Changing the lawyer assessment system

Every two months, I publish a short e-newsletter called “Dispatch” that’s sent to about 2,700 subscribers. (To sign up, email me at jordan@law21.ca). Each edition contains exclusive content for subscribers, which I sometimes share with my wider readership here at Law21 after a few months. In this post, I’d like to reproduce an item from a previous newsletter as well as some follow-up content inspired by a reader response.

The June 2017 edition of “Dispatch” led off with this item:

Check out what Linklaters, a Magic Circle firm widely regarded as among the global elite, announced several weeks ago: it’s going to “abandon individual partner targets in favour of focusing more on team performance,” as reported by Legal Business. Partner assessments will now “give added weight to practice performance, as well as client-winning, business development, training and innovation.”

The previous individualistic system, according to the article, “encouraged defensive gaming of the metrics, and a focus on narrow utilization and billing benchmarks rather than broader business goals.” In future, says managing partner Gideon Moore, “We won’t have individual partner metrics for billings and other measures.”

“There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team,’ d’Artaganan.” “Yeah, but there is one in ‘équipe.'”

Upon what basis does your firm assess the value and productivity of its equity partners? If it’s like most firms, the main criteria are business generated and hours billed — important features, obviously, but also very much based on individual effort, not firm performance or client deliverables. This is how lawyers have always been trained to think and act, of course, from the first day of law school to the last day of practice: how have you performed, when compared to everyone around you? But firms that value their lawyers only for their individual efforts inevitably wind up as loose affiliations of individual lawyer businesses under one roof, and rarely for the better.

Linklaters has a different idea: treat lawyers as members of an enterprise, a team gathered together to deliver the universal goal of solutions to client problems. Reward them not (just) for their personal achievements, but also for those of the team(s) and the firm to which they belong. You could go a step further and add “client outcomes” to the assessment criteria — your clients, I’m pretty sure, would appreciate it.

One of the world’s top law firms believes that partners should be assessed based on team performance and cooperative activity, rather than individual efforts and billings. Your firm might want to think seriously about that.

Several readers did. One was the managing partner of an office of an international law firm, who sent the following response:

[Y]ou articulate what really amounts to a rhetorical question on the merits of more effectively measuring and incentivizing team behaviour. Most all of us in leadership positions see the need. The problem is transitioning from a culture of personal performance metrics. What advice do you have on overcoming the enormous obstacles to transitioning to the promised land?

This is, essentially, a change management question, which we all know is the trickiest challenge in law firm leadership. And to be clear, what this challenge requires is a full-scale change management and implementation program, one that’s been painstakingly planned and is professionally rolled out. I’m not proposing to describe such a program here — there are myriad resources and consultants to help law firms with this kind of thing. But speaking generally, and based in part on my response to my correspondent, here are some ideas along these lines for you to consider.

1.   This is the hardest thing you’ll ever try to do in a law firm. You’re attempting to implement changes that will directly affect how lawyers are assessed and valued within their firms — and, in all likelihood, how they make their money. This week’s bestowal of the Nobel Prize on a behavioural economist who helped identify the power of “the endowment effect” is a timely reminder that people tend to perceive any change in their status quo as a threat to their interests. That goes double for lawyers and triple for equity partners.

2.   Law firms tend to be low-trust environments. That’s a problem, because lack of trust within an organization exacerbates the friction generated by change efforts of any kind. You can’t just flip a switch and transform your firm into a high-trust workplace overnight; but you can be transparent and upfront about what you’re intending to do, and you can communicate it clearly, repeatedly, and personally. “Change management by walking around,” talking to people and actively listening to their responses, can at least help reduce the automatic resistance your plans will generate.

3.   Initial and ongoing communication of your plans is critical. Start with an all-hands, carefully planned, clearly explained call to action by the firm’s leaders that the firm is undertaking a change in how it measures lawyer performance, and especially why it’s making this change. Reinforce the call to action with outside experts, market data, and even client testimonials, as appropriate. But don’t stop there: Maintain ongoing communication, to ensure people don’t “forget” about this change, which is what they’d prefer to do. Keep talking and keep listening. Make clear that this isn’t going away.

4.   Start with “in addition to,” not “instead of.” Initiate your lawyer assessment changes as a kind of “parallel track” that encourages people to engage more often in certain activities, but doesn’t punish anyone for failing to engage in them. Start by incentivizing new team-oriented behaviours with bonuses, whether financial or reputational or both. But also be clear that the plan is to eventually transition these desired behaviours from “pilot project” status into the standard assessment system — and yes, into compensation calculations. Don’t mislead anyone about the ultimate goal.

5.   Don’t try to do it all at once. Choose a small, manageable number of team-oriented behaviours that you most want to encourage, so that people can focus their attention more easily. “Do these three things and you’ll get more praise and make more money” is a good way to grab lawyers’ attention. When you do transition these behaviours to the overall assessment and compensation systems, start with an amount or percentage small enough not to incite panic, but large enough to represent a noticeable enticement. (This part is obviously much more art than science.)

6.   Choose how you’re going to measure success. Will it be client satisfaction levels, on the theory that solutions-based assessment should produce better outcomes and happier clients? Survey your clients’ current satisfaction levels. Will it be more collaborative lawyers, on the theory that group-performance assessment will focus lawyers on working together to get the results the client asked for? Survey your current lawyer collaboration levels. Will it be more hours spent by senior lawyers mentoring juniors? Figure out where things stand now. Choose the benchmarks against which you can eventually show progress.

Seriously, Gimli, we’re not counting “orc necks hewn” anymore. Team goals, bud.

7.   Measure your progress and circulate the results throughout the firm. Congratulate those lawyers and groups that ticked the most boxes on your list of desired behaviours. Publicize a list of the lawyers and groups that earned “collaboration bonuses” over the previous period. If your culture would support it, list all practice groups is descending order of compliance, to trigger lawyers’ natural competitiveness. Publicly, repeatedly, and positively reinforce the behaviours you want to see, until the idea starts to really sink in.

8.   Be ready to absorb pushback from your lawyers, even up to the point of partner departures. Many firms lose their nerve at the prospect that some key business-driving personnel could walk out over these changes. But you need to have the right people on the bus to make this work, and you need to be prepared for some people to jump off. Before you launch this effort, have an honest internal conversation about who’s likely to leave, and whether that’s a price the firm is willing to pay to make this change happen. This is the gauntlet your leaders must be ready to run.

This process will take a long time and will not be painless for anyone, especially for the firm’s leaders. Immense patience will be required while the firm’s culture slowly reorients itself to the new behavioural priorities you’re encouraging. Resilience and fortitude will also be needed if or when your biggest rainmaker threatens to quit. Prepare thoroughly beforehand. Communicate at the start and throughout. Measure and update and reward progress continuously. This is the hard slog of real-world change, and it’s not going to be much fun, at least at the start.

But I also think it’s necessary. Individual performance metrics inherently drive me-first behaviours that can undermine attempts to build a firm-wide culture of performance geared towards the client’s interests. Hours- and origination-based compensation systems encourage lawyers only to bill hours and bring in business; these are certainly necessary, but they are no longer sufficient, conditions for a successful law firm in this market. Lawyers are deeply accustomed to being valued and rewarded for their individual efforts, and it will take time and effort to re-accustom them. Like I said, it’s the biggest challenge you can undertake.

But if you can pull it off, you’ll have well begun the transformation of your law firm from a 20th-century “hotel for lawyers” to a 21st-century legal solutions enterprise. And that’s where we need to go.



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