hbsFor the first time in more than 10 years, Harvard Business School has written a case study about a major law firm: Philadelphia's Duane Morris. Harvard's famous case method dates to the 1920s. More than 80 percent of classes at the school are based on the study of cases, which are meant to be a "detailed account of a real-life business situation," according to HBS's Web site.

Harvard has dissected a few smaller law firms, but according to a Duane Morris spokesman, an AmLaw 200 firm has not gone under the microscope since Wachtell, Lipton in 1995.

The 40-page, Duane Morris study, full of cool, b-school type charts and graphics, details the firm's rapid growth - from 242 attorneys in 1997 to 550 in 2005 - and the challenges it faces preserving its culture. The firm's culture is based in part on its founding Quaker values, such as consensus-based decision making and financial transparency. Compensation is an open book at Duane Morris, and firm head Sheldon Bonovitz laid bare the firm's finances to HBS: (average partner-profits grew from $325,000 in 1997 to $675,000 in 2005)

To maintain cultural unity, according to the study, the firm schedules regular partner meetings. We particularly liked the description of one firm-wide retreat held at the Doral Country Club in Miami on Halloween. "The associates (and some partners) went to South Beach and came in at 5:00 in the morning, but they still got to the meetings." (The study has not yet been published, but will eventually be available here.)

So why did Duane Morris agree to be poked and prodded by pointy-headed business wonks? "Harvard Business School has done case studies on the major corporations of America," says Bonovitz. "We were flattered."

The Duane Morris "case" will be taught later this fall. Students will be asked to address various questions. Readers, I'm sure the students would appreciate help on these weighty topics:

  1. How can the firm preserve its culture as its transitions to a new strategy of growth by mergers (as opposed to its previous focus on lateral hiring)?
  2. In 2005, Bonovitz was already 2 years past the firm's mandatory retirement age. He is still the chair of the firm but no longer a partner. The study asks: "What skills and qualifications should be sought in Bonovitz's successor?"