Professional Service Firms


Boston, 13-15 Aug 2019; Deadline 19 Apr



13-15 August, 2019

District Hall, Boston, MA – USA

Embracing the “New Normal” in Professional Services

For the past decade or so, scholarship on professional services has been dominated by “alternatives”. We have witnessed the emergence of alternative legal service providers (Thomson Reuters, Georgetown Law, Saïd Business School, & Acritas, 2019) and alternative business structures (von Nordenflycht, 2014), as well as new business models (Christensen, Wang, & van Bever, 2013; The Boston Consulting Group, 2009) and alternative fee arrangements (Zeughauser, 1997). We have seen the rise of alternatives to partnership (Angel, 2007; Legal Business, 2006) and alternative career paths (Malhotra, Morris, & Smets, 2010; Noury, Gand, & Sardas, 2017). Most of these trends fueled by technological and social disruptions and compared to established templates of PSF archetypes (Smets, Morris, von Nordenflycht, & Brock, 2017; von Nordenflycht, 2010).

Today, however, many of these ‘alternatives’ are increasingly mainstream. They are the “new normal” and it appears timely to stop casting our eyes back into the past, but look into future, seeking to understand how new norms become institutionalized. As this new reality settles in, it offers increasingly rich data to study previously nascent phenomena, but it also generates new questions: How do new structures and practices integrate (or not) into existing legacy systems? How do organizations switch from mobilizing change to institutionalizing new modus operandi? Who are the (professional) groups that gain or lose dominance in this new normal?

We welcome contributions – both empirical and theoretical – which examine the full range of questions addressing the what, why, who and how of the new normal in professional services. Indicative questions may include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the role of technology in the ‘new normal’?
    Articifial intelligence, Blockchain, Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and LegalTech are just some of the buzzwords that have been preoccupying professionals. Some have predicted the transformation of human expertise (Susskind & Susskind, 2015) while other have heralded the computerisation of many professional jobs (Frey & Osborne, 2013). Much discourse has been dominated by a technological determinism that made change sound inevitable. Yet, we also know that people use technology – and not always in the way it was intended (Orlikowski & Scott, 2015; Orlikowski, 1996, 2000). As technology is playing a greater role in professional service delivery, what role is it actually playing? How do professional judgement and machine learning blend? What does technology-enabled professional work actually look like?
  • What is the size and shape of ‘new’ professional service firms?
    As firm expertise is increasingly ‘leveraged’ (Maister, 1993) through technology, what is the shape of things to come? While the archetypical ‘pyramid’ shape of professional service firms has been under pressure for some time (Malhotra et al., 2010), what is the ‘shape’ – and size of professional service firms in the technology age? As tournaments for promotion (Galanter & Palay, 1991; Gilson & Mnookin, 1985) are being fought on new playing fields, who rises to the top?
  • Who are the ‘professionals’ that inhabit professional service firms?
    An increasing role of technology inevitably gives technologists greater presence in PSFs. At the same time, professional ‘gig’ workers perform more and more of their work from outside the traditional boundaries of the firm. Questions of membership and closure warrant revisiting von Nordenflycht’s (2010) question: What is a professional service firm? How ‘professionalized’ is the workforce of the future? How are different norms of professionalism accommodated? How do new ways of working affect retention, work-life balance and career prospects (Noury et al., 2017)?
  • How do professionals construct and manage their identities?
    As professional work gets disintegrated and automated, what are the identities available for professionals (Ahuja, Nikolova, & Clegg, 2017; Bevort & Suddaby, 2016)? What new identities become available and how are they constructed? Who will occupy the boundary of technologism and professionalism and how do they claim and navigate this interstitial space? Will the ‘professional’ identity of the future necessarily be a hybrid one?
  • What is the future of professional ethics and regulation?
    As PSFs become inhabited by a greater variety of more or less professionalized staff, how are professional ethics monitored and enforced (Adams, 2017; Aulakh & Kirkpatrick, 2018; Flood, 2011; Gabbioneta, Prakash, & Greenwood, 2014; Whittle, Mueller, & Carter, 2016)? How do we ensure that machines deliver professional services in line with existing standards and how do we monitor those behind the machines? As professional firms become technology firms and data companies, who is in charge and whose norms matter? Is there a future for professional autonomy and self-regulation?
  • How is client value generated and captured?
    New technologies cement the increasing ‘productification’ of professional services, as Christensen and colleagues (2013) observed in the trend towards “asset-based consulting”. How does productification reflect the archetypical customization of professional services? How are client needs captured and value-added defined? On the other side of this coin: How do firms capture the value they generate when it is increasingly generated by machines, rather than humans? In short, what is the ‘new normal’ in terms of billing and business models?
  • How does the ‘old guard’ cope with the ‘new normal’?
    Even though previously ‘alternative’ structures and practices become increasingly mainstream, this does not mean that they replace legacy systems wholesale. What are the mechanisms of displacement, ‘settlement’ (Rao & Kenney, 2008), or ‘sedimentation’ (Cooper, Hinings, Greenwood, & Brown, 1996)? How do organizations balance exploring new options and exploiting the old status quo? How do firms cope with the ongoing disruption where no new dominant design emerges (Walker, 2018)?

We welcome papers using a variety of theoretical perspectives, research approaches and methodology as well as conceptual papers.


Please send an abstract of no more than 1000 words to by 19 April, 2019. Abstracts will be reviewed and decisions communicated by the end of April 2019. Complete papers will be due by 23 July, 2019.

