You are attending a partners meeting, listening as candidates for admission to partnership are being presented. “Our next candidate recorded 3,000 billable hours and has an effective rate of $1,000 per hour, plus a generated book of business worth $3,000,000 — and keeps a herd of other associates working their hearts out.”
How do you vote? In most firms, the answer is a no-brainer: That candidate would be made a partner. The punch line is that, even with those remarkable numbers, he or she might be inappropriate for partnership admission. Which firms would know this? Which would have the courage to say no?
When it comes to tapping new partners, the boom of the 1990s led many firms into temptation. Work was flying in the door and firms compromised, promoting people who would not have passed the threshold in normal times. But firms had excuses: The busiest partners needed help, and lesser competitors were bribing the best candidates to join other firms, so they had no choice.
Now it is time for course corrections. Courageous corrections. This article is not about culling the herd; it’s about making partnership decisions for the long haul.
First, we must slay the seven demons called “Yes, but . . .” You will recognize the “Yes, but . . .” demons in the following utterances:
• Yes, but she is such a good lawyer.
• Yes, but he is so smart.
• Yes, but she bills a lot of money.
• Yes, but clients love him.
• Yes, but she has such a large book of business.
• Yes, but he attracts so many new clients.
• Yes, but she is one of the foremost experts in a challenging field.
Please note that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these statements. They are demons because the “Yes, but . . .” suggests that we accept sins along with the positives, and that is the fatal mistake.
If “Yes, but . . .” is allowed to rule the day, partnership decisions will not be defined by internal guidelines or policies or values — or anything else, really — just the brute force of a short-term, strip-mining mentality. If that is what firm leaders want, fine, but don’t pretend to have admission criteria.
IN THE YEAR 2020
To look at a fresh checklist for partnership admission criteria, let’s invent a mythical firm called “The 2020 Law Firm.” This firm does not exist yet, but it will, and it will be judged in hindsight as the cr�me de la cr�me. Its clientele will be unequalled, as will its per-lawyer income (not per-partner income).
It will be managed in the best sense of the word. It will have a direction that is known to its people, who will agree with that direction and work to take the firm there.
The 2020 firm will have industry groups for business development and practice groups for professional development; these groups will fuel the firm’s initiatives. Each practice and industry group will understand what it aspires to be in the future. Fighting complacency, each will know how it needs to evolve to be more relevant and valuable tomorrow than today.
This takes us to the heart of the criteria for partnership admission.
The 2020 firm will not wait for consideration of admission to partnership to begin the selection process, but will start at the earliest recruitment stages. The firm will anticipate future partners who add new dimensions to the existing groups and who foster the creation of new groups.
Before we go further, there is one more preliminary matter. The 2020 firm will not be unmindful of partner-associate ratios and will understand the impact of leverage on profitability, but will not allow this to be the driving force in choosing partners. The driving force will be to create and preserve the finest possible assemblage of customized talent.
So, here they are, the inescapable laws of partner physics that the 2020 firm religiously applies. Adhere to them or perish.
Values: Values like “we don’t steal,” “we don’t turn out garbage work,” and “we exist to make a profit” exhaust the list in many firms. In your firm, perhaps you have some other values, such as, “We treat people with respect, internally and externally,” “Client satisfaction is a top priority,” “Our people are required to learn and develop new skills,” “We invest in our future,” etc. It does not matter what your values are; it is simply important they are strongly held, clearly defined, and that you do not admit any new partner whose behavior is inconsistent with those values.
Firm needs: The practice and industry groups of the 2020 firm will consistently and with foresight identify the skills and experience they will need in the future and recruit for them. For example, an international practice may want fluency in particular languages, an IP practice may want certain scientific specialties (e.g., geneticist lawyers to specialize in medical/ethical legal issues), and so on.
It is important to note that the 2020 firm will have the courage to guess (i.e., project) what its needs will be. Guessing wrong is better than not guessing at all. After all, smart people can be redeployed and retrained or, at worst, out-placed. Many guesses will be correct and will result in significant competitive advantage.
Satisfaction: The 2020 firm measures whether the candidate achieves exemplary levels of satisfaction with clients, existing partners, associates, and staff.
Client satisfaction is about “bullet-proofing.” When a competitor takes aim, is the client susceptible to being wooed or is the client so highly satisfied that seduction will be resisted?
