Another year and more turmoil in the legal industry!

Although the improving economy has led to improved performance for some law firms, for many (most?) the disruptions in the legal industry continue to create serious challenges. As firms continue to search for a path back to health, there will almost certainly be an unfortunate number of partner terminations and demotions.

In far too many cases the effected partner is surprised.

In a conversation with Larry, a successful lawyer I once worked with, asked, “In managing law firm performance, how do we manage performance cycles, while honoring a culture that values the individual? We all talk about loyalty and being partners; but the concept of removal or demotion seems directly at odds with those bedrock concepts.”

Larry has put his finger on the heart of the issue – a pivotal point that, in my view, warrants some consideration. In pondering Larry’s observation, a fundamental question dawned on me — exactly what is a partner?

Unfortunately most law firms have not made partner a defined term, leaving it to individual and inconsistent interpretations. Certainly many firms have defined specific characteristics necessary for promotion from associate to the partner ranks. Some firms specify at what age you must retire from being a partner. But what I am talking about is a carefully thought through definition of exactly what it means to be a partner during the 30-40 years between these two points!

Let’s look at the spectrum of possibilities. At one end you have the firm with high standards for conduct and performance, and little tolerance for variation from those standards. At the other end we have the firm that operates with a philosophy of once-a-partner-always-a-partner, no matter the conduct or level of performance. Obviously, there is a universe between these two extremes.

My point is not that there is a universally applicable combination of factors that is right for every firm; rather that it is essential that each firm define what “partner” means for that firm.

Defining expected conduct and performance would:

  • Dramatically improve the odds that the firm will achieve the collective aspirations of its partners; and,
  • Provide a fair means of assessing individual partners.

I believe the degree of a firm’s success will be directly tied to two issues that stem from defining what it means to be partner.

First, the longer you allow the lack of definition to exist, the more varied the conduct and performance of the Partners will become over time, threatening the competitive position of the firm.

Second, once you have defined what partner means, the firm’s management must demonstrate the resolve to manage performance to that definition. To not follow through violates a basic contract with the partners, undermines confidence in management, and threatens the long-term health of the organization.

The clear definition, communication and observation of what it means to be a partner will unify and strengthen a firm’s position in today’s turbulent market, and help maintain stability and strength in the pursuit of tomorrow’s goals.

Exactly how does your firm define Partner?