This article discusses the ten main reasons for partner underperformance and how to deal with them. The subject matter is drawn from the much longer work “Tackling Underperformance in Law Firms” (2011 Ark Group) and is the text version of an article which was first published in Managing Partner on 24th May 2012 and is therefore reproduced by kind permission (www.managingpartner.com)”. A copy of the published article will shortly appear on my website
A few years back, most well managed firms identified the clear misfits, shirkers and serial underperformers in their firms and managed them out. But it is a tough world and no partner can ever be regarded as safe. In the face of market pressures, even the biggest firms have set about restructuring their partnerships in order to remain competitive and – where they have recognised that the firm has become over-partnered – are working to slim down the partnership. Some partners have been finding that they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the same time, hasty choices can be regretted if the reason for underperformance is temporary and recoverable. Hence, it is worth reviewing the ten main reasons – some fatal but some remediable – for partner disappointment, disaffection and poor performance.
Reason One. Wrong Choice of Partner
Poor hiring decisions are easy to spot fairly early. In many cases, laterally hired partners have been recruited predominantly because of their book of business which sometimes fails to materialise. The attraction of the extra revenue and the lure of a star partner can blind firms to the uncomfortable truth that they can end up hiring difficult personalities who are difficult to manage or do not fit in with the firm’s culture.
Poor partner promotion decisions are less easy to identify early. The promoted partner has usually been the protégée of an existing partner or practice group and will have jumped over all the usual promotion hurdles. The potential which was seen in the partner at level may not then be realised, or the partner gets stuck on the ‘intermediate plateau’. A connected reason is that the skills which are needed to perform as an able technical lawyer at associate level are quite different to the more managerial skills needed in a partner. Hence, some associates never manage to come to terms with the role of the partner.
Remedial Measures. This problem is usually fatal. Wrongly chosen partners should probably be asked to move on. Overpromoted partners can sometimes be demoted or moved to another position in the firm, but the history of such redeployments in law firms has not been encouraging
Reason Two. Failure to keep up with the pace of Change
In many cases, firms develop faster than the ability of some of their partners to keep up. Skills – perfectly attuned for firms with smaller clients and less complex engagements – are no longer adequate or relevant for more sophisticated clients and more demanding client engagements. Equally, some partners find it difficult to adapt to a legal world which has steadily become more demanding and price sensitive, and which requires partners to work harder, more efficiently and more cost effectively. Whilst most partners still pine for the old golden days of law practice, a sense of realism and the urge for survival has enable most law firm partners to keep their heads above water. Furthermore, as legal services commoditise still further, the amount of partner level work has continued to reduce. Thus the role of the partner skews more and more towards the managerial skills – particularly work-getting, client-caring, work supervising and team managing – and away from the role of the partner as a technical legal expert.
Remedial Measures. Support and training can sometimes cure this reason for underperformance.
Reason Three. Non Core Areas of Law
The practice mix of law firms tends to change over time. Weaker and non-core practices vary from firm to firm but neither benefit from nor contribute to the mainstream practices of the firm. These are freestanding practices that do nothing to enhance reputation, create new business or generate profits. They may have been areas of law which were once profitable but are now less so. At a personal level partners in non-core areas of law feel under increasing strain. It is not pleasant to find your continued presence in the partnership barely tolerated by your partners and to perceive your type of work in many cases looked down upon with disdain. Non-core areas tend to starve to death. Young lawyers will quickly see no prospects and will leave for a firm where their work will be both core and appreciated. When they are not replaced, the practice area shrinks still further and the performance pressures increase on those who remain. At some point, the area loses all critical mass and the partners become superfluous. In more dramatic cases, whole areas of law have simply faded away or become so unprofitable though commoditisation and become no longer viable.
Remedial Measures. Redeployment sometimes is possible where a partner is a a non-core area. The firm would need to allow the redeployed partner time to learn new skills and to find his or her feet.
Reason Four. Internal Political Troubles, Quickly-formed Perceptions and Favouritism
Many law firms are intensely factional and display elements of cliquishness, favouritism and in-crowds. Memories of successes can be short and memories of mistakes can be long. Perceptions are also easily formed and hard to change. Even an isolated client complaint or a bad year can form a hard-to-remove label.
Partners can thus easily become marginalised and excluded from work winning and work sharing opportunities. Also, partners who experience disapproval, lack of respect, little appreciation and scant expressions of confidence will tend to disconnect intellectually and emotionally. In short, underperformance becomes a self –fulfilling prophecy.
Remedial Measures. It is sometimes possible to rebuild confidence in such partners; counselling and general support can help them to appreciate their strengths and to work on their weaknesses. Amongst their peers, try to support the underperformer by rebuilding their credibility.
