“When you go to battle, you hire the army not the soldier” – not an apt metaphor for firm vs. partner

This memorable quote struck me, but struck me as misguided. The rhetoric, in the sense of the underlying assumptions and method of persuasion, invokes at least these six points.

a) Hire the army connotes big matters. Most legal matters are tactical strikes at the largest, small skirmishes more likely, and do not need more than two people – a partner and an associate.

b) Hire “the army” speaks of army in the singular. The more a general counsel directs work to a small number of law firms, has converged in other words to rely on a few legal armies, the closer the match between the firm and the partner. But convergence is a battle far from won.

c) Armies advance across a broad front. Thus, the quote applies much more to litigation, especially across a broad front, than to advice in a limited specialty area such as import/export or FCPA.

d) The foot soldier counterpart for legal services is document review; some matters require grunts in warehouses. But many matters represented by outside counsel do not generate gigabytes of data. Assistance on a zoning variance, to offer one representative type of matter, needs knowledge of requirements, procedures, and local practices more than legions to cull “boxes of doxes.”

e) The army metaphor appeals to Biglaw partners and my bet is that the general counsel who tossed it off had been a partner in a big firm for many years (See my post of April 27, 2009: ACC Value Challenge, point 5: hire the firm not the partner.).

f) Wars demand everything of a country. Cost be damned, we fight for freedom/God/our rights/the kidnapping of Helen! But legal services – and, yes, even litigation – are extensions of business strategies and their levels of spending must enter into the cost-benefit calculation.

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