Partners wrestle with this question: when do we make the difficult decision to part company with one of our own? This action goes against the very fibre of a typical law firm. Partnerships are based on undying loyalty, nurturing the next partners, and being there for each other through thick and thin. We understand that not all lawyers will have banner earnings year after year – we all experience slumps. The benefit of a firm is that we serve as each others’ insurance policy by propping each other up when needed. After all, we may be in that position ourselves one day. For this same reason, law firms are typically poor in policing their lawyers, especially their partners. We don’t want to call out bad behaviors or make demands of under-performing lawyers because that might then happen to us one day. Better to ignore it for as long as possible and hope that the situation improves.
Very occasionally, a situation will rectify itself in relatively short order – but that’s not the norm. Lawyers are intelligent, capable and usually rational beings. If they could fix the issue on their own, they would have done it by now. Leaving an issue to fester is not an effective way to fix it. Following this by making a seemingly quick, compassionless decision is not a kind or professional way to deal with a fellow lawyer.
Take it in Steps
The immediate solution to an under-preforming lawyer is not to terminate their relationship with the firm. There has probably been too much investment (training and emotional) in that lawyer to end the relationship that quickly. There are also morale issues with letting someone go. If termination is your only go-to, then the lawyer isn’t the only one failing. Asking someone to leave should be the last step in a string of actions aimed at helping lawyers to resolve their business challenges.
Nor is the solution to ignore the situation and hope that it improves. That’s unlikely. Instead, think like a business. Production (revenue) comes from producers (your lawyers). A firm relies on production from each producer in order to meet overall revenue targets. If a producer falls short, either once or consistently, the business model is not working. Tremendous efforts should be taken, immediately and for as long as needed, to improve the production from each lawyer who is under-performing.
Step one: Understand the issue. Is this a short-term issue? For example, the under-productivity could result from time away due to an illness, or lack of focus due to a personal crisis such as a divorce, or a significant shift in the marketplace. The lawyer may simply need propping up for a year. That’s not the end of the world. Or is the issue ongoing: perhaps they haven’t met target three years in a row? There may be no obvious reason for the issue. Or there may be an obvious reason the firm can’t do anything about, such as a softening of the market for that area of law. More likely, the issue is systemic. For example, a good chunk of my coaching has been with lawyers who previously inherited their work, but are suddenly expected to bring in new work on their own and they have no idea how to do this. If the issue is unclear, or if it’s understood but not fixable by the lawyer or the firm, the lawyer will need serious help.
Step two: Provide support. This can come in many forms. The firm may partner the lawyer with another more senior lawyer aimed at directing more work their way, teaching them to market, etc. The firm may work with the lawyer to shift their areas of practice, give them space and time to learn those new areas, and support them with reduced billing expectations but unchanged compensation for a learning period. The firm may engage a professional coach to work with the lawyer to create and implement a formal business and marketing plan to turn their practice around. Regardless of the form of support, it’s important to set expectations for improvement, and a deadline for achieving those. These might need to be negotiated. For example, firms often want almost immediate results whereas it takes time to change and improve a practice. Seemingly impossible goals destroy motivation. Find a balance. If someone has been 15% off their target annually, with concerted effort and support they should be able to fix that in a year. But if they’ve been 30% off, they may need more time to turn it around.
Step three: Closely monitor them. Don’t give them enough rope to hang themselves. Don’t give them concessions and support, leave them alone and then expect them to demonstrate improvement a year from now. Stay engaged with the lawyer. Meet with them regularly (monthly?) to monitor their progress and show that you care and are watching closely. Give and get real-time feedback on whatever improvement process they are on. Be in a position to accurately detail to other partners – when questioned – exactly what is happening to rectify the situation. Monitor and be able to speak to the level of commitment and discipline by the lawyer when asked about the situation by other partners.
Step four: Ask them to leave. At the beginning of the process, the issue, solution and possible outcomes should have been identified. Thus, an outcome results directly from the agree-upon pathway. If the lawyer is able to make the improvements required by the designated time, they can move on to stage two of their process (moving beyond survival into real productivity). If not, the logical and declared outcome would be that they are probably not in the best place.
Firms believe that being honest with lawyers at the onset of this process will cause the lawyer to lose motivation to improve, and they’ll simply spend the time looking for a new place to go to. If the lawyer isn’t dedicated to improving their situation, they’ll do that anyway. Setting an improvement process and support in place ensures that lawyers who are motivated to remain with the firm work hard to take advantage of the support provided and turn things around. And those are the lawyers you want at your firm anyway. Trust me: a self-respecting under-motivated, under-performing lawyer who is under the microscope will leave on their own long before the year is up. A self-respecting motivated under-performing lawyer given support and attention will do everything within their power to turn things around and usually turns out to be of great value to a partnership. After all, they’ve learned how to overcome adversity.
Step five: Learn from the situation. It’s far easier to get a flu shot than to deal with the flu. Start to recognize the signs of a lawyer moving into chronic under-productivity. Take steps earlier. Give support earlier. Don’t let things deteriorate before you recognize an issue and start working on it.
You may see parallels with raising children. I don’t use this analogy to demean lawyers but more as a reminder that the best relationships are encouraging, supportive, fair, communicative, respectful, and based on caring about each other. Identify issues, set timelines, expectations and boundaries, provide support, remain engaged and supportive, and complete a pre-determined assessment with logical outcomes.
While this might result in asking a lawyer to leave, the process to that point will have been respectful, logical and have the best possible chance of a positive outcome. The alternatives just don’t feel very partner-like.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org