Making Your Key Partners Dispensable
Losing your best people is always a risk. But, by planning for the eventuality, your firm can mitigate the risk.
By Jordan Furlong
I recently read about a manager who discovered, during a crisis, that one of his employees was absolutely indispensable: without him, the team would not have been able to survive the challenges it faced. Once the crisis was over, the manager made it his top priority to make that employee dispensable. He never again wanted the success or failure of his team to be dependent on one person.
Law firm leaders face a similar challenge when it comes to rainmakers, key client partners, and other heavyweights who exercise a disproportionate degree of influence over the firm's or practice group's financial health. Because they control access to important clients and because they're fully mobile talents, the firm is often at their mercy. If they complain or disrupt, they must be coddled or tolerated; if they threaten to leave and take the client with them to a new address, the foundations of the firm tremble.
This is an unacceptable vulnerability in a firm's strategic plan, and it must be addressed. How? Make the partner dispensable. One solution is to maximize the client's exposure to and interaction with the firm as a whole, increasing the client's reliance on the firm as a whole and making it as difficult as possible for the client to accompany the partner if he or she leaves.
Simply asking the partner to open up more points of contact between the firm and the client won't work, since the partner has every incentive to maintain a closed relationship with the client and enhance his or her indispensability. Trying to interfere directly with that relationship will be deeply counterproductive. So the key is to diversify the partner-client relationship to the greatest extent possible.
Complement the key partner with other lawyers and staff members who provide an array of small but valuable services to the client, everything from compiling and providing vital industry information to all members of the client's in-house team to setting up bi-weekly conference calls between senior associates and junior departmental lawyers. Maximize the points of contact throughout the lower and middle levels of the supply chain between firm and client.
Set up bi-monthly CLEs on legal and industry topics chosen in advance by the in-house department, with panels featuring lawyers from both sides. Schedule training sessions on regulatory compliance, perhaps following the lead of some firms that have automated these training sessions and provided exclusive access to them to key clients. Make it very hard for the client to go; ensure a firestorm of protest throughout the law department if the GC announces plans to follow the rainmaker to a new firm.
It's unlikely the partner won't notice any of this, but if his or her own relationships and positions aren't directly threatened, there probably won't be a major problem. But if the partner actively objects to the firm's efforts to create multiple points of contact with the client and tries to sabotage the effort, then you have a problem that goes well beyond a strategic vulnerability: you have a cancer in your partnership actively opposed to the firm's well-being, and that cannot be tolerated.
The oldest saying in the legal market is that clients hire the lawyer, not the firm. From a law firm leader's point of view, that is a potentially disastrous state of affairs. Rainmakers will always be the key to landing clients; but the firm must ensure they are never the key to keeping them. Contact the author, Jordan Furlong
After the Storm: The Reemerging Issue of Associate Morale
Morale issues never went away; they just went underground. It's time for firms to focus once again on morale.
By Douglas Richardson
The Great Recession that thrust law firms into the depths of hell also took their minds off another problem - at least temporarily. Before the downturn, retention of associates had become a serious concern, and firm leaders and professional development experts alike expressed much concern about the forces and factors that were prompting so many associates to jump ship, and often even to jump out of the legal profession entirely. Clearly, heavy attrition of high-potential talent was a morale issue, and it was proving a costly issue: the loss of so many associates, particularly more experienced ones, was a serious blow to the leverage model on which so many firms predicated their profitability.
The layoffs of thousands of associates in 2008-2009 momentarily stilled the morale issue. Those who were let go were no longer the firms' problem and those who stayed, the thinking went, were lucky to have their jobs, salary and benefits. The message became clear: sit down and shut up. The retention issue having been back-burnered by harsh economic realities, associate morale faded from the forefront of firm priorities; clearly firm survival was a more pressing issue.
But the morale issue never went away; it just went underground. We surveyed hundreds of associates during the Dark Times, and they were no less miserable than before - just less vocal. The issues of overspecialization, draconian billable hours expectations and being perceived as fungible economic fodder continued to simmer and steam. Now the pot boils once again.
