As Decatur Miller sees it, before November he was like a general trying to keep 14 separate battalions in formation on the same horizon.
Organizationally, all the practice groups at the Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury -- from the smallest, the four-lawyer Estates & Trusts, to the largest, the 59-lawyer general litigation -- were "strung out on a single line, with the only control being the policy committee," said Mr. Miller, the firm's chairman.
Either Piper's 10-person policy committee or its chairman had to be consulted on many of the basic issues that arose among the firm's 260 lawyers, from staffing matters within the practice groups to questions on billing, budgeting and collections.
At the firm's annual meeting Nov. 16, however, its partners voted to restructure that rigid system.
The 14 practice groups are now organized into two divisions: "business," which includes most corporate law matters, and "controversy," which includes labor law, environmental law, communications law and the like, as well as litigation.
Group leaders now also have the authority to make basic management decisions on their own or in consultation with divisional chairmen. Lawyers are also being actively encouraged to communicate with members of other groups about client needs.
"It really seemed clear to us" that the old system had to be broken down and rebuilt in pyramid form "to provide greater responsiveness to our clients' needs," said Mr. Miller.
Organizational shifts like this may seem incomprehensibly subtle to non-lawyers, but they indicate a sea change taking place in the legal profession as it faces the 1990s.
With more lawyers practicing law in the United States than ever before and, at the same time, a weakening economy meaning less legal business to go around, law firms are belatedly learning that in order to survive they have to serve clients.
Even though their business is to provide a service, not manufacture a product, many lawyers never before put a premium on responding to client questions and needs, experts in law firm management say.
In past decades, "clients came to the lawyers, not vice versa. Lawyers didn't have to worry about attracting and retaining clients. The economy was expanding and they were able to get new business easily," said Winnie Borden, president of W. C. Borden & Associates, a Baltimore firm that specializes in management consulting for small and medium-sized law firms.
Today, however, "the sense among lawyers in Baltimore is that 'All the business that's out there to get has already been gotten. And you'd better hold on to what you've got,' " she said.
In addition, "clients are dramatically more sophisticated" than they were in the past, said Chuck Santangelo, director of the Philadelphia office of Hildebrandt Inc., an international firm dealing exclusively in law firm management.
"Clients today are asking, 'Who's going to staff my case?,' 'What are you going to charge me?' and 'How long will it take to clear things up?' Historically they never asked those things," Mr. Santangelo said.
Historically, too, lawyers never expected to be asked those questions.
"In the past if you were superb in a field of law, you were one of only a few lawyers in a given geographic area who were superb. The services of lawyers like that were price-insensitive and clients simply went to the best," said Benjamin R. Civiletti, managing partner of the Baltimore firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard.
These days "there are a great many lawyers who can do superb work in whatever field. And clients are going to make their choices based on price and the quality of service, in the sense of speed, efficiency, cordiality and completeness, that is offered," he added.
Venable also underwent a restructuring Jan. 1, regrouping five departments into three divisions called "Business," "Labor and Litigation," and "Government," Mr. Civiletti said.
Each division is headed by a partner who has been designated the divisional manager, and who has operational authority for matters such as the assignment of cases and the approval of expenditures for business development.
The "overall management" of the firm hasn't changed, however, Mr. Civiletti said. The managing partner still reports to the six-person management committee,
which continues to have authority for such major issues as setting rates and budgets, he added.
The need to hold rates down, be more client-oriented and broaden the services Venable lawyers offer motivated the changes, Mr. Civiletti said. "We wanted to do those things better, and be quicker off the mark, and be alert to change" in the business community, he added.
For people whose job is communication, lawyers have also been notoriously bad at communicating among themselves, consultants say. These days law firms are also trying to address that problem.