Coaching Partners to Perform

Coaching Partners to Perform

In the legal profession, more could be done to support the role of partners. Kevin Wheeler, a consultant and certified business coach, explains.

Partners are responsible for bringing in clients, they undertake or supervise the work, they manage client relationships, they promote the firm, they oversee the firm’s finances, resources and infrastructure, and they provide the capital for the business. If you have too many underperforming partners, the business quickly suffers.
Supporting partners

So, why do so many law firms not support their partners when these are failing to perform against some of these tasks just outlined? And by ‘support’ I don’t mean being invited in to see the senior partner be berated, sorry, ‘encouraged’ to do better.

Too many firms make lawyers up to partner and then expect them to get on with it, as if the act of providing business cards saying ‘Partner’ endows them with excellent client-handling, man-management, business development and mentoring skills. It does not. Selecting young lawyers for partnership is another step on their developmental path; it is far from the end.

Senior partners of many years’ standing can also find themselves struggling to perform for a number of reasons, including the loss of key clients, changes in the market which they have failed to adapt to, problems in their personal life, loss of confidence, greater accountability internally, including more demanding financial targets which they are failing to hit, etc.
Partner appraisals

Giving partners the support that they need in order to carry out their roles effectively should start with an assessment of their development needs, which should be part of the appraisal process.

All law firms should have an appraisal process for their staff, and this includes partners. It is good practice that, if done properly, can significantly improve performance and motivation. Unfortunately, too many law firms either have no appraisal process or one that does not function effectively.

At its most basic, partners should be appraised annually with performance against objectives set the year before being assessed, new objectives set and development needs established. All this should be documented with the following key areas being covered:

    Key client development
    People management and development
    Business development
    Knowledge management
    Financial targets

Ideally, partners’ remuneration should be linked to the attainment of objectives set in the appraisal. Of course, in a firm which operates a pure lock-step remuneration model, this is difficult to achieve with partners moving up the remuneration bands dependent on length of service alone. This is why increasing numbers of firms are moving to merit-based remuneration systems or hybrids of the two. Under lock-step, too many older partners who have reached the plateau tend to coast to retirement, while super-performing younger partners leave to join firms that reward their endeavours under a merit-based system.

With a robust partner appraisal system and a remuneration model that has a merit-based element, it should be possible to reward partners for meeting a broad set of performance objectives, not just for hitting billable hours or fee targets, which is typically what happens in most law firms.
Coaching partners to perform

Having established a partner’s development needs, those firms that do make an effort to invest in people skills beyond pure technical legal training tend to do so through traditional ‘chalk and talk’ sessions or more interactive workshops involving smaller groups of lawyers.

In my experience, these suffer from two major drawbacks: firstly, these ‘softer’ skills can only really be acquired by putting into practice that which is taught in the classroom. So, successfully building such expertise requires a constant cycle of being taught a skill, applying that skill in a real-life situation, examining and learning from one’s mistakes, and trying it again. Traditional training tends to provide a one-off ‘shot’ of classroom learning with none of the ongoing support.

Secondly, the skill is often one where the lawyer has to get used to ‘failure’. For instance, with business development, failure often occurs not because the lawyer hasn’t prepared thoroughly and been effective in their execution, but because the buyer might not be receptive at the time, may already have legal advisers that they are satisfied with, and will be unlikely to buy at a first meeting as building trust takes time. Getting used to such failure is often the biggest stumbling block for lawyers, many of whom have sailed through their careers without really encountering the situation. Reporting back such failure in a classroom training situation surrounded by your peers, or even juniors, is too threatening an environment for many and they either hide their own inadequacies or fail to turn up at all. They certainly aren’t encouraged to go out and try/re-try the new techniques that they have been taught.

One-to-one coaching gets around these two problems and is a far better approach to improving a lawyer’s skills. The aim of business coaching is to make the individual more effective in their business role through facilitated learning, which brings about positive change and action. Unlike training, which puts in advice, content and information, coaching pulls out the capacity people have within themselves. Furthermore, people are much more likely to implement solutions that they have thought up themselves, usually have considerable untapped potential just waiting to be brought out and, anyway, resent being told what to do.

In its purest form, coaching is non-directive: the coach provides no direction or input, other than through asking appropriate questions which lead the person being coached to a desired solution. In practice, the lawyers that I coach wish to draw on my 20 years’ experience working with law firms and I often find myself inputting ideas when these are requested.

For me, the scientifically proven fact that people are far more likely to implement a solution that they have discovered for themselves is the most powerful argument for using coaching to improve a lawyer’s skills. I would recommend firms with underperforming partners or associates transitioning to partner to consider this form of developmental support.

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