Six Strategies for Dealing with Under-Performing Partners

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Ted is a partner and a fine litigator who has spent his career with the same law firm. He's a great guy, well liked by partners, associates, and staff. A smart guy, too - law review at his Ivy League law school. The problem is he's not much of a rainmaker. Never was. For the first 20 years of practice, that wasn't such a problem because the name partners generated so much work for people like Ted, who handled the work ably.
Times have changed. Ted knows that. He has sat through countless partner meetings at which business generation was the main topic. He has witnessed rancorous discussions about compensation in which younger rainmakers demanded a bigger piece of the pie for generating bigger revenues. He's seen the numbers and knows he isn't measuring up; his compensation is not what it once was. He knows that the firm won't consider anyone for partner these days who hasn't generated more business than Ted ever has.
The managing partner has had numerous conversations with him, exhorting him to sell more.He has prepared marketing plans describing goals he never met.He's attended marketing seminars. Nothing has worked. The firm has even reduced his compensation repeatedly - he's barely making six figures these days. But nothing has spurred Ted to improve his performance or leave the firm. What's a firm to do?
If you have partners (or senior counsel) who are burned out, under-performing, or stalled like Ted, here are six strategies for addressing this common and difficult problem successfully. All the strategies are based on my personal experience of coaching hundreds of attorneys through successful career moves.
Clarify Your Objective
Be honest about the objective: is it to rehabilitate the partner or to help the partner make a successful move outside the firm? If a bad situation has existed too long and staying with the firm is no longer feasible, be honest with yourselves and the partner. Don't pretend that there is an option to remain with the firm when there isn't. Forging an effective resolution requires trust and integrity and these depend on honesty.
If the situation can be salvaged, be prepared to invest in assistance for the partner. Don't expect a quick solution. Understand that committing to a turnaround is a long-term proposition; don't waste money or time if the firm is already sure of the ultimate outcome. If there is truly no future for a partner at the firm, it is in everyone's best interests to help him or her out of the firm sooner rather than later.
Deal with the Problem
Some things spontaneously improve (a cold, for example, often just runs it course, with or without intervention), but people problems rarely do. Telling a partner his or her performance is unacceptable, then leaving them to fix it on their own, is not really dealing with the problem. People don't want to under-perform and they don't like to feel like failures, but they may be unable to fix things on their own.
Hoping that an under-performer will take the hint and leave the firm is rarely an effective strategy because under-performers (and most people, to be fair) lack the necessary skills and knowledge to make successful career moves on their own. In my experience, most underperforming partners have tried to find a new job on their own. Lacking knowledge of effective job search strategies, they have failed to find a way out. Without help, the situation is unlikely to change.
In addition, denial is a potent force, both for firms that wish a partner problem would go away by itself and for partners who don't know how to go away and so they hope that if they keep their heads down, the firm will forget about them. The result is the same: no change.
Demonstrate the Firm's Values
Forging an effective solution is a visible opportunity to demonstrate the firm's values to the departing partner, the attorneys in the firm, and the larger legal community. This is a powerful demonstration that your firm is the kind of firm that treats people well, an important strategy for attracting and retaining the best attorneys, as well as the right thing to do.
Avoid the common strategy of reducing compensation to such a low level that a partner is forced or embarrassed out of the firm. This is cowardly and does not reflect the best values of the firm. If your child was misbehaving would you cut his allowance and try to starve him out of the household? Of course not. Why would you treat people who have made a big enough contribution to make it into the partnership ranks with any less care? The demands of partnership may have changed over the years, but firms have been complicit in not holding the partners accountable to these requirements long ago.
Invest in a Solution
Adults learn best by one-on-one coaching over an extended period of time. Offering a partner three months' worth of group seminars on career transition won't provide the right kind of assistance or enough time to make a successful career move. Twelve months of intensive one-on-one consultation with a career consultant is optimal; six months is the minimum.
