In pursuit of a Partners Code

Although there is almost always a written contract between the firm and its partners in terms of a Partnership, Members or Shareholders Agreement, this rarely touches the psychological agreement between the firm and its partners. The psychological agreement – often unwritten and unspoken – focusses on what the firm can do for its partners and equally what the partners can do for the firm. It is the latter part which is often neglected.

Partners generally have great expectations of what the firm ought to be doing for them in terms of status and respect, working conditions, recognition and well-being, as well as remuneration. This is all too often not balanced by buy-in on the part of individual partners to the firm’s reasonable expectations for hard work, innovation, the willingness to learn and keep up to date, tolerance, flexibility and the commitment to values. In addition, whilst most firms have a written set of values that they espouse, these are very often neglected in practice.

Though it may seem an obvious point, many firms have no formal approach to the gaining of partner acceptance to such a set of values or to an agreed code of expected conduct and behaviour – the partner end of the psychological contract. Talking the other day to a partner of a large professional service firm, he mentioned that when he was in the Army, they had a code of conduct which was set out in a huge document that you had to read and solemnly sign. I am not personally in favour of a voluminous set of rules but I do think that getting partners to sign up to a short statement of principles has some merit – preferably on a single sheet of A4. At the extreme end, it can help provide the grounds for ejecting both jerks and underperformers, but it also helps to remind the partners of some of the basic tenets of partnership, and to gain their acceptance both to the stated values of the firm and to the partner behaviours expected of them

I think a Partners Code needs to cover four areas.

First it should hold partners responsible for their dealings with the firm by requiring them to accept the spirit and the letter of the firm’s strategy and to take cabinet responsibility for decisions that have been made in accordance with the firm’s decision-making processes. It should also require them to embrace the firm’s values. It should establish or reaffirm the expectations the firm has of every partner for their commitment, hard work, and effort.

The second area addresses the fair treatment of the firm’s clients, by requiring clients’ interests to be paramount and by promoting the highest standards of professionalism, truthfulness, integrity and trustworthiness. This of course sounds so obvious that many partners may think such principles not worth embodying in a code. Yet, I still see many firms where the partners fall down on their most basic of obligations for quality and service, and treat clients with varying degrees of grudging acceptance or resentment.

The third area deals with internal relationships. Partnerships can be riven by cliques, political games and lack of respect for each other. Professional managers are often treated with disdain, and juniors with little consideration. Hence, it is worth re-affirming the need for respect to other partners by delivering what is promised, communicating appropriately and by supporting each other. Equally, partners should sign up to treating all non-partners with respect by being committed to a learning, developing and training culture, by delegating and supervising responsibly, and by coaching, mentoring and educating so as to develop the abilities of people across the firm

Finally, I believe every partner should be expected to continue to learn, develop, improve and innovate. They should develop the self-discipline to work with purpose, to perform to the best of their abilities and to gain results. In particular, they should be expected to act as role models for others, and to set an example of open communication for others to follow. Drafting a partner’s code and getting everyone to sign such a document never of course nails the subject of partner behaviours and the adherence to minimum standards and values. Lawyers however tend to place great value to the signing of a formal contract and a written partner code can therefore help concentrate their minds on their obligations to the firm.

This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine and is reproduced with their permission