ACCELERATING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Recently, law firm management consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’ Kristin Stark offered her solution to problems that she sees with many large firm compensation systems:

“Firms need to be talking to their partners about their performance every year — and throughout the year. Ongoing coaching of partners on their performance and helping them make improvements has become a powerful tool for driving partner and firm performance in successful firms. High-performing partners want to work in an environment where co-owners are engaged and actively contributing to firm growth. Without this, a firm’s top performers are at risk.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/law/article.jsp?id=1202472843670&Partner_Compensation_The_Downturns_New_Touchy_Subject)

Stark buried the lead, but her key point appears to be that a firm’s principal mission should be to keep its rainmakers happy. Otherwise, they’re “at risk” — meaning that they’ll leave to make more money elsewhere.

Wait a minute. A few lines earlier, Stark described the growing gap in high-to-low partner compensation: “Before the recession, [it] was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

“You can imagine that creates a lot of problems,” she continued. “It drives further tension between partners over compensation and creates an environment of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in law firms.”

What should firms that have become beholden to a few rainmakers and their often oversized egos do? Whatever it takes to keep them? Won’t that exacerbate the resentment of those whom Stark calls the “have-nots”? What are the limits of tolerably bad behavior by the “haves”? Big billers always get a pass for hoarding clients. How about verbally abusing subordinates? Or worse?

Meanwhile, she suggests, firms should coach other lawyers on the importance of “improving performance.” That’s code for billing more hours and bringing in more business. Forget about mentoring the next generation, encouraging collegiality, enhancing attorney career satisfaction, or focusing on other professional values for which the dominant large law firm model lacks a metrics link to bottom-line equity partner profits.

It also means reconciling the “have-nots” to their proper places in the firm:

“In this market firms have to constantly reevaluate the expectations of a partner, communicate with partners about what is required of them, and incorporate partner goals and expectations into the compensation process,” Stark said.

In other words, everyone should understand the need to work harder so that the highest paid equity partners widen their already enormous compensation advantages over all others.

All of this is an interesting commentary on a group of extraordinarily talented men and women — a firm’s longstanding (but non-rainmaker) equity partners who, apparently, somehow lost the intelligence and personality traits that caused them to excel in the first place. As students, their brains and hard work took most of them to the best colleges and law schools. As associates, their ambitions carried them past peers into equity partnerships. Presumably, they served clients who valued their work.

When did they lose it? Admittedly, a few never deserved promotion, but internal firm political stars aligned in a way that allowed them to bypass quality control criteria. Success made others fat, happy, and lazy; still others burned out. But most equity partners achieved their status because they had a lot going for them — and still do. If they continue to enjoy the practice of law, that alone pushes them as it always has.

Not so, says Stark. They need coaching to keep their expectations in check. They must pander to top billers whose eternal answer to the question “How much is enough?” will always be “More.” They should live with the anxiety accompanying ongoing performance evaluations throughout the year. Never mind that, in Biglaw as in life, individual careers experience peaks and valleys; rarely is any overall upward trajectory a straight line.

Fear isn’t a productive ingredient in the recipe for motivating talent. But try telling that to some large firm managing partners and their outside consultants. On second thought, don’t bother. They already know everything.

3 thoughts on “ACCELERATING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

  1. Not only that, but reliance on a few big rainmakers ultimately makes the firm more unstable and liable to collapse if several leave for greener pastures. The better way to drive a firm to success is to invest in developing the working partners into relationship managers and keeping the clients with the firm. However, since those in charge of big law firms usually also are the big rainmakers, that not likely to happen.

  2. Nice column. Most consultants I’ve known have been B students without the math skills to do checkout. You don’t always get what you pay for.

  3. Oddly, one result can be that when one of the pampered rainmakers leaves, an effect of the compensation ladder they helped set up can sometimes be that the remaining partners find that their income increases. Sure, they take some (rarely all) of their business, but they also were taking more than they were really worth out of the firm. I’ve seen it.

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