Edge International

What Triggers a Partner Compensation Review?

David Cruickshank

As law firms have returned to offices and their balance sheets show increased strength, their leaders have noticed that past agitation over partner compensation has re-surfaced.  We have been getting the calls.  While these concerns are rarely about a firm meltdown, the calls for a compensation review have some common triggering reasons.

Senior Partner Departure

Remarkably, the departure of founders or high revenue generators is not given enough long-range planning.  Now the senior partner expects a significant equity buyout or some continuing piece of originations and there is no clear agreed policy to handle the situation.  One-off deals may be struck, but they form the beginning of bad precedents that will be the measuring standard for future ad hoc deals.

Generational Turnover and Transparency Issues

If a firm does a 10-year projection of retirements, they may notice that nearly all those who designed the current compensation system, and controlled the decision-making process, will be gone.  The next generation may often believe that the past system lacked transparency and did not account for important firm-building activities.  While silent about these concerns to this point, this generation wants to see some options for the future.

Compensation Not Aligned with Strategy

We see many firms with a well-written strategy that emphasizes collaboration, innovation, and client support teams.  But several years on, they will admit that execution of the strategy is weak.  When looking at their compensation system, outsized rewards go to individual financial accomplishments.  True, there are subjective elements in the system, but they are not well measured nor aligned with strategic goals.  You get the behavior that you reward.  There are many new hybrid systems of compensation that address this problem, and we’re seeing some creative work coming out of compensation committees.

Partners Not Leveraging Work

Most firms set an annual target for billed and collected hours for partners.  However, if the targets are onerous and cannot be balanced with other contributions like internal referrals and associate development, there is a good chance that the partner will hoard hours, rather than delegate them to more junior lawyers.  This becomes most noticeable in the last quarter.  Production targets should come with a strong message about delegated hours and building teams.  We have seen firms reward that team building with explicit measures.

Your Best Potential Leaders Will Not Step Forward

I have interviewed many executive committee members and practice group leaders about the juggling act of leadership time and their client-facing practice work.  I ask if their leadership commitment tums out to be matched by the firm’s compensation rewards.  (Those rewards usually come via a stipend or a lowered production target.)  The answer is invariably “No, but I knew what I was getting in to….”  

Is this the best way to develop your high-potential leaders?  Running a multimillion-dollar private enterprise should pay well.  The best leaders should also get bonuses for meeting enterprise targets.  Some of your smartest, most capable leaders are also business generators and reputation-builders.  Why would they forego the rewards of their current role?   Firms could do a better job of at least not penalizing their future leaders.

There Are Options

If your firm has recently faced one of these triggering events, there is a good chance that you have tackled it with a limited number of options.  Few firms have a collective knowledge of multiple compensation systems and processes for decision-making.  Opening a world of options and brainstorming solutions could only help your firm move past the perennial concerns about unfair compensation systems.

Your Firm Could be a “Go Firm”. Make it a “Stay Firm”

David Cruickshank

The talent market for associates is red-hot.  We’re seeing record departures and stories of signing bonuses for second-year associates and clerks.  Instead of gearing up your recruiting to fill departures, you may want to examine the ways that associates will make your firm a “Stay Firm”, not a “Go Firm”.

A recent Thomson Reuters Report displayed this contrast in turnover rates across large and mid-sized firms.[1]

Stay Firms had relatively low annual associate turnover in 2021.  Go Firms had turnover rates as high as 23%.  Some surprising additional data from the Thomson study:

  • Associates at Stay Firms worked an average of 51 hours per year (1,527 hours) more than at Go Firms (1,476 hours).
  • Compensation rates at Stay Firms grew more slowly than at Go Firms (nearly 2% less).

In summary, associates at Stay Firms are not staying for extra money or fewer billable hours.  What is the glue that keeps associates at Stay Firms?

Five Talent Retention Practices to Create a Stay Firm

It is not magic dust or glue.  Associates stay when there is a binding workplace culture and there are specific talent retention strategies.  These practices take partner time and the support of a strong professional development department.

