Most of the largest and wealthiest law firms are run by senior lawyers with no real incentive to change how they do business.

Most of the largest and wealthiest law firms are run by senior lawyers with no real incentive to change how they do business.

Legal-issues writer Elizabeth Olson tackled the subject of the legal profession’s generational divide in “Graying Firms Wrestle with Making Room for Younger Lawyers,” an article recently published in the New York Times.

“If any discipline is a window into the debate about balancing short-term profits over long-term survival,” Olson wrote, “it is the legal profession, one of the most traditional businesses in the world.”

By interviewing a range of practitioners and observers from the field of law, and drawing on legal-industry research, Olson found that while the majority of firms (two-thirds of the largest ones in the U.S., she estimates) continue to operate in very traditional ways, and despite the fact that there is mounting evidence that the status quo is not sustainable in the new digitally-based world, change is not likely to occur in the near future. This is in part because senior partners are making too much money.

“There’s not enough pain to make them change of their own volition,” said Bruce MacEwen, who writes about legal economics at AdamSmithEsq.

Among those Olson interviewed was William Henderson, professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who says that firms that stick to the old ladder-climbing model of partnership structure – rather than exploring new approaches to billing, technology and client relationships, as more future-minded firms are doing –could face their own demise when their senior lawyers do retire.

How pressing is the need to offer new associates a greater degree of free rein and entrepreneurial initiative than has traditionally been available, and to find new ways of compensating them? Let me know what you think about this (or any other) matter, either in the comments section below, or directly via email.