Partner Teams – the benefits, the challenges and why some partners don’t like them! (PART ONE)

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By Sean Larkan | Oct 5, 2020

PART ONE:

Over the years I have often been asked by clients to clarify what the benefits or otherwise are of partner teams. This is because they have heard that it may be beneficial to establish such a structure or where there is such a structure in place, there has sometimes been push-back from some partners.

By partner teams we mean a partner with tiers of lawyers by seniority or experience who report directly to her or him and for whom such partner is principally responsible.

I will say upfront that I strongly favour the formation of partner teams. This comes from my experience and the results achieved, financial and otherwise, as a partner in practice, as a managing partner or CEO of large corporate law firms over twenty years in three jurisdictions, and consulting to firms internationally over the past twelve years.

In my experience, the benefits unquestionably far outweigh any perceived disadvantages that may arise (which can, in most cases, be easily managed), so much so that I believe it is a ‘no-brainer’. It does take good management, good leadership, some discipline and follow-up and also some structural changes, but nothing drastic and they also contribute various benefits to the outcomes. Let me try to expand on this and put you in a position to make a decision for your own firm.

Here in Part One, I have set out, in bullet-point form for the purposes of brevity, what I see as the benefits of teams and why partners like them.  At the end of this article, I describe what you can expect to find in Part Two.

Benefits of teams and why partners like them

CLIENTS:

  • Different lawyer skill levels can be offered to clients for relevant categories and degrees of complexity of work. Within a team context, the lawyers will often know the client very well, and vice versa, and will have necessary skills and knowledge in relation to the practice or industry sector;
  • Getting clients comfortable with someone other than the partner doing all the work. Clients quickly learn to trust that their work is safe in the hands of the lawyer concerned and does not need direct partner involvement (often at much higher charge-out rates);
  • Different price points (charge-out rates) within a team can be offered to clients for different categories or types of work, which tells clients you are thinking of them, not gouging them; and
  • Working with a team of lawyers who all know the client and its work and needs creates consistency in lawyer/client interactions and communication and is very comforting to a client.

PARTNERS:

  • Running a successful team is extremely rewarding and personally satisfying for a partner;
  • Partners start to take more of an interest in hiring only high calibre, committed team players for their own teams and take a load off or actively assist HR in doing so;
  • Partners are forced to plan for future needs, and it encourages long-term thinking, usually in short supply in a law firm;
  • This structure becomes a key element in partner Contribution Criteria and performance i.e. how well does the partner or potential partner lead and grow a team? This is one of the support systems and disciplines that must be in place to support this structure and act as a reminder to everyone that ‘this is the way things are done around here’.
  • Partners can hand-pick lawyers within the team to develop sub-specialties within the team’s practice or industry sector focus;
  • Experience has shown that even senior partners long in practice, or partners with no prior experience of running a team, or aptitude for such a style of practice, can adapt and do it very successfully, provided they have the necessary urging and insistence by leadership as well as necessary guidance and coaching;
  • Partners learn leadership and management skills on the ground within the team. These skills are too often in short supply in a law firm and cannot be learned on a course or by reading a book. The best way is to run a team and then a department and maybe one day, the firm;
  • A firm comprising high performing partner teams is a much more resilient, powerful force, and more profitable in most instances than a firm comprising a group of partners handing out work randomly into a pool of lawyers;
  • What is decided at firm or firm leadership level can be delegated to partners in the knowledge and with confidence it will be disseminated & actioned within the teams. In this way partners become active facilitators of leadership and management decisions as well as firm strategy;
  • Succession; a partner-team structure is the only realistic way to ensure succession is managed organically and on an ongoing basis, a critical long-term outcome for all firms. When I think back on firms I ran or firms I have consulted to over thirty or more years, it is hard to recall many partner teams where succession was not catered for in this way; this is because it simply becomes the way the practice functions and new partners or lateral hires fall in line. While not always perfect in every instance, the building blocks were there in every team;
  • If a team is not functioning or performing well, it makes it easier for leadership or management to identify issues and hone in on them to rectify them;
  • Partner teams are an indispensable foundation for the unique Responsible Partner®️ & Development Discussion programs – discussed in earlier EIC articles and they are mutually dependent for optimum outcomes; and
  • There is clear responsibility and accountability of a partner at team level – most activities, coaching and management take place at team level and take the pressure off senior leadership and support service management e.g. HR.

In Part Two I will deal with points 2, 3 and 4, (bolded)

  1. Benefits of teams and why partners like them;
  2. The disadvantages of not having them;
  3. Potential challenges and disadvantages of a team structure;
  4. Why some partners, in our experience, do not like them!

I welcome your questions and or comments by email to me at sean@edge-international.com.

Edge Principal Sean Larkan is a former corporate/tax lawyer with extensive experience in conference and retreat presentation and facilitation. As an Accredited Practitioner of Human Synergistics International and a certified Master Coach, he offers Edge clients knowledge and experience in such areas as leader, group and organisational, behavioural and cultural diagnostics and coaching, and serves as a critical adjunct to firms’ strategy implementation. He is the author of Brand Strategy & Management for Law Firms.