This program of individual career transition support should involve everything required to make a successful transition to the right job: strategic, tactical, and emotional. This includes dealing with the emotional impact of losing a job, psychological and self-assessment to figure out appropriate and desirable job targets, putting together a resume and the other tools necessary to land a new job, constructing a game plan for the job search, learning the appropriate job search strategies and how to use them to optimal effect, implementing the job search, even consultations with an anxious or angry spouse whose life and future are also in transition. Everything up to and including negotiating a job offer and getting set up for success in the new job is fair game.
Although some view career consulting services as a commodity, as providers of legal services you are well aware that professional services are only as good as the quality of the provider. Resist the impulse to hire the cheapest provider who in all likelihood will provide group seminars and less expert consultants. Be sure in selecting a provider that you pay careful attention to the professional and educational credentials of the person you will be working with, as well as their personal consulting experience with attorneys. Developing a long-term relationship with a consultant who develops a keen understanding of your firm's unique culture and strengths optimizes the consultant's ability to serve your departing partners and the firm.
The reasons you want partners to leave are precisely the reasons that they will likely have trouble finding new work. They are not 32, able to work for nothing, relocate at the drop of a hat, or retool in a new specialty after years of practice. Most other firms will not be interested in partners without a big book of business. Solo practice is an unlikely alternative, if lack of rainmaking success is the reason for departure. In-house and government opportunities are scarce and highly competitive. Furthermore, searches are taking longer these days, as organizations are taking plenty of time to pick from a large, available pool of unemployed talent, often without the help of search consultants.
Don't assume that retirement is a desirable or even feasible option. Many partners have financial responsibilities that make retirement unrealistic; others want to work, and no one really wants to be pushed out of the practice of law on any but their own timetable. If they had the desire and ability to retire, they would already have retired without your prompting.
Be prepared to invest time and money in the exit of your partner. But remember that there are enormous costs to not fixing this problem. The costs go beyond compensation to lost productivity, poor morale, cynicism about ineffective leadership, etc. Providing a smooth exit for a departing partner is a wise investment in the partner's and the firm's futures.
Facilitate the Transition
Facilitating a partner's transition to a new position outside the firm does not end with hiring a career consultant. There are a number of things the firm can do to facilitate the transition. These include providing active support in the form of referrals, introductions, and references, to passive support in the form of office space, secretarial support, and voicemail and email access.
The best and fastest transitions occur when the firm remains engaged in the transition process, by actively seeking ways to help, generally in the form of introductions or referrals to clients (a good way to reinforce a client relationship is to place a partner in-house) and colleagues. Identifying those who can and will provide strong references both relieves a partner's anxiety and helps assure a smooth transition.
Finally, there is the issue of office space and office support. Even if no longer receiving compensation, it is an advantage to the partner to remain at the firm, housed in an office, with access to secretarial support (even if the office and support are downsized), and voicemail and email access. This perpetuates the image of continued employment which makes the partner a more attractive candidate to prospective employers. Firms can provide this support at little cost, yet the impact for departing partners is enormous.
Establish Accountabilities and a Timetable
Successful change programs - whether career change, behavior change, or organizational change - require clear accountabilities, timetables, and follow-up. When I worked for the world's leading career consulting firm, many executives had openended support until they were reemployed. The lack of clear time limits on support led people to coast for long periods. Better to establish a clear timeline for career transition assistance and for departure.
Continue to check in with the partner and with the consultant about how the partner is progressing; do it with genuine concern, not as a thinly disguised effort to move them out. Follow-up is essential to conveying the double message of interest and accountability. It is always possible to renegotiate timeframes if a partner is making a good faith effort.
Following these six tips provides a tested road map for developing a comprehensive and effective program of support to help a valued colleague make a successful career move, while simultaneously demonstrating the firm's values and leadership to the partner, the firm and the broader legal community.
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D. is President of RJC Associates, a consulting firm that provides outplacement, executive development, and selection assessment services to law firms and corporations. Dr. Canter may be reached at: (please remove "_" if copying text for address)
Printed with permission from Report to Legal Management, April 2005.
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