Satisfaction in the eyes of existing partners is measured in part by whether the candidate accepts assignments graciously, and whether partners like the candidate and his/her work. Does the candidate ask good questions and inject discipline into the time line (even when the delegator does not)?
Does the candidate treat less-experienced attorneys with dignity and respect. Do associates regard the candidate as a team player who is appropriately supportive and reliable?
Finally, it is important that the candidate not only gives support staffers clear instructions and sufficient information to perform their duties, but also shows the kind of appreciation that generates pride in working for the firm.
Before leaving these “satisfaction” criteria, it is important to note that satisfaction is measurable, even if it’s not available in convenient printouts from the firm’s database. The challenge is that most firms are unwilling or unable to measure it through techniques such as client surveys and upward evaluations.
Numbers: Like satisfaction, this is about performance. Numbers have the advantage (and occasional disadvantage) of being objectively and easily measurable by the firm’s data collection systems. The rank-and-file firm focuses on basics like billable hours, work-in-progress, billings, receipts, and receivables.
The 2020 firm will want more, much more. It will seek to quantify the profitability of the assignments undertaken by the candidate — especially of the candidate who has discretion as to what work to accept. The 2020 firm will also expand this numbers criterion to know how much work was generated for others, how much additional work was obtained from existing clients, and other attributes of performance that go beyond the brute force of the basic numbers. The sacred billable-hours target will be scrutinized so the 2020 firm can see into the quality of the hours strategically, as well as in terms of profits.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES
Positive exceptions to these criteria must be distinguished from the “Yes, but . . .” demons. In the event that a candidate meets the standard when it comes to values and satisfaction, but looks a little wanting in respect to firm needs and the numbers, this person should still be considered for admission to partnership. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t meet the firm’s values or satisfaction levels are inadequate, or both, then the “up or out” policy should be immediately invoked, with emphasis on the “out.” This kind of person represents a disease in the body of the firm.
Here are some possible exceptions who should be considered for partnership notwithstanding questions in some areas:
The Brain Surgeon. Employers come from the four corners of the globe (or the Fortune 500) to hire these individuals. They are gifted beyond description. They are so incredibly unique that the firm should risk building a group around them or take the chance that — even though they don’t fit now — they could prove in hindsight to be a considerable loss if allowed to go elsewhere.
The Genius. This person can accurately predict how the Supreme Court will rule in a case where there are vectors going all over the map, but can’t bill worth a darn. The firm may want to create systems or even hire an assistant to support the billing effort of this person. You don’t want to fire Albert Einstein because his receivables are high. But remember, if he offends the firm’s values or cannot garner decent satisfaction levels in others, in the 2020 firm he is gone, regardless.
The Leader. With or without a flute, where this person goes, others happily follow. This individual could be an invaluable resource in getting the troops marching together, at first in a sub-group and perhaps one day firmwide. You may not want to supply a competitor with this gifted future managing partner.
The Glue. This is an individual who works human relations magic. People complain to this person comfortably and feel better for doing so. This person reduces friction in those who have trouble getting along. Heaven knows, there is enough friction and tension in the law firm environment, and firms may not want to lose the person who counteracts some of that tension.
The Tireless Soldier. A model of persistence with an inexhaustible reservoir of energy and dedication, this candidate is a model of supreme effort. People like this raise the game of those around them. There is a school of thought that such a person might be suitable for permanent nonpartner status. If he or she is genuinely happy to accept such a role, fine. If not, again, do you want to lose him or her?
The Savant. We all know those who are skewed to an extreme — rich in a narrow way and, unfortunately, pretty mundane in others. Before you show this person the door, ask whether you can create a sub-environment that can support the benefits of the particular qualities and talents of this individual.
In addition to taking the long view when it comes to assessing individual partner candidates, the firm has to take the measure of its own partner admission process. Firms should also provide comprehensive training to assist candidates in meeting the above criteria.
The “also-ran” firms will wander into the future applying vague partnership admission criteria that allow partners with influence to do as they want. The only limitation on their discretion will be internal political realities, which they will need to neutralize or overcome.
The 2020 firm will have definite standards that are clear to everyone and can be objectively applied to the partner selection process. As in most matters involving the measurement of law firms, the result will be evident only when competing firms begin to look back.
Gerald A. Riskin is a former managing partner and a member of Edge International, which consults to law firms worldwide. He can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 707-6449.