Law firms look around and see that the attorney pyramid structure is crumbling or gone.  In its place is an indistinct shape that often includes an oversized group of experienced lawyers not worthy, at least yet, of ownership.  Depending on the firm, the contribution of these lawyers can vary.  Some firms enjoy great financial contributions, while many firms feel underwhelmed by what they receive.

If yearly financial performance from these experienced lawyers is not ascending but has settled into a modest level of performance, firms should be concerned.  Like the proverbial middle age “spare tire,” this collection of seasoned lawyers seldom shrinks but continues to grow.   They and a continued ordinary routine can represent ‘weight’ a firm would rather not have.  Cosmetic surgery like layoffs may help but may not be the sole answer.  Indeed, ridding a firm of a bloated middle section and the culture that allowed it to grow requires more.

There are at least five exercises a firm can do to turn fat into muscle.  Like getting a person into shape, they don’t deliver results over-night, but require a plan and discipline to achieve the fitness goal.  Their implementation involves a holistic approach to improved performance that aligns all actions towards the goal of better financial health.

For firms motivated to do something, the five elements of an effective New Year’s resolution are:

Create a Comprehensive Way for Attorney Evaluation.  A law firm’s attorneys contribute in many ways.  Tracking those contributions is the essential first step to recognizing the value of an attorney’s effort. Any firm needing to accurately assess its middle tier attorneys must have a comprehensive system that measures the quantitative and non-quantitative ways an attorney contributes to the firm’s financial health.  A comprehensive system also spotlights each attorney’s strengths, weaknesses, and capacity to improve.

Create an Attorney Development Program.  As a group, attorneys are geared towards achievement.  Nothing pleases an attorney more than facing a task and meeting it with success.  Attorney professional development programs can be non-threatening and stimulate an attorney’s inner drive for success.  Correctly implemented, it can give attorneys the right kind of direction to succeed for themselves and the firm.  Any good program involves individual attorney development plans, coaching, frequent reviews, and support.  A firm without a program should not be surprised by lawyers that languish.

Create an Attorney Compensation Program that Rewards Performance and Modifies Behavior.  Too many law firms allow excessive non-performance criteria to seep into their attorney compensation decision making.  Annual compensation increases based on seniority/longevity, matching colleague awards, class advancements, over-strident mentor advocacy, or custom will not drive higher performance.  Tying compensation increases to contributions (quantitative and non-quantitative) to the financial health of the firm and fulfillment of attorney development plan goals rewards performance, positively modifies behavior, and rewards the firm.

Create a Promotion Program that Rewards Performance and Modifies Behavior.  A bloated middle grouping of lawyers loses some incentive to modify behavior if the prospects for promotion are minimal.  Most attorneys exhibit a lifetime of being goal oriented-creating promotion criteria that gives them a prospect towards ownership feeds their goal-oriented nature.  Even if promotions are limited, a promotion program builds a culture in which performance is rewarded and desired behavior is aligned around firm financial health.

Respond to Outcomes Proportionately. Ideally, valued members of the attorney class will react to increased support and rewards to achieve things they and the firm never thought possible.  Tapping their untapped potential benefits all. Despite encouragement and support, some attorneys may struggle.  For those, the right thing may be to help them to a place where they would be more comfortable.  Conversely, the same performance oriented environment may be positive for other attorneys.  The loud sound heard may be their forceful knocking on the door of promotion.  All outcomes deserve a response or opportunity is lost.

Getting a law firm fit is not a matter of edict or unfounded expectations.  It takes a sound plan, a collaborative effort, and lots of patience.  It also takes time. Leadership and the attorneys in question will all play a major part in achieving success.  If your firm has an outsized mid-section of attorneys, what is its remedy?