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The “One-Firm” Firms

Referenced by a law-firm owner and an investor

One Ring

If work at the senior level at any firm is increasingly about managing knowledge and talent, there might be something interesting to learn from a few of the most successful professional services firms’ corporate cultures, ethos and practices. Although Silicon Valley’s iconic companies became the most usual references of engaging, meaningful, collaborative work/management propositions, the great professional services firms’ management philosophy and practices (especially in their early years) offer some pretty good insights.

What do companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Latham and Watkins have in common – besides being possibly the most profitable and/or admired firms in their industries? “A commitment to a model of professional business management which stresses teamwork, collaboration and institutional loyalty” says David Maister, who coined the concept of “one-firm firm” in 1985.

“In contrast to many of their (often successful) competitors who emphasize individual entrepreneurialism, autonomous profit centers, internal competition and/or highly decentralized, independent activities, one-firm firms place great emphasis on firm-wide coordination of decision making, group identity, cooperative teamwork, and institutional commitment.”

“In large part, the institutional commitment within one-firm firms is generated not only through loyalty to the firm, but also by the development of a sense of a “mission”, which is most frequently seen as client service. All professional service firms list in their mission statement what I call the “3 S’s”: the goals of (client) Service, (financial) Success, and (professional) Satisfaction. What is noticeable about one-firm firms is that, in their internal communications, there is a clear priority to those 3 S’s. At McKinsey, a new consultant learns within a very short period of time that the firm believes that the client comes first, the firm second, and the individual last.”

“The high-commitment, hard-working, mission-oriented, team-intensive characteristics of one-firm firms are reminiscent of another type of organization: the Marine Corps. Indeed, one-firm firms have an elite, Marine Corps attitude about themselves. An atmosphere of a special, private club prevails, where members feel that ‘we do things differently around here, and most of us couldn’t consider working anywhere else.’ While all professional firms will assert that they have the best professionals in town, one-firm firms claim they have the best firm in town, a subtle but important difference.”

His must read articles:

  1. The One-Firm Firm – David Maister’s 1985 MIT – Sloan Management Review classic
  2. The One-Firm Firm Revisited – David Maister’s review of the original article in 2006

Charles (Charlie) Ellis also did phenomenal work on the subject, especially with regard to the investment profession. See The Characteristics of Successful Investment Firms – Charles Ellis’ classic speech at the “Managing the Investment Professional Conference” held in Chicago, in September 1983. We will write soon a review of his great book on professional services: “What it takes: Seven Secrets from the World’s Greatest Professional Services Firms”.