  1. Ensure that every associate has 1-2 mentoring relationships with a partner.  While some firms assign mentors, we suggest that an associate be encouraged to find “natural mentors” – partners who easily take up that role and regularly work with the associate.  The professional development team will step in, after 6-8 months, and assign a mentor if an associate has missed the opportunity.
  2. Train partners and supervising associates in feedback skills and create both upward feedback and supervisory feedback loops. Very few law firms are regarded as having a “feedback culture” – where juniors feel free to give upward feedback and more senior lawyers are skilled at providing constructively critical feedback.  In a time when associates are getting regular calls from recruiters, it might take just one or two badly handled feedback sessions (or no feedback at all) for an associate to depart.  Lawyers are not naturally skilled in giving feedback, but skill training can build a feedback culture.
  3. Have a work assignment and workload monitoring system in every practice group. Practice group leaders who study historical work assignment patterns will find that some associates are favored (and soon overloaded) while others are not.  Associates are loathe to say “no” to a partner, but they can do so under the cover of a partner-supervised central work assignment system.  The professional development team can also help you fairly distribute work to diverse associates and those who are not developing through more challenging work.

These first three practices are supported by data from the AmLaw Mid-levels surveys.[2]  Mid-levels are asked if they expect to continue to work in their firm two years from now.  Those who say “yes” must believe that they are in Stay Firm.  When the survey cross-tabulates those “yes” answers with other questions the data shows that associates stay for these top reasons:

  • a strong working relationship with a specific partner
  • regular constructive feedback from supervisors
  • the assignment of challenging work.
  1. Tailor your supervision to individual associates. Developing associates seek increasing autonomy.  They want you to trust that the work will be done well and on time.  At the same time, your concern about client service or a bad past experience with an associate might cause you to micro-manage all associates.  To tailor supervision appropriately for associates, start by asking “What do you need from me as a supervisor?”  I discussed this approach more fully in https://www.edge.ai/2016/04/tailored-talent-supervision/
  2. Hold quarterly “stay interviews” and focus on career development and advancement opportunities within the firm. The practice group leader should organize a roster of these interviews, assigning roughly equal associate interviews to all partners and counsel.  I suggest quarterly frequency in 2022 because you must assume that “go interviews” are being sought by your competitors every week.  The professional development or recruiting department can help with a “stay story” that starts with the annual associate evaluation and helps the associate see that there is potential development in knowledge and skill.  It also helps when the firm has a clear path to partnership defined.  Finally, partners should open a discussion of ways to achieve work-life balance.[2]

These five practices take partner time, high degrees of communication and firm investment in organization and training.  But will you spend any less time and money on lost associate experience, recruitment and new associate development if you are a Go Firm?

[1] 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, Thomson Reuters Institute, p. 20

[2]  https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2021/08/23/the-2021-midlevel-associates-survey-the-national-rankings/
60% surveyed associates also said that they have considered leaving for better work-life balance.

5 Questions About Your Path to Partnership

David Cruickshank

One of your high-performing associates is about to enter her fifth year at the firm.  She has asked for a meeting to discuss the firm’s path to partnership.  Your partners recently had a meeting about “keeping the keepers” so you want to be ready.  Here are five questions you may have to answer.

1. Criteria for Partnership Admission

What are the firm’s written criteria for admission to partnership, and which of them are clearly subjective?

No firm is going to treat partnership as “automatic” upon attaining certain measurable goals.  At the same time, candidates for admission know that there are objective and subjective criteria.  Concerning subjective criteria, it won’t be sufficient to have a sweeping category such as “must have the right attitude and mentality to be an owner.”

At the very least, the subjective criteria should have specific categories that give an associate guidance on performance.  Categories such as management skills, business development performance indicators, legal project management and collaboration can all be evaluated.  When it comes to spending firm investment time, the candidate needs more guidance than “must have the right stuff.”

2. “On Track” Communications

When will I get an “on track” message about my prospects?

Larger firms often have a policy on this question.  Associates in their fifth or sixth year will get more frequent evaluations and will be told whether they are “on track” in the partnership.  This is followed by annual messaging about what must be done to remain on track.  This messaging is critical for retaining top associates.  The alternative (which we also see) is a message that “every associate has a partnership opportunity – and we’ll tell you around year 9 or 10”.  That ambiguity may cause your “keepers” to flee while they can make a good partnership case in another firm.  The message is still no guarantee, but it helps the associate use annual evaluations to improve, so that she can remain on track.

3. Chances in My Practice Area

How many new partners (from within or lateral) in my practice area have been admitted in the past five years?  What is the projection for the next five years?

This question is important for associates who are practicing in a group that is a niche, or a support practice. (Examples: Environmental Law in a transactional firm; Tax Law, ERISA).  It can also be important in a highly leveraged practice, where two or three partners are managing five times as many billing professionals.  If the current partners are young or in mid-career, the firm is not going to need another partner in that group unless there is an unexpected departure.  You’ll need to be honest about the prospects in these practices.

