The August 2012 law firm strategy question of the month focused on managing under productive partners – what approaches firms take to the issue; what works and what does not; and how the process plays out over time. In a very practical sense, this topic is the counter point to the July 2012 question of the month – what characteristics comprise a ‘model’ partner?
The term “under productive partner” implies that ‘problem’ partners are primarily an economic issue. Certainly, persistently weak revenue production is the most common reason for frustration with partner performance. However, a number of law firm leaders noted in open-ended comments that “citizenship issues” and other qualitative factors regarding professional demeanor can also lead to a firm insisting a partner work to turn his or her performance around.
A Daunting Task, But Not Hopeless
Asked how often under productive partners manage to turn it around, over 95% of law firm leaders agreed that fewer than half of all ‘problem’ partners manage to have a “career renaissance.” In fact, over 50% of law firm leaders have found that fewer than 10% of partners manage to make an effective turn around. The silver lining – not a single law firm leader has found the well to be completely dry – everyone has seen a successful turnaround within their own firm.
Patience is a Virtue…
Firms are generally, but not universally, patient with regard to under performance. Many leaders noted that partner performance statistics are averaged over multiple years, so it takes time before performance issues are considered a persistent problem. Over two-thirds of the leaders responding to this survey noted that it takes at least two years of weak performance before the issue is addressed at all.
What Are Firms Doing to Address the Issue?
Asked to share which approaches they have tried and how well they have worked, law firm leaders were candid. The most commonly used approaches to address partner under performance:
- Every firm has tried reducing compensation and holding one-on-one meetings with ‘problem’ partners.
- Nearly everyone has tried “doing nothing and hoping things improve” (NOTE: It does not work – 90% report it “never works”).
- Over 90% of law firm leaders have tried threatening compensation reductions and 90% have tried individual partner plans.
Conversely, a few approaches have not been as widely adopted, though some (as will become evident below) are actually reasonably successful in their own ways. Less frequently tried approaches include:
- Only about half the firms indicated that they have tried to actively outplace partners (i.e., at client organizations, on the bench, etc.).
- Slightly more than half of all firms have tried using a professional coach with under productive partners.
- About 60% have tried “group interventions” (i.e., more than just a one-on-one meeting).
Now, it is absolutely true that actively outplacing someone is not really a turnaround per se – at least within the confines of the firm. However, for many partners, leaving (and landing well) is a tremendous career turn around. And, as it turns out, it is by far considered to be the most successful approach (by those who have tried it).
The other more successful approaches included actively cutting compensation; holding one-on-one discussions with under performers; and requiring individual plans. As one managing partner noted, compensation is a blunt tool and one you only get to use once a year (at most). In fact, these are all fairly blunt tools. However, a combination of one-on-one discussions along with individual turnaround plans has the direct benefit of creating accountability and a path forward for the partner in question.
Ultimately, the clear take-away messages:
- Doing nothing and hoping it gets better never works;
- Confronting the issue, creating a path forward, and holding people accountable has a reasonable success rate; and
- Actively out placing those who cannot or will not turn it around is remarkably successful.
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