Reason Five. Trouble at Home
Personal problems carry both an emotional and a practical cost. In practical terms, the sickness, incapacity or death of a close relation can exact a huge toll in terms of time and energy which then impinges on a partner’s work performance. In emotional terms, the strain of divorce, bereavement or illness can impact hugely on a partner’s capacity to do his or her work well. Almost universally, firms are sympathetic to these issues in the short term, but will expect the affected partner to return to peak performance in due course. In some cases, the trauma suffered will however lead to long term issues and in other cases – such as a permanently disabled spouse – the partner’s long term capacity to continue as a full time partner will be affected. Equally, personal problems and trouble at home can both lead to financial difficulties, and drink and drug-related problems.
Remedial Measures. Time is a great healer, but the affected partner needs a lot of patience and support from the management team and the frim if rehabilitation is to proceed smoothly
Reason Six Stress, Depression, Insecurity and Loss of Confidence
Pressure in itself is not necessarily bad and many people thrive on it – it is when excessive pressure is experienced that stress and ill health can result. Several factors can lead to work-related stress – the inability to cope with the firm’s performance demands, insufficient control over the way work is undertaken, lack of support from the firm both generally and when partners are finding it difficult to cope, and poor or conflicting relationships at work. An additional cause goes back to the role of a partner – stress can be caused where partners do not understand their roles within the firm or how their work fits in with the overall aims and objectives of their team, department or firm. Finally, the impact of change can also cause stress particularly where partners do not understand the reason for any proposed changes or where they receive little help and support during the change process.
Remedial Measures. In general, managing partners should be working hard to reduce the levels of work-related stress in their firms. In particular cases of stress related illnesses, the firm should support the affected partner in whatever way seems appropriate including medial help
Reason 7. Burn-out and boredom
Burn-out is evidenced by long-term exhaustion and diminished interest, resulting from long term involvement in emotionally and mentally demanding work. There also are links between burnout and workaholism – where the need for work has become so excessive that it creates notable disturbance or interference with a partner’s bodily health, personal happiness or interpersonal relationships. A Johns Hopkins University study found that lawyers are the most likely group to suffer major depression and 3.6 times more likely than all occupations studied. Further, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that lawyers had higher suicide rates than other occupations. Lawyers suffer alcohol and substance abuse at a greater percentage than the population in general.
Remedial Measures. A new career can help to reinvigorate a burnt-out partner. It is often kinder to support them sympathetically with and through a career transition
Reason 8 Lifestyle and comfort zones
Some lawyers choose the legal professional as a lifestyle career, choosing to work in order to live. Such lawyers work only as hard as they have to in order to get by and many will regularly appear on the fringes of underperformance. Some however have keen antennae which keep them just above the minimum performance line. Other lawyers drift into a comfort zone of working and, particularly towards the end of their career, a mid-life crisis or impending retirement makes them lazy. Problems can also surface following a merger or if performance demands increase within the firm.
Remedial Measures. A burning bridge scenario (jump or fry!) can sometimes galvanise a lazy or complacent partner into action. Try to confront (early) any who are just doing enough to get by
Reason 9. Imbalanced personal score card
Many firms have criteria or critical areas of performance with clear indicators and standards. Some partners inevitably find that there is an imbalance in their capabilities. They may be very good at technical work, and they may care well for their clients, but they may not be so good at other aspects of management. Most firms insist upon partners achieving at least a baseline competency across all areas of performance and if a partner proves to be totally inadequate or incapable in any of those areas this can threaten the partner’s future.
Remedial Measures. Coaching or training can sometimes help remedy short-comings
Reason 10. Merger and Extreme Change
Law firm partners are often heard to say “this is no longer the firm which I first joined. It has changed out of all recognition.” There is no doubt that merger affects the partner dynamics immensely. Partners who are slow to change are likely candidates for a cull. Management teams will look at partner list and will choose between those who seem to fit the bill in terms of capabilities or performance and those who do not appear to be of sufficient quality. Merger often gives rise to a partner cull and not least because many firms find that duplication of resources and practice areas as well as conflict between certain types of client result in choices having to be made between the rival partners.
Remedial Measures. Getting leopards to change their spots is an uphill battle. It is often in everybody’s interests if such partners move to a smaller firm which more closely represents their old firm
One of the primary roles of a managing partner or law firm leader is to understand why a partner is either underperforming or choosing not to meet standards or expectations.
Underperforming partners can quickly become isolated and marginalised, and this can swiftly become a self-fulfilling prophecy; when support and sharing from the group dries up, the underperforming partner soon sinks and drowns. In the short term, managing partners should try to offer protection from the inevitable, subtle and informal pressures within the firm. In practice, most underperforming partners are given both assistance, and every last chance and support to become rehabilitated. Only a few firms leave their partners to “sink or swim”
At the end of the day, however, tough decisions have to be made for the good of the majority of the firm’s members. Asking an underperformer to leave is not a task to be relished but it helps if the firm can satisfy itself that the reasons for underperformance are impossible to remedy.