In most businesses, the senior-most individuals would be considered the most stable in terms of productivity. Their years of experience coupled with their management and marketing skills and reputation would normally add up to sustainable revenue. But this is not necessarily the case in a law practice. Most Partners do not intuitively have marketing skills, and many lack some degree of management skills. As a result, their practices might be fickle: booming one year, bust the next. Or some might fly just under the radar on a regular basis: the rising star they were before Partnership never quite materialized into the productive Partner it was assumed they would become. They might hold their weight by covering their costs and part of their share of the overhead, but they can’t quite meet that financial marker the firm would like all Partners to reach on an annual basis.
Yet law firms are loathed to self-police, and even more reticent to terminate Partner relationships until it’s so bad, even the office services clerk is telling you to let go already. So if termination is not an option, how do you fix an under-performing Partner?
Set the Stage:
The ideal fix begins well before a Partner starts under-performing. Without realizing it, most law firms are setting up their Partners for failure by not following three simple rules:
1. Declare what a Partner should look like. Being a successful Partner requires so much more than hitting your targets. In my 27 years of working with lawyers, very few understood the requirements of Partnership until they were in that role. If you don’t know what job you’re applying for, how do you know if you’re qualified? How can you build the skills needed to be able to hit the ground running once you land the role? In my opinion, it’s too late to learn how to be a great Partner once you become one because few firms have the financial room to allow a new Partner to coast for five years while they warm up to the task.
Sit down right now and write out a description of the experience, skills and requirements of a Partner. Pass this out to all of your Associates (and your Partners as well, for that matter). If your firm requires an annual business plan from each of your lawyers (and I sincerely hope you do), ensure there is reference throughout that document as to how they will build their experience and skills needed for advancement. Partners should be comparing themselves against the description to determine their weaknesses, and their plans should speak to how they will mitigate these challenges.
2. Track and report against those goals. Partner goals should include their targets (for billings, hours, origination, delegation, and effective rate). This information should be reported on a monthly basis, so that each Partner understands where they are, can assess the effectiveness of their activities to that point, and make decisions about changes in behaviour in an attempt to affect the next month’s stats. In addition to these targets, each Partner should also have goals (and action items to achieve those goals) relating to improvement in their legal skills, business management, and marketing. These goals and planned activities should be shared with someone (the executive committee?) and the Partner’s accomplishments and results monitored with the Partner on a quarterly basis.
Why so much documentation, reporting and analysis? Goals are useless unless you are committed to achieving them. That commitment is demonstrated through the declaration of action items toward their achievement. Action items are pointless unless you hold someone accountable for them. Regular reporting and review assists with that accountability.
3. Get them help. See below.
OK, that sounds like a plan and you’ll certainly work on that in the coming months. But how do you fix the under-performing Partner right now? There are two solutions:
1. Get them help. If they could have fixed their issues on their own, or if the firm could have provided the insight and support needed to make an under-productive lawyer more productive, it likely would have happened by now. Consider bringing in an outside expert to help. Initially, you’ll need a business analyst who can help to determine where the challenges lie. It might be within the structure of the role, or the support structure, or the technology. It might be a challenge with practice management, delegation, or business development. An analyst would interview key members of the firm, look at financials, and have lengthy conversations with the Partner to determine where the issues lie. (It’s possible that a firm might have an internal analyst, such as a marketing expert of COO, who can do this step). Next, bring in a coach who can work with the Partner on improving these areas. Traditionally, coaches don’t do business analysis or strategy. Technically, coaching is not about offering advice, but rather working with the lawyer to get them to realizations about themself, and developing programs for themselves that will change their own behaviours to those that are more conducive to their end goals. However, some coaches are able to do both roles. They just need to be very clear with the firm when they are doing each role (as if they are certified, there are very different ground rules for coaching that must be adhered to).
2. Let them go. Intelligent people know when they aren’t measuring up or pulling their weight. If a Partner fails in turning their own situation around after a reasonable amount of time, or if all external attempts to help them improve fail, then they might simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ultimately, it might be better for the firm, and for the Partner, to agree to part company.
Every lawyer in the firm is an investment, and a user of valuable resources (an office, technology, an assistant, a portion of office services costs, software licences, law society fees, etc.) The reality of this business is that each lawyer needs to be successful. Firms must declare what success looks like, track progress against those benchmarks, and offer tangible assistance to help lawyers in achieving those goals.
If you can do this on your own, make it your summer or fall project to get your firm aligned with this logical business management strategy. If you need help, either to start the process, to help your lawyers reach their potential, or both, then invest in the help. When dealing with under-performing Partners, the status quo is an expensive and ultimately, a failing proposition.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org