Few law firms proactively deal with the issue of non-performing partners. With more than 83 percent of firms admitting, in a 2018 Altman Weil survey, that they had chronically underperforming partners owing to weak business development skills, it seems the solution would be additional training and support. And, since I am a business development coach, you would think that would be my big idea. I wish it were that simple!
But, in firm after firm, I see non-productive partners who have fallen so far behind that — while some business development support might help — their firms realize that, ultimately, these tactics won’t work. And they don’t want to spend extra resources to support the floundering partners.
Most Firms Take the Coward’s Way Out
So, how do firms deal with these partners? Most of those surveyed said they reduced compensation, year after year. In my opinion, this is the coward’s way out. Your non-performers know they are not performing. They are self-conscious and plagued, in most cases, by self-doubt. Cutting their compensation makes feelings of self-loathing worse, especially when done with little discussion about why they aren’t performing, and with no plan of action.
So how should firms address the issue of non-performing partners? Head-on, of course. These five tips should be helpful for firms willing to implement them.
1. Begin with the End in Mind
Addressing the issue of non-productive partners proactively should begin by hiring the right lawyers in the first place. For the past 30 years, many firms have relied solely on a few rainmakers who have managed to keep others in the firm busy. Additionally, the lockstep system helped make partners of many lawyers who did not have the qualities that firms are looking for today.
Today, firms must look closely at prospective hires (associates and laterals) and gauge their ability to build trusting relationships with the firm’s existing clients as well as with prospective ones. Additionally, firms must assess a prospect’s ability to communicate, problem solve and their level of emotional intelligence. I strongly encourage testing be done to assist in this process. Also, be sure to allow multiple partners, associates and staff to spend time with each candidate. Not every lawyer is or should be a rainmaker, but every lawyer you hire should have the desire to assist in building and sustaining the firm’s client base.
2. Begin Biz Dev Early — But Know It May Not Be Too Late
Many firms don’t want to expose associates to business development resources too soon. Firms traditionally have wanted associates to learn to be good practicing lawyers first. However, in today’s legal climate, understanding basic biz dev fundamentals is part of being a good practicing lawyer. Additionally, firms should be teaching every lawyer the fundamentals of good time management, organizational skills and goal setting. These skills are vital to every lawyer’s success. Waiting until year six or seven to begin teaching these skills is far too late. Start teaching them early, along with business development basics, and continue to emphasize this with training over time. Then you will be able to develop a “sales force” of lawyers who will be prepared to get their own clients sooner and take on existing clients earlier.
So, what do you do with the existing lawyers who are non-productive but would now like to participate in biz dev training or coaching? Do it! The benefit will outweigh the cost. Yes, you must manage your expectations. If the lawyer has not been successful in biz dev, it may take some time. But if your firm does not want to continue to allow these partners to flounder, this is certainly worth a try. I’ve had success with lawyers who have historically not been biz dev all-stars and know many other coaches with similar experiences. You must, however, make sure the lawyer wants to be trained or coached and never force them into the commitment as a last resort. This tactic does not work and is a waste of money and time.
3. Track, Praise and Reward Success
Whether it’s a first-year associate or a 20-year non-performing partner, someone in your firm should be measuring whether biz dev and other training resources are paying dividends. This is not easy. Many activities don’t pay off for years. But you can keep track of their activities via a monthly biz dev activity report, talk to them about what went well and what did not, and conclude if there is positive momentum. Track billable and nonbillable hours, originations, realization rates, and other useful metrics for additional insight. Note deviations and trends and make sure that biz dev activities are accounted for in nonbillable time. Have a face-to-face meeting whenever possible to elicit feedback on specific business development activities. Do this at least quarterly if not more often. These feedback sessions are also an opportunity for firm leaders to find out more about each individual in their firm as well as spot issues that may be hurting performance. Waiting until the traditional end-of-year review is too late and not productive.
Once traction is gained, provide positive feedback. Recognize the partner who is gaining some momentum in practice group meetings and anywhere else you can. Study after study proves that positive feedback provides continued motivation. Everyone enjoys praise, and these non-performers are craving approval. Providing this feedback is compassionate and encouraging.
Lastly, at year’s end, if you see movement, provide a bump in compensation or even a bonus. This will provide the impetus for the non-performer to continue to try. If you do not see positive movement and find that the partner is not giving a good effort, it’s time to confront the issue head-on and determine a viable path for the lawyer to either remain at the firm or depart with dignity.
4. Realize That Being Kind May Be Cruel
When a leader recognizes a partner is beginning to flounder, it’s the leader’s responsibility to get to the root of the problem quickly. Lawyers hate conflict (which is ironic), so many leaders choose a “wait and see” approach. This does not work. For example, if a lawyer is coming in late often, seems disheveled and unorganized, you need to have a sit-down and find out what is going on. Similarly, if a lawyer’s numbers show a dip in performance, you need to find out quickly what is causing the problem. It could be a simple, temporary issue, or it may be the beginning of a deeper crisis. Waiting to see if the situation corrects itself is unwise. Yet many law firm leaders hesitate to address issues internally and choose instead to ignore all the signs of a slip in performance. This is especially prevalent in the partner ranks where feedback, in many firms, is only offered once a year. Don’t be one of those firms!
Waiting to provide direction until the problem has festered is, in many cases, too late, and often the non-performer sees it as a lack of concern. If you sense a problem, seize an opportunity to confront it head-on.
5. Avoid a Failure of Leadership
Partnerships are built on trust and maintained with open communication. Non-performers will rarely come to firm leaders to ask for help. So it’s up to you to create a dynamic that does not give lawyers the opportunity to become non-performers. Set goals, maintain standards and clearly communicate these from day one. As a law firm leader, you have a duty to provide the training, resources, feedback and motivation to make — and keep — your firm’s lawyers as successful as possible. Failure to do so, from day one, is a failure of leadership.