Holacracy Or Hierarchy: What Can Work For A Law Firm?

Most law firms are hierarchical. In most cases, this causes bureaucracy inside the company processes and management, as well as a lack of communication and transparency. Luckily, some law companies have transitioned to ‘flatness’ in terms of business organisation. Very few of them were brave enough to implement a holacracy, the brand-new method of structuring and running an organisation that replaces conventional management. 

Gartner’s recent Reimagine HR research suggests that companies who reduce layers connect with employees and see higher proportions of highly engaged employees (60% vs. an average of 40%). Some law firms have already implemented the flatter approach to managing workers, such as Cooley, DWF, and Axon Partners. Founded in 2016 by nine partners, Axon was looking toward a horizontal management structure. They knew little about holacracy, but after reading the book Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System by Brian Robertson, they decided to try their luck in this approach.  

Yana Bakalenko, the COO of Axon Partners, shares her memories: 

“We wanted to create a firm that would reimagine legal services in the light of communication with the client and workflow management. Our clients are IT firms. We wanted to speak their language without black ties.” 

Actually, many firms that approach holacracy are driven by the idea of transparent and equal communication where the client’s personality comes first (with no tie as a barrier).

Moreover, Larry Bridgesmith, Managing Partner of DASH.law, told us that in his experience in the US law firm environment, “flat” legal teams and organisations are the norm:

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“Most legal matters are managed by a single supervising attorney. The teams are often unique to the matter and only as large as is necessary. This requires optimal staffing and efficient matter management. Few law firms routinely handle matters large enough to require stable or constant many-layered teams of legal professionals.

Of course, that would be different in corporate legal departments, which tend to be highly specialised, and tasks can be dedicated to specific members of the legal department staff. This can be a more hierarchical environment and less susceptible to flat matter management.”

People and relationships, recruiting

Axon actively marketed its approach, and it became visible to many young lawyers who were looking for internship opportunities. “Our firm was easily found in Google as the one who implemented holacracy in its processes. Many freshers have already known that we were different from classic law firms,” Yana says. “Interns were impressed by the fact that they were given keys to the office. Newcomers are not forced by holacracy. They can start from being a host/moderator at the planning meeting.”

The Holacracy framework is built around circles and dynamic roles where everyone can take responsibility and contribute to a particular process. However, if a person took responsibility for something and then didn’t proceed with it, the lead-link (a role being the driver of the sub-Circle at the Super-Circle) just deletes his role or places another person in this role.  

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Top 3 facts Yana Bakalenko dislikes about hierarchy:

  • Bureaucracy and complicated processes. Long process of approvals. 
  • Subordination and difficult communication. This often means fear and lack of transparency. 
  • Delegating. It’s not normal to already have tight deadlines (such as do it today). 

Processes on flat-structure for problem-solving

For most companies, it is still difficult to adhere to any management structure with zero losses. The good thing is that you may think critically about the necessity of implementing particular processes and decide whether you need them in your organisation. Axon Partners still has a formal hierarchy on the client side. This helps ensure quality and consistent results for the customer. While it is still far from the classic hierarchy, it’s more about structuring lawyers’ roles as junior or senior.

Bakalenko explains, “In internal processes, we completely implemented a holacracy. We started with the list of functions we have inside the company and dynamic roles (for instance, Climate controller or the host of the office). We use GlassFrog, a tool to create a clear holacracy structure and manage roles.

Client side of holacracy

According to the Axon process, a new client inquiry drops into the circle of product owners (product owner is equal to a partner in a classical law firm). Typically, they discuss and appoint a team that will start to work with this client at the beginning of the week. The product owner describes the process to make it clear for the client, as well as a number of changes that can be made in a given package. 

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“Quality standard is limited to the Product Owners circle — they control how everything is going with the projects. All the atypical situations will be managed in this circle as well,” Yana Bakalenko says.

When choosing between holacracy and hierarchy, there are always a number of challenges. The best way to decide if either structure suits your needs is to think through the goal you are trying to achieve. Also, people can be main advocates or blockers on the way, so make sure that your team is on board. 

Anastasia Pozynich
Anastasia Pozynich

Lawrina’s mission is to improve legal practices in the changing world. This mission influences how the portal approaches its content and what it believes is important to present. If you want to learn more about innovative legal practice download the free eBook Lawyer’s Work and Productivity in a New Normal. Written by the Lawrina team and top legal innovators, this eBook contains 80+ pages of recent research and brand-new approaches to lawyer’s work, productivity and effective communication in a post-pandemic. 

About the author: Anastasia Pozynich is the Product Marketing Manager at Lawrina.