Timing and Venue

The conference will be held on August 13-15 2019 at District Hall, Boston, MA. District Hall is a public innovation center that dubs itself “the living room of Boston’s innovation community”. Our conference will seek to harness this spirit of innovation, dialogue and community. It starts with an informal dinner on the day the Academy of Management meeting ends (Tuesday, 13 August) and closes with lunch on Thursday, August 15.

The Journal of Professions and Organization

The conference will once again partner with the Journal of Professions and Organization (JPO), launched in 2013 by Oxford University Press to further research on professionals and their organizations. As in past years, the PSF Hub at Oxford is sponsoring JPO’s Best Paper Award, and the winners will be recognized during a short ceremony at the Conference.

Additional Information

There is no fee for registration or meals for those who are invited to attend. All delegates will be expected to cover their own travel and accommodation costs. The PSF Hub at Oxford will offer small travel bursaries to those attendees selected to present their paper. Further information will be made available to participants via the conference website from May 2019 once decisions on papers have been made.

In the first instance, please send an abstract of up to 1000 words to

Deadline for submissions is 19 April 2019.

Michael Smets, Tim Morris, Mari Sako


Adams, T. L. 2017. Self-regulating professions: Past, present, future. Journal of Professions and Organization, 4(1): 70-87.

Ahuja, S., Nikolova, N., & Clegg, S. 2017. Paradoxical identity: The changing nature of architectural work and its relation to architects’ identity. Journal of Professions and Organization, 4(1): 2-19.

Angel, T. 2007. Your challenge: Sustaining partnership in the twenty-first century: The global law firm experience. In L. Empson (Ed.), Managing the modern law firm: New challenges, new perspectives: 196-217. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aulakh, S. & Kirkpatrick, I. 2018. New governance regulation and lawyers: When substantive compliance erodes legal professionalism. Journal of Professions and Organization, 5(3): 167-183.

Bevort, F. & Suddaby, R. 2016. Scripting professional identities: How individuals make sense of contradictory logics. Journal of Professions and Organization, 3(1): 17-38.

Christensen, C. M., Wang, D., & van Bever, D. 2013. Consulting on the cusp of disruption. Harvard Business Review, 91(10): 106-114.

Cooper, D. J., Hinings, C. R., Greenwood, R., & Brown, J. 1996. Sedimentation and transformation in organizational change: The case of canadian law firms. Organization Studies, 17(4): 623-647.

Flood, J. 2011. The re-landscaping of the legal profession: Large law firms and professional re-regulation. Current Sociology, 59(4): 507–529.

Frey, C., Benedikt & Osborne, M., A. 2013. The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114(C): 254-280.

Gabbioneta, C., Prakash, R., & Greenwood, R. 2014. Sustained corporate corruption and processes of institutional ascription within professional networks. Journal of Professions and Organization, 1(1): 16-32.

Galanter, M. & Palay, T. M. 1991. Tournament of lawyers: The transformation of the big law firm. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gilson, R. J. & Mnookin, R. H. 1985. Sharing among the human capitalists: An economic inquiry into the corporate law firm and how partners split profits. Stanford Law Review, 37(2): 313-392.

Legal Business. 2006. Legal business assistant survey. Legal Business, 169: 60-74.

Maister, D. 1993. Managing the professional service firm. New York: Free Press.

Malhotra, N., Morris, T., & Smets, M. 2010. New career models in uk professional service firms: From up-or-out to up-and-going-nowhere? The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21(9): 1396-1413.

Noury, L., Gand, S., & Sardas, J.-C. 2017. Tackling the work-life balance challenge in professional service firms: The impact of projects, organizing, and service characteristics. Journal of Professions and Organization, 4(2): 149-178.

Orlikowski, W. & Scott, S. V. 2015. The algorithm and the crowd: Considering the materiality of service innovation. MIS Quarterly, 39(1): 201-216.

Orlikowski, W. J. 1996. Improvising organizational transformation over time: A situated change perspective. Information Systems Research, 7(1): 63-92.

Orlikowski, W. J. 2000. Using technology and constituting structures: A practice lens for studying technology in organizations. Organization Science, 11(4): 404-428.

Rao, H. & Kenney, M. 2008. New forms as settlements. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, K. Sahlin, & R. Suddaby (Eds.), The sage handbook of organizational institutionalism, 1st ed.: 352-370. London: Sage.

Smets, M., Morris, T., von Nordenflycht, A., & Brock, D. M. 2017. 25 years since ‘p2’: Taking stock and charting the future of professional firms. Journal of Professions and Organization, 4(2): 91-111.

Susskind, R. E. & Susskind, D. 2015. The future of the professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Boston Consulting Group. 2009. Business model innovation: When the game gets tough, change the game, Boston Consulting Group Analysis: 1-7.

Thomson Reuters, Georgetown Law, Saïd Business School, & Acritas. 2019. Alternative legal service providers 2019: Fast growth, expanding use and increasing opportunity.

von Nordenflycht, A. 2010. What is a professional service firm? Toward a theory and taxonomy of knowledge-intensive firms. Academy of Management Review, 35(1): 155-174.

von Nordenflycht, A. 2014. Does the emergence of publicly traded professional service firms undermine the theory of the professional partnership? A cross-industry historical analysis. Journal of Professions and Organization, 1(2): 137–160.

Walker, S. P. 2018. War and organizational disruption in professional service firms. Journal of Professions and Organization, 5(3): 206-229.

Whittle, A., Mueller, F., & Carter, C. 2016. The ‘big four’ in the spotlight: Accountability and professional legitimacy in the uk audit market. Journal of Professions and Organization, 3(2): 119-141.

Zeughauser, P. D. 1997. Using alternative fee arrangements to improve client relationships, law firm profitability and results. Law Prac. Mgmt., 23: 22.