Re-personalizing law firm culture

I was contacted the other day by someone who had run into a challenge while drafting a partnership agreement for their new firm. Specifically, they were struggling with the conditions under which partners could be removed from the enterprise. The firm’s initial approach to the issue — which was giving this person pause — was that a partner’s failure to maintain the standards of partnership (defined almost entirely in financial terms, which is a whole other story) would be a violation that triggered removal from the partnership, like an “Eject” button on a cartoon car seat.

I thought I would share with you a modified version of my response to this person, partly because so much of what’s gone wrong with law firm culture is neatly encapsulated here — but also because it’s worth a reminder that you have the power to envision and develop a different and better type of culture in your own legal workplace.

What this proto-firm is experiencing is a subconscious desire to automate the process of partner expulsion — to move it a safe distance from the lawyers, so that they don’t have to handle the distasteful task personally. “If you don’t meet these targets, you’re out” is the message most law firms send to their partners these days — but the targets themselves aren’t as important as the unforgiving, cause-and-effect ultimatum, which delegates the decision to remove the partner to an impersonal, “objective” standard. A physical and emotional distance is maintained between the expelled lawyer and the remaining partners. It’s not personal — it’s strictly business.

I’d like a word about your billables, Sonny.

Sometime over the last few decades, the de-personalization of partner relations became a cultural feature of most law firms. Maybe it grew from the expansion of partnerships from tens of lawyers to hundreds or even thousands, rendering any kind of “personal touch” very difficult in practical terms. Or maybe it arose from lawyers’ own personality quirks — our off-the-charts lack of sociability, or the deep aversion most of us feel to open conflict (which we dress up as a desire for “collegiality”). It certainly hasn’t helped that many firms now treat their own lawyers primarily as sources of revenue, rather than as human beings with lives of their own — why wouldn’t those lawyers replicate that attitude in their treatment of their own colleagues?

So what I suggested to my correspondent was this: Whatever standards and thresholds the firm decides to set for continued participation in the enterprise, make sure that if a partner falls below those thresholds, that triggers not an ejection, but a conversation — a grown-up talk between the partner and the firm’s leader to discuss what happened and how to fix it.

I guarantee you that every partner who fails to meet a firm’s productivity standards has a story to tell. It’s a leader’s job to listen to that story with empathy and equanimity and to figure out how best to proceed. That the failure happened is not in dispute; why it happened is what the leader needs to address. Were there extenuating circumstances that caused the lawyer to miss a quota or target? Were there personal issues at play? Did a key client suffer a serious setback? Did the lawyer experience a productivity-draining conflict with a colleague?

Once you’ve identified the cause, you need to discuss potential remedies. If the partner has a skills gap when it comes to some aspect of her performance, she could be offered extra training. If the partner is experiencing domestic difficulties that she’s been reluctant to raise at the office, she could be offered counselling or other assistance. If the partner has simply grown tired of the work she’s doing, she could be offered a sabbatical or a shift in her career trajectory. There are as many remedial options as there are types of challenges.

But what the firm cannot do, not if it wants to retain any kind of professional integrity, is to automatically throw that person overboard because they’re “under-performing” or whatever other euphemism the firm comes up with. That’s not leadership; that’s the complete abdication of it.

None of that is to say, of course, that a leader should simply accept a partner’s story and just tell her to do better next time. There needs to be a response to a partner’s failure to meet standards, or other partners will rightly complain. The leader must decide if the problems causing the partner’s failure can be addressed, and if so, how — and if they can’t be addressed through reasonable means, then yes, there must be a system in place by which the partner can be formally excused from the partnership. But you can’t proceed to this step without having first engaged in an honest conversation and a good-faith effort to address the root of the problem.  You can’t skip the personal and go directly to the impersonal, no matter how uncomfortable you might find the personal to be.

But there are larger issues at work here than a single firm’s partnership agreement. In broader terms, the de-personalization of law firm culture has completely undermined the nature and purpose of law firm partnership itself.

It’s increasingly obvious that the partnership structure confers few business advantages on firms, so its defenders instead tend to argue that partnerships are more professional and collegial than “mere” companies. That simply doesn’t square with our lived experience anymore — firms now de-equitize partners as routinely and easily as the meanest corporation lays off employees. It sometimes feels to me, in fact, like many law firms have developed a superstition that the low-trust, high-tension, hyper-critical nature of firm culture actually correlates with (or even causes) the firm’s success — and that a kinder, gentler law firm is therefore also a weaker, less competitive one. Toxic masculinity as law firm culture, essentially.

You can adopt a partnership construct for your law firm, or not, as you wish. There are different ways to structure ownership and profit-sharing in law firms, depending on your local ethics rules. But none of them require the de-personalization of the culture. None of them necessitate the alienation of professional colleagues from one another, turning lawyers into ruthless judges of one another’s fitness and delegating the execution of their judgments to automated processes. Mad Men has been off the air for four years now. No one’s calling for a reboot.

Don Draper. Don Corleone. Coincidence? I think not.

So if you’re launching a new law firm today, or thinking about renewing the one you’ve got, start with an effort to personalize your culture. Open yourself up to the personal connections and individual relationships that naturally result from professional helpers working long hours in close quarters. Embrace the concept — it didn’t used to be a radical one — that you should trust your colleagues and should give them reason to trust you. Feel genuinely good about your colleague’s success and try to enhance that success, even if it has absolutely no financial or brand-building benefit for you. Engage with your colleagues as people first, lawyers second, revenue-earners last — not in the reverse order that many law firm cultures currently follow.

A law firm culture that has been re-personalized would never tolerate the suggestion that a partner be automatically ejected for failing to hit an earnings target. It would not permit one of its own people, lawyer or staff, to struggle and drown unaided in a rising sea of fixable problems or hidden troubles. It would put people first, always.

Think about being part of a culture like that — and then compare that to how you feel about your own organizational culture. Which seems better to you? Which makes you feel like a human being who happens to be a lawyer, rather than the other way around? Which culture would you race to join, and fight to defend?



3 Comments

  1. Jim Bliwas

    The attitude in many firms seems to resemble an organization run by Ebenezer Scrooge overseeing floors full of Bob Cratchit’s. They don’t care if it is Christmas Eve andhe has a sick child at home, stay at your desk and work. It may take the appearance of The Ghost of Law Firms Past and Future to get them to see there are humans working at those desks.

    For firms at the top of the AmLaw lists, generating billions in revenue and partners taking home millions every year, it will be very difficult to change the culture. As Upton Sinclair said when he was running for governor of California in the 1930s, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it.”

    The head of a large law consulting firm once told me that the bulk of his revenue comes from law firms having him to a “study” that showed which partners should be fired. Although the firms knew they needed to say good-bye to the individuals, they didn’t want to have to do the dirty deed so they “automated” the process.

    No wonder that poor, troubled partner in the LA office of a major law firm was afraid to ask for help and thought the only solution was to go into the parking garage on a Sunday morning last summer and put a gun to his head.

  2. Sherry M. Gonzalez

    You are so right Jordan. Law firms should change this kind of attitude. They put extra pressure on their partners whenever they feel it’s the time to get rid of them. Some new rules should be implemented for the sake of those poor partners.


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