It’s not clear to me what many law firm partners think they’re doing in that role.
If you have a dog, you’ve probably seen it strain at the leash to chase after cars, with no idea what it would do if it actually caught one. If you have a cat, you’ve probably seen it tear up the stairs in a frenzy, only to stop halfway up as it completely forgets what drove it there. And if you’re in a law firm, you’ve probably seen lawyers strive through tremendous effort and at great personal cost to attain partnership, only to find themselves looking around and wondering what possessed them to do that.
The purported rewards of law firm partnership are well-known: A slice of the firm’s annual profits, a higher level of status with colleagues and clients, and a badge of honour to show (or flaunt) to family and friends. I’m sure many partners enjoy some or all of these benefits to one degree or another. But it’s always seemed to me that many lawyers become partners primarily through inertia — equity partnership was simply the last stop on the law firm career train. Lawyers are task-oriented people who just want to know what the next task is. Many of them became partners because that was the next task to do, the last achievement to unlock.
There’s much to be written about the impact of unintended partnership on the emotional well-being of lawyers. But I’m currently interested in its impact on the existential well-being of their firms. Many law firms are owned by lawyers who neither understand, nor desire, nor have any intention to fulfil the ownership role they’ve taken on.
Pretty much every law firm partnership includes equity partners who do not view themselves as the owners of a business. They view their equity share not as an opportunity (and responsibility) to guide a legal services business, but as (a) a profit stake, similar to a share in a publicly traded company, and (b) a safeguard against interference with their own autonomy. They are partners because the role bestows several rewards (money, power, prestige). They have little if any interest in the role’s corresponding responsibilities.
What are the responsibilities of law firm partnership? It depends on the specific firm in question, of course, but a good short list would include the responsibility to:
- generate sufficient business to sustain more than your own practice
- monitor and help improve the firm’s performance and profitability
- promote the firm and its capacities to your clients and the market
- accept and carry out some management and leadership duties
- manage and mentor less experienced lawyers under your supervision
- plan your own eventual departure and prepare others to succeed you
Taken as a whole, these can be expressed more simply: They are the responsibilities of ownership. Just as you must meet certain obligations for the comfortable house you live in and the stylish car you drive, you must likewise meet certain obligations for the profitable and prestigious law firm you partly own. Some law firm partners are interested in all the rights of ownership, but none of the corresponding responsibilities. The more of these partners your firm has, the more trouble it’s in.
I’m not really speaking here of partners who exercise their ownership powers in ways that their colleagues find self-serving, irritating, or even antagonistic. These partners aren’t a lot of fun to deal with, and they can do real damage — but at least they’re actively engaged with their ownership role. I’m speaking here of the large number of partners who are largely or entirely disengaged from the ownership role itself. They’re neither good actors nor bad actors; they’re not actors, period. They’re superannuated associates, absentee owners, empty seats at the partnership table.
When too many of the people who have the power of ownership in a law firm fail to exercise it, then the firm inevitably starts to drift, leaderless and increasingly listless. Truly engaged partners are forced to take on more duties, to make the decisions and carry out the obligations for the enterprise as a whole, leaving them worn down and resentful.
Consultants routinely advise law firms to rid themselves of “under-performing partners.” This is, of course, code for “partners who aren’t generating enough money.” I’d like to see that term redefined to mean “partners who aren’t living up to their ownership obligations, to their fellow owners and to the firm as a whole.” In my ideal world, every partner who declines to take up his or her ownership responsibilities would be considered to have forfeited his or her legitimate claim to partnership.
So this might be a good time to look around your firm and ask yourself: Who are the real owners here? Who takes equity shareholding in this firm seriously — for better or for worse — and who simply sits around reaping the benefits of shareholding while ignoring its duties? My guess is that it won’t take you long to divide the sheep from the goats on this score. I sincerely hope that the engaged outnumber the disengaged, but I’ve seen enough law firms over the years to know that won’t always be the case.
At that stage, you might want to clearly restate for your partners the responsibilities of equity ownership within your firm and re-establish their equal importance to the rights of ownership. You could make this the theme of your next partnership retreat, to signal its importance, and perhaps to lay the groundwork for establishing the annual fulfillment of that list of ownership responsibilities as a sine qua non for continuing participation in the equity circle.
If that’s too much to ask in a firm of powerful veteran partners, and it might well be, then you should at least institute the expectation of “ownership responsibility fulfillment” for every new admission to partnership — in fact, make it part of their annual performance assessment. At too many firms, the only real expectation for new partners is the generation of business — the other responsibilities listed previously are often considered “nice to do” or “soft” activities. You need to harden those expectations, to make it clear that attaining partnership is not the last stop on the train. Maintaining partnership is also mandatory.
Partnership is not the promised land given to lawyers after (10) years in the desert. It’s not merely an achievement to be unlocked or a destination to be enjoyed — it’s an earned privilege with ongoing responsibilities, and nobody is permanently entitled to it. That might be a heretical statement at your law firm. But I think a lot of law firms are overdue for a little heresy at the moment.