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

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By Sean Larkan | Oct 13, 2020

In Part One of this article I set out, in bullet-point form for the purposes of brevity, what I saw as the:

  1. Benefits of teams and why partners like them;

In this Part Two I look at:

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

Remember that in Part One I said that by partner teams we mean a partner with tiers of lawyers by seniority or experience who report to her or him and for whom such partner is principally responsible.

PART TWO:

PARTNER TEAMS

  1. The disadvantages of not having them;

LAWYERS & FEE EARNERS:

  • There is a clear responsibility for lawyers within a team. There is nowhere to hide, from partners or peers, within a team;
  • Capability to ‘run a team’ becomes a pre-requisite before a senior associate is considered for or elevated to partner status – this should be a sine qua non!
  • Senior lawyers, like senior associates, learn leadership and management on the job – a great preparation for partnership, some would say, the only true preparation;
  • Training & coaching takes place where it should, on the job, within the team & organically;
  • It is the best way of getting the best out of people & ensuring that no-one ‘falls through the cracks’. A team becomes a supportive, challenging learning environment for lawyers but ideally, a trusting and respectful one. There is always someone to ask questions of or provide support or advice;
  • A partner team contributes to ensure a genuine interest is taken in individual lawyers and support staff within the team. This is a foundational element of the Responsible Partner system we have developed and implemented in many jurisdictions. It also builds lawyer engagement (will a person ‘say’, ‘stay’ and go the extra mile);
  • This structure facilitates teaching and developing specialist industry sector or practice area skills within the team. We have often seen new practice areas or industry sector specialties spring from this interaction and evolution;
  • If something e.g. financial practices, should be done in a particular way, new team members very quickly come up to speed and learn from others in the team ‘how things work’;
  • Work products and volumes are properly managed within the team; workloads, types of work and necessary training can be done ‘on the job’, in-house, within the team; and
  • The only way to ensure every staff member, legal or otherwise, has a fair chance to reach their full potential. These are expensive resources in time and dollars; it is as well to do all you can to get a good return on the investment.

FINANCIAL:

  • Budgets can be set on a team basis (the partner will have an excellent grasp of capability and potential within a team) and attainment is managed by the partner concerned;
  • Financial management within the team creates consistency, ensures compliance and application, and the teaching/learning of relevant skills;
  • The financial outcomes argument is unassailable, particularly where partners employ qualitative gearing or leverage within their team with high calibre, committed team players who work on quality assignments for good quality clients. Firms who have these tiered partner teams reap substantial financial rewards; and
  • There is plenty of empirical evidence industry-wide to support this.

GENERAL:

  • Employment Brand and engagement levels, critical success factors, are supported by teams. A firm’s employment brand is what others think and feel of the firm as an employer. This is directly impacted by all the factors mentioned above and in Part One of this article; and
  • A well led team operates as a well-oiled team and is more powerful than the sum of the individual parts.

PARTNER TEAMS

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES AND DISADVANTAGES:

  • There is potential for work to be held within the team (partners ‘clutching it to their chests’) thereby creating a silo effect;
  • There is also potential for lawyers in other areas of the practice to not be used by the team, or lawyers within the team not being exposed to other partners, areas of practice or specialties;
  • A team structure creates pressure on the team partner to find work and manage work and the financials within the team;
  • Sometimes partners, particularly in larger firms, have been inclined to “over lawyer” (but this is not limited to firms that have a team structure); and
  • Note that the issues outlined in the first four bullet points, above, are easily managed by having the partner team system in place as part of the fabric of the firm and having it monitored by leadership and management through various systems that have can be put in place to support it. We have evolved a Responsible Partner system and philosophy, Development Discussion system to support it and Contribution Criteria for partners to ensure they undertake their roles appropriately.

PARTNER TEAMS

DISADVANTAGES OF NOT HAVING TEAMS:

  • Unless the firm, work type, type of market and individual partners are uniquely qualified, firms will never reach their potential financial outcomes;
  • Most of the advantages outlined above are not possible to achieve;
  • Partners get away with making much lesser contributions to the firm and partnership than is required in most successful law firms today;
  • Too often, partners with specialties do not train successors in that area of work, do not introduce their clients to team lawyers in an organised, structured way and when they retire the ‘cupboard is often bare’ i.e. no real succession has been provided for in regard to skills transfer, personnel or key clients;
  • Legal staff are left in a melting pot of uncertainty as to workflow, quality of work, coaching, feedback and whether an interest will be taken in them or their work and progression in the firm. This results in lowered self-esteem, potential is not realised and lower productivity and sometimes departure results; and
  • Firms with an ostensibly good brand, good clients, good workflow, good infrastructure, good lawyers and good leadership/management remain mystified why they are not making more money or doing better.

PARTNER TEAMS

WHY DO SOME PARTNERS NOT LIKE TEAMS?

  • A team structure makes it clear where responsibility and accountability lie, amongst other things, for what happens within the team and in regard to the quality of work, workflow and financial and overall performance of individual lawyers. Partners won’t admit this, but this often lies at the heart of objections to team structures;
  • Team partners have to coach and train;
  • Partners sometimes argue they want to be able to hand their work out around the office in a random manner based on the ‘best person for the job’ (the team structure still provides for this);
  • Partners quickly realise they will be measured for how well they run and grow their team;
  • Unfortunately, the reality is that many partners do not like this spotlight beamed on them.

PARTNER TEAMS

CASE STUDIES

  • A leading senior tax partner and in due course Chairman of the firm, charging at the highest rates in NZ, was practising with no gearing, that is, no team. Following establishment of a team structure, which he enthusiastically embraced, he was over five years able to build a team including two fellow partners and half a dozen lawyers one of whom developed a leading GST specialty, another a highly successful Customs and Excise specialty;
  • A senior high-profile matrimonial partner in his mid-60s doing celebrity divorces and settlements practised with no team. Even at that stage of his career he took on the challenge of developing a team and through that built succession and client comfort in dealing with lawyers at different levels of seniority. He achieved these goals within about five years; and
  • A chairman of his firm in Australia and leading church law and charities practitioner ten years ago had no succession plan and shared one lawyer with another partner. He retired this year (2020) as chairman and partner leaving a successful partner leading the team together with a third partner as well as special Counsel appointed this year and a group of seven lawyers/fee owners supporting them, all fully trained in his practice and well-known to his clients.

NOTE: in each of the above illustrative examples, the partner-team structure was supported by the Responsible Partner and Development Discussion philosophies and programs.

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

Sean Larkan

Principal, Edge International

August 2020