New Partner Development:  Three Common Mistakes

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By David Cruickshank | Mar 3, 2021

In the first two months of the year, your firm admitted a new class of partners.  You’re confident that they are the “right stuff” for the firm.  They are productive, knowledgeable associates who can produce revenue at partner rates right away.  But are they ready to be owners?  Unless your firm has a robust new partner development program, the answer is “We hope so” at the very best.

There are three common mistakes we see in the formation of new partner training programs:

  • Firms assume that a partner orientation program, held in the first quarter of the new partner year, will be sufficient;
  • Firms believe that their compensation system provides all the right behavioral incentives for strong partner performance, so training can be very light;
  • Where there is a new partner development program, the firm uses exclusively internal resources (e.g., a rainmaker, the CFO, practice group leaders).

These mistakes will lead to weaknesses in partner leadership, profitability and strategic vision.  New partners are your future and investment in them at this stage is critical.  Let’s look at each mistake.

Orientation is Enough

The argument is that they were chosen to be partners because they have all the skills and qualities we expect.  They have had years of training and mentoring.  Besides some orientation to billings, client management and a new tax filing status, what more could they need?  Years ago, when I recommended a new partner development program at an AmLaw 50 firm, the managing partner said to me: “But they made partner at (elite firm name).  That’s all we need to know.”

That view has been superseded by established partner development programs that last from a year (Baker Hostetler) to five years (Skadden).  The argument can be answered by asking the question that I put to firms who think that orientation is enough.  “Let me interview your partners who have been admitted for 1-3 years.  I will ask them – What do you know now about being an owner that you wish you had known in your first year?”  The answers produce a long list of needs.  For example, a shocking number of young partners confess that they do not know how the compensation process and factors work in their firm.

From working with firms on partner leadership, operations and compensation, we know that a serious partner development program has a significant curriculum and lasts a year or more.

The Compensation System Provides the Right Incentives

In a pure lockstep system, this may be true in the early years.  Partners in that phase are producers and they manage the work of firm clients.  But most systems now have incentives for origination and firm contributions, such as mentoring associates.  In addition, compensation systems still tend to reward revenue, however produced.  But as firms increasingly look for profitable clients and matters, partners will have to be good at legal project management, team building and financial management with clients.  Many systems also give token recognition to the skills that partners will need beyond the first few years.  Do you reward things like complex litigation management, client relations kudos, the retention of valued associates, and collaboration across practices?

From this brief critique alone, there are multiple needs for new partner training in:

  • Mentoring Skills
  • Legal Project Management
  • Team Leadership
  • Understanding Profitability
  • Cross-Selling in Business Development
  • Client Relations
  • Financial Management of matters with clients

This list could hardly be accomplished by the incentives in the compensation system or a week-long orientation program.

We’ll Use our In-house People

Yes, you’re right to bring in people with in-house experience.  Perhaps the C.F.O. has a great presentation on profitability.  There may be a partner with project management skills.  In business development, we find that the senior rainmaker may not be the best example, because he or she spent years building a book of business.  Look to the rising 5-to-7-year partner.  Their stories and practices may be more meaningful to a new partner.

Here’s the problem.  Busy partners are not always the best teachers.  They are teaching peers, not clients, so they may not prepare well.  They lean toward war stories, not a big picture framework.  They are not even cost-effective for the firm. Outside experts have honed interactive, law-firm specific courses in topics like Team Leadership, Legal Project Management and Business Development.  I regularly present a course on Delegation, Supervision and Feedback Skills for partners.  Today’s associates expect to be developed, be respected and get ongoing feedback.  As a new owner, the partner now has to be on the ‘giving” side of that relationship.

Firms with robust partner development programs invest in outside resources. Some send partners to quality outside programs.  Others hire executive coaches for each partner for a period.  There are international firms who bring new partner classes together from the past 3-5 years for an annual academy of training and social interaction.

Finally, many new partners are unaware of the firm’s strategy, much less equipped to implement it.  A well-constructed partner development program builds strategy and vision into several components.  For example, partners are equipped to explain strategy to their teams and in mentoring individuals.  An owner has to own strategy as well.

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David Cruickshank is a Principal at Edge International.  He assists firms with training, leadership, compensation matters and partner development programs.