If you change partners every time it gets tough or you get a little dissatisfied, then I don’t think you get the richness that’s available in a long-term relationship.                   Jeff Bridges

Another year and more turmoil in the legal profession!

Although for some law firms the economy has led to marginally improved performance, for many (most?) the changing market for legal services continues to create serious challenges. And as firms continue to search for a path to sustained health, there will continue to 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 that I once worked with, he 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 discussion.  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 interpretation.  Certainly many firms have defined characteristics necessary for promotion from associate to the partner ranks, and at what age you must retire from being a partner. But what I am talking about specifically is defining 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 of options between these two extremes.

My point is not that there is a universally applicable combination of these factors that is right for every firm; but rather that it is essential that you define exactly what ‘partner’ means for your 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 — 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?