With economic sunlight once again peeping over the horizon, our friends in law firm professional development report that morale issues - complaints about compensation, career management and quality/quantity of work - are resurfacing at all levels of the associate ranks. "Whether or not they really are entitled," said one professional development head at a major Mid-Atlantic firm, "our associates are reasserting their 'entitlements,' and in some unique ways. As survivors who helped their firms weather the economic downturn, some feel that they deserve reparations or hazardous duty pay. Some want a bonus share of the handsome profits their firms have begun to report. And a whole lot are voicing morale-related demands typical of the Millennial generation - more attention, better supervision and mentoring, more approval and hand-holding, more collegiality, more career options at the same time they want more career security. If they don't get what they want, I think many again are going to vote with their feet, even though the associate job market remains atrocious."
It's time for firms to focus once again on morale - for striking a better and lasting balance between what their worker bees contribute to the bottom line and what incentives will keep them engaged and productive. As a whole different economic age dawns on the legal profession, one that will depend on the contributions of the successor generation, a better collaboration between associates and their employers becomes a business imperative. Associate development and career management are once again top priorities, and firms that ignore issues of associate morale do so at their peril. Contact the author, Douglas Richardson
Leaders...Are You Taking Care?
Law firm leaders who devote all of their time to the health of their firms often sacrifice their own physical and psychological health. Here are four steps to taking care.
By Sean Larkan
I regularly come across this in my work. The signs are obvious. Once a consulting assignment is underway I sometimes raise these issues in conversation, mainly as I believe they are as important as any other in ensuring effective leadership. The reason is simple. A healthy leader in body and spirit is much more likely to be effective over the long term and, just as important, happy in their work and within themselves and with time to spend with their family and friends.
I recommend a four-pronged approach in such cases. It is simple but effective. That does not mean it is easy to implement, involving as it does changes in thinking and behaviour. As usual it takes a fair dose of dedication, research, support from trusted others and a strong will quotient!
- Exercise - not only encouraged but essential. If nothing is being done, start small - daily brisk walks are best - come hail, rain or sunshine, and wherever you may be. For most, quick-fix promises like 'gym membership' don't seem to ever have lasting benefit. In time you can build to introducing weight-training exercises, so important, particularly in later life.
- Personal Scientific Diagnostic - go beyond gut-feel and relying on experience - get yourself tested and reported on using input from trusted and respected colleagues using a respected scientific diagnostic like Human Synergistics. You will be amazed what you will learn about yourself. Ideally assisted by some coaching, you will have a sound basis upon which to implement necessary changes in thinking, behavior and interactions with others.
- Diet - due to the proliferation of processed foods we invariably consume, our consumption of essential vitamins is reduced with enormous potential downsides for our health. Subject to your individual circumstances and medical advice I would urge consideration of at least 3 safe, essential supplements (after medical advice):
- pure fish oil capsules for omega 3s
- magnesium - called the wonder mineral
- vitamin B complex for stress
- Spiritual - lastly, but arguably most important, address your mind and mental well-being. If you are already following a traditional religious belief you are possibly well catered for. If not, you may wish to consider meditation and related practices. Tackled with the right approach with the right guidance this can be enormously beneficial. Maintaining a calm disposition in the heat of stressful situations, being able to focus only on the job at hand and at the same time focus on the well-being of others is challenging. It often depends on your ability to manage your sometimes unruly and over-active mind, your ego and your self-will. A spiritual discipline can certainly work wonders here.
Each of these steps can be a great help to a stressed, pressured leader or manager. In combination they can be life-changing. I speak from experience - for myself, and for many friends and colleagues who have made some or all of these changes with wonderful transformative results. Contact the author Sean Larkan.
Law firm leaders and senior managers spend most of their time focused on the well-being of their firms, their colleagues and the firm's clients. They give little attention to themselves. As a result they are too often over-worked, over-stressed, and possibly unfit and over-weight and don't get to spend nearly enough time with family and friends. They are also not as effective as they would like to be.