4. Book of Business

How does the firm assess a senior associate’s confirmed book of business and the prospects of building that book?  Are there any minimum expectations before one is put up for partnership?

This criterion has become much more important than in past years.  Growing the firm means more than technical and management skills, plus proven production.  Business development training is made available much earlier than it used to be.  A lateral partner with a proven book may be more attractive than the inside candidate.  A candidate will want to know the current expectations and how they have changed over the past few years.   She may be facing a higher hurdle in 4-5 years than today’s standard.

5. My Paycheck

If I were a senior associate today and became a partner in the new year, what would be my monthly draw and how much would be deferred (year-end) compensation?

New partners are sometimes shocked to see that their monthly paycheck is lower than their previous monthly net salary as an employee.  They may be facing quarterly estimated tax bills as well.  In some firms, the leap to partnership is so significant that this is not a material concern.  However, for an associate with a young family and high monthly costs for student loans, a mortgage, and child care, there will be financial security anxieties.  You can’t project that person’s exact total compensation in advance, but the firm’s financial team can give you historical annual ranges for partners in their early years.  You also have a program of monthly draws that can be easily explained and that will not change radically in the years ahead.  This is another topic on which you can remove the mystery of the transition to partnership.


These five questions are just some of the concerns on the minds of associates who are planning their career paths.  They have access to more information about other firms and other career options than existed 10 years ago – mostly due to legal websites and regular calls from recruiters.  Your firm cannot afford to be a “black box” of mystery when you talk with associates about a path to partnership.

A Talent Take on Law Firm Rankings

David Cruickshank

The first quarter brings us rapturous reports of revenues, rankings and profits per partner from the U.S. legal press.  American Lawyer Top 100 rankings are announced.  Headlines like “30% Profit Increase at Firm Despite Pandemic” appear.  And “rumored expensive deals” for lateral partners get favorable attention for the acquiring firm.  This drumbeat from the legal press about “top firms” is supposedly a proxy for excellence in law firms, law practices and excellent individual talent.  But are these the best measures to help a client or a job-hunting professional decide to choose a “top” firm?

How did we get here?

 The U.S. legal business is unlike that in any other nation because it voluntarily offers up its financial numbers to The American Lawyer and other data aggregators who will publish (for profit) comparison tables that are principally focused on revenues, lawyer numbers and profits.  There is no S.E.C., no regulatory body and no external shareholders asking for these data.  You can’t get these numbers on law firms in Canada, Brazil or France.  But it has become a “given” to discuss U.S. firm rankings as a proxy for excellence.

Some Alternative Measurements to Consider

 The Client Perspective

It is true that some clients will choose a high revenue large firm because of its perceived excellence or AmLaw ranking.  But that is often because the corporate counsel answers to a Board or executive that wants “the best” external legal talent.  This provides a buffer if the legal strategy goes south.  But why would a client choose the most profitable firm?  That seems like a proxy for over-paying your lawyers, not necessarily excellence.  Clients do value personal connections to lawyers who have demonstrated their talents and provide both value and excellent service.  For that reason, it is often assumed that an excellent lateral partner hire will bring their clients with them.  There is no ranking for “How many loyal clients-per-partner do you have?”

The Associate, Partner or Professional Hiring Candidate Perspective

It is doubtful that prospective hires make their decisions based on external rankings.  True, a top student or mid-level associate might use rankings to create a pool of potential firms.  However, they will put greater weight on their future co-workers, career advancement, training and business development opportunities when making a final choice.

Internal Talent Ranking Numbers

Most of these internal numbers are not available, because they are not shared or consistently reported.  Yet, if a firm wanted to persuade clients and prospective hires of their excellence, value and a “best fit” for a lasting relationship, these are some numbers they might promote:

  • Associate retention rates at years 2, 5 and 8
  • Associate retention per practice group
  • Professional position promotion opportunities per year
  • Acceptance rates from the ten law schools where the firm most often competes for talent
  • Percentage of budget spent on talent, CLE, training and mentoring (of administrative budget) and year-over-year changes over 5 to 10 years
  • Average and high/low of partner hours per year recorded for training and mentoring
  • Lateral hires incoming (partners and associates) per year, last 5 years
  • Departures of laterals who were with the firm less than 5 years (compared to laterals who “stick” longer than 5 years)
  • Diversity hire increases/decreases over 5 years

External Rankings

External rankings turn on surveys and perceptions of employees.  When taken annually or every two years, these can show that a firm is on a rise or a downslope where employee satisfaction is concerned.  Two measures that get a lot of attention from those who work in recruiting and professional development are:

  • The AmLaw Mid-Levels rankings
  • Fortune 100 Best Places to Work (annual, covers all companies).

