Firm histories, compiled in self-published or custom-published books, are feel-good ways to inspire both prospective hires as well as current and prospective clients. Knowing of a firm’s longevity and its typically humble roots, about big historical wins, about amazing acts of goodness during troubled times (the Depression, World Wars, the turbulent ’60s), and about big personalities within the fold can warm anyone to an organization. But why do some firms seem to have difficulty publishing a firm history to commemorate major milestones?
Firms need to realize two things: No one is going to read a firm history cover to cover except—possibly—a suck-up summer associate. These volumes, whether thick or thin, are meant to be flipped through. Formatting and imagery should be attention getting. Publishing an encyclopedic tome is likely to be waste of time and money. Make it of manageable length.
The second point firms need to realize is that not everyone is going to get a starring role. That’s where difficulty sometimes creeps in. Firms agree, the marketers agree, the publicists agree that putting together a firm history would be a great idea underscoring the firm’s historical importance. As institutional memory fades as time wears on, a firm history will commemorate highlights that no current partner actually can recall. The problem comes with whose name will be mentioned first, whose anecdotes make it into the published work, whose practice area will be highlighted, who will be merely a footnote, who won’t be identified at all. All history is revisionist, told typically from the perspective of the winner. Fantastic firm feats will be told from the perspective of the firm, not from that of a losing opponent. There’s nothing wrong with spinning the narrative to emphasize certain contributors. No one wants to read book-length lists of deals and people involved with the transactions.
What some firm leadership is reticent to do, however, is to confront this reality early on. Partners may agree they want the firm to publish a history. What they’ll likely bicker about is how that history will be identified and who will be mentioned and who won’t. Don’t wait until the firm has invested significant time and funds to have a monstrous battle. Manage the process early on.