Very few partnerships are operating at full throttle. Most have a lawyer or two who are performing under expectations. This blog offers suggestions for fixing this issue.
There are many possible reasons for declining productivity:
- An area of law may become commoditized, often resulting from excessive competition;
- A lawyer may let too much time go by between successful deals or cases and no longer be seen as “leading” within that practice area;
- Too much competition for the same clients or type of work within the firm may cause lowered productivity in some lawyers – this commonly happens within litigation departments;
- Some expertise has a time limit: no one needs Y2K advice anymore; privacy and anti spam are hot now but may not be five years from now;
- A lawyer may be seen as unresponsive, expensive, slow, or unpleasant to work with;
- A lawyer may seen as “a great person” but not sufficiently proactive, creative or assertive;
- A lawyer who never had to market before might not have the skills to do so now.
Regardless of the reason for the lower productivity, most firms have tremendous difficulty in dealing with it. Attempts may be made at compensation time, but other than the threat of a stick very little is done to rectify the situation. Eventually, some partnerships may ask a lawyer to leave, but that’s uncommon. It’s far more likely that a lawyer may under-perform for years before any drastic action is taken.
The situation is draining on law firms. To state the obvious, lawyers are the revenue producers of a law firm. A law firm’s success over time is dependent on its ability to attract and maintain good revenue producers. And a firm’s ability to do that is dependent on consistent productivity, so it has the money for the compensation required to do so. Particularly in a smaller firm, if two or more lawyers are regularly under-producing it can have a devastating result not simply on the firm’s current financial year, but on its ability to continue to attract and maintain good producers in the future. It’s a slippery slope from which it can be very difficult to recover.
Further, hiring a good lawyer provides no guarantee that they will be a good producer. And while all practices have their ups and downs, consistent downs should be a warning sign. Lawyers are intelligent, type “A” personalities. They know when they are under-performing and it’s not a comfortable place for them. They are intelligent; if they could have determined a way to improve their situation, they would have done so by now. This isn’t going to be fixed by a few phone calls and lunch dates.
There are two primary solutions to under-performance:
- The inoculation: Avoid under productivity issues by limiting their ability to occur in the first place. Lawyers are not trained in law school on how to manage their careers and develop business. Rather than hoping that your lawyers “get it” in time, consider creating a marketing culture within your firm. Require that each of your lawyers create and follow an annual business and marketing plan. Develop an ongoing marketing training program that brings in speakers on building your network, how to work a room, how to build a strong personal marketing plan, how to attract and maintain a good referral network, how to cross sell effectively, how to respond to an RFP, etc. Consider starting a mentoring program within your firm (but beware: not all successful lawyers make good mentors). Work on marketing and career management skills at every level within the firm so it is expected, supported, and valued.
- The treatment: Consider hiring a coach. Good coaching is not about forcing a lawyer to do what they hate. It’s about understanding what they are good at, or could be good at, and giving them the education, support, encouragement and accountability they need to pursue those skills. A coach will analyze a lawyer’s practice from the perspective of: their service offerings; their methodologies; their practice management; their marketing and business development. A coach helps a lawyer set assertive but realistic goals, and to develop a pathway to get there. A coach helps the lawyer to identify and build the skills, habits and behaviours needed to reach those goals. Results are often quick and significant. I know that in my practice, lawyers typically increase their revenues by between 25% and 50% in the first year. And these are life-long skills that positively impact the lawyer (and their revenue potential) far beyond their coaching period. One of my coaching clients is on-track to experience accumulated revenue improvements worth over $5million within the next 10 or so years.
When a firm hires a lawyer, they want that lawyer to be successful. We know that personal career management and business develop skills are key to a lawyer’s success; we also know they don’t learn those things in school. It makes sense to provide some of that learning within the law firm.
And when a lawyer needs a more concerted effort in terms of practice management or business development coaching, consider backing up your initial investment by providing them with the chance to move from under-performer to significant contributor. The alternatives are to than to give up and usher the lawyer out the back door, or to do nothing and hope the situation miraculously rights itself over time. Which makes the most sense to you?