Valuing and Judging Partners — Beyond the Elephant Test!

by Nick Jarrett-Karr

In recent times, these somewhat informal judgments have become more formalized as they often establish the basis for partner recruitment, promotion and reward. After all, there ought to be a better way of identifying the ideal partner beyond the "ELEPHANT TEST" — a creature which is hard to describe, but instantly recognizablewhen spotted.

But, in their efforts to make such assessments more open, transparent and clear, law firms are finding that instead of offering comfort and clarity, formalized assessment processes can fuel fear, uncertainty and even paranoia. In addition, the introduction of defined performance criteria and methodologies can be laborious and tedious to introduce and administer.

After all, nobody likes being judged or assessed and lawyers — despite (or maybe because of) their familiarity with the judicial process — are no exception to this. I frequently found in my days as a Managing Partner that any attempt to point to a shortcoming or area for improvement in a partner was frequently met by a request for hard evidence to support my view of the partner concerned. Nevertheless, in all discussions about partner value and performance, at various stages views have to be taken as to how each partner is doing in relation to other partners. This imperative is not confined to discussions about promotion, profit sharing, remuneration and compensation, but has become an essential part of law firms' internal risk and quality management; it is vital to know whether all lawyers are meeting standards.

In this context, law firm leaders have at last moved their focus beyond financial and technical performance; they have realized the importance of developing (and recognizing the value of) management and leadership skills in their partners. This recognition is somewhat patchy and inconsistent and there is often a mismatch between what law firms say they value in their Partners (in terms of behaviors, skills and competencies) and what they reward (often by recognizing and rewarding billing efforts mainly or exclusively). The problem (of how partners are valued) is compounded by the difficulty of judging soft areas of performance (such as people management and holistic client care) as compared with the relative ease of measuring the billable hour and its conversion into cash.

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