorneys that are imbued with innumerable tools and weapons, including financial capital, reputational capital, business and legal savvy and heightened persuasion and social skills. You’ll forgive me if this sounds a bit raw or primitive, or even draconian, but its relevance in the landscape of competitive professional environments can’t be under estimated. And in a “bigger is better” legal culture where multitudinous personalities, skill sets, generations and attitudes amalgamate, today’s law firm is more vulnerable than ever. Below are a few of many considerations.

Collapsing Asymmetry of Information and the Expanding Middle Class

Following their seminal book, Tournament of Lawyers, William Henderson and Marc Galanter wrote a research paper entitled “The Elastic Tournament: The Second Transformation of the Big Law Firm.  In it, they detail a shift in today’s major law firm infrastructure toward an increasingly flexible and less pyramidal construction. With decreasing partner volume and a growing middle class consisting mainly of non-equity partners and senior or very senior associates – some of whom are unable to actualize their dream of partnership – a firm may be more vulnerable to grabbing and leaving. As the information gap continues to shrink between the rainmaker and the client, so does the value of their relationship in the eyes of the client. In firms that leave significant if not complete levels of client management in the hands of younger and lesser-invested post-associate roles within the firm – e.g., sr. associates, special counsel, non-equity partners, etc. – grabbing and leaving is not only a possibility, it may be a probability. I’ve seen any number of attorneys attempting to leverage portable business from (what was) a house client in order to gain partnership somewhere else.

Merger as the Go-To Strategy

Just finishing BigLaw’s most active merger year, ever, it should be alarming to know that mergers, in particular, can be a gateway to, among other things, destabilizing generational gaps. While criteria such as values, attitudes, goals and belief systems can match up nicely between firms, there can be wide variances in cohort compositions and the distribution of power and resources throughout each firm. Using Hill & Barlow as the poster child for such a union, more care should have been taken to sate the drives of the younger and more aggressive cohort. Taking it one step further, if the intention was never there to equalize the younger group in some way, then the marriage should never have been consummated.

Aversion to Hierarchy and Bureaucracy

It is natural and necessary for institutions to adopt a more elaborate, extensive and formalized hierarchy as they grow. Professional service firms – law firms in particular – don’t subscribe to this notion with such vigor. Being that attorneys (generally) exhibit very dominant, entrepreneurial and independent psychologies, law firms as a whole are often averse to bureaucracy and rigid infrastructure. Proof of this can be found in the relatively few law firms that have gone “public” in the wake of the Legal Services Act of 2007. Outside investment requires significant infrastructure and stricter governance, and where shallow capital coffers are the Achilles’ heel to major law firms, it seems as though succumbing to external control is more frightening than running out of money. This is a true challenge for the future of the industry; along with the need for more complex hierarchies and rigidity to support and coordinate larger populations, by providing upward mobility,hierarchy  can and does help to assuage generational aggression; with a view to potential progression, and therefore realization of resources, hopelessness is less likely to set in. Further, stratification serves to sub-divide the cohorts and any other cohesive subgroups/cultures, thereby helping to prevent the concentration of power into a potentially destabilizing counter-subculture.

Litmus Test

While the true value of a diagnosis is dependent upon a number of factors, including your firm’s governance configuration, policies & procedures, practice matrix, cultural composition, etc., below are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What does the stratification of your firm’s generational composition look like? Is there a smooth bell curve with Generation X filling the middle? Or is it a straight line that slopes downward (decreases) as you transition toward the Baby Boomers?
  • Should your firm have a disproportionate amount of younger, more aggressive partners, are they being (severely) under-compensated in comparison to their senior counterparts and/or the market?
  • Do the younger partners have the ability to develop their own book of business? This is often perceived as a mechanism of control, and while the gravity of this is quite contingent upon other factors, a means of achieving some autonomous control is generally very attractive to younger partners, in particular.
  • What is the nature of your firm’s client relationships? Are they truly “house” clients? Does your firm maintain enough reputational capital to override any attempts to grab and leave? This can be a challenging question. In my experience, while most firms would answer “yes,” many should not.
  • If you have house clients that are managed by younger partners or sr. associates, do those attorneys have a realistic view to advancement, or some other incentive to prevent them from absconding with clients?

While generational friction has been inherent to organizations for centuries, corporate America is afforded a number of tools by which to pacify any rising tides, e.g., stronger, more complex and hierarchical infrastructures, a more complete separation of power in their governance models, true ownership of products and services, etc. Law firms, however, don’t enjoy many of these advantages, resulting in a more fragile institution. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for the clash of the generations, but awareness is undoubtedly the first step to a remedy.