These rankings are more likely to be seen by clients, since firms will promote the rankings in their websites and newsletters.  The 2020 rankings will reveal satisfaction with early handling of the pandemic.  In the AmLaw Mid-Levels survey for 2020, O’Melveny & Myers was the top ranked.  When compared to all companies and professional services firms, it is tougher to place in the Fortune 100.  Yet Alston Bird, the first law firm to break into those rankings, is a perennial top 100 choice of employees.  Perkins Coie was the highest ranked law firm in 2020 and 2021.  Only 3 or 4 law firms make the Fortune 100 every year.  Orrick regularly ranks well in the Fortune 100 and appears in the top 75 of the AmLaw survey.


 Whether you are a client looking for excellent lawyers or a jobseeker looking for a great place to work, the much-touted rankings for revenues and profits may be the wrong proxy for excellence.  Excellence may be better measured by how much investment a law firm makes in its people, how long they remain at the firm, and how the employees, from first hire to longer career paths, rank the firm.  A law firm that is not ranked highly in revenues and profits might turn instead to showing how they excel on internal measures of career development and external rankings by employees.  There’s a unique competitive advantage if your measurements make your firm a talent magnet.

New Partner Development:  Three Common Mistakes

David Cruickshank

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.

Talent Development:  Beyond the Assignment

David Cruickshank

In BigLaw firms, or in any firm with multiple associates, an assignment of work by a partner or senior associate, is a signifier of many things.  To the management committee, it signifies leverage.  To the partner, it is project management and the choice of competent associate.  To the associate, it can signify repetitive drudgery or an opportunity to learn and impress.  In the worst circumstances, with a tight deadline and insufficient support, it can signify a set-up to fail.

I propose a definition of the typical assignment that all members of a firm might embrace.  An assignment is a career development opportunity.

Thinking of the assignment in this way, what can partners and associates do to ensure that there is a career development benefit for the associate in most assignments?  (I’ll concede that every partner is going to have to assign some drudgery work that is beneath the development level of the available associate.)

Let’s begin with the initial delegation.  As I teach in my management skill courses for partners and senior associates, a complete delegation must:

  • provide a “big picture” context for the work
  • review likely issues and resources known to the delegator
  • be specific as to product, time allocation and deadline
  • wrap up with a summary provided by the recipient.

While most of these steps are the delegator’s responsibility, associates can step up and offer a summary.  This gives the opportunity to clarify and provide tips for the recipient.

To signify career development, a partner can do more at this stage.  During the delegation, ask “Have you done one of these before?”.  A “no” answer means that you’ll need to do some check-ins and coaching along the way.  Each time, you’ll talk about how this work relates to more complex and challenging work that lies ahead for the associate.  When you make the assignment, you can also schedule a time for feedback, even for the more experienced associate.  This signifies that you care about both the work product and the associate’s development.

If you are going to be working with an associate for more than 40-50 hours in a year, you will be asked to evaluate their performance for the year.  For that group of associates, the partner should keep a file of ongoing development notes for each associate.  The assignment is core evidence of development, so you might organize your notes chronologically by assignment.  Given the annual evaluation criteria, what strengths and weaknesses did the associate exhibit on this assignment?  Share that feedback when the assignment is completed, not months later.  Your notes are for a year-end evaluation summary.

In many firms, the partner-associate duo is not the only influence on assignment choices.  Where a practice group has an assigning partner or committee, the partner cannot choose an overworked associate.  However, that assigning body is also supposed to ensure that new assignments help build the associate’s career and that the work can justify the rate being charged to a client.  While it is intimidating to do, associates who believe that neither of these goals is being regularly advanced, should raise their concerns with the assigning body.  In a firm that touts its talent development (as most do in their recruitment pitches), the assigning body should be there for the associate.

Another institutional check on assignments is the diversity promise of law firms.  Are diverse associates getting the same quality of assignments and career development as others?  As partners keep assignment notes and prepare for annual evaluation throughout the year, they need to be conscious of even-handed treatment of diverse associates who are available for work.  A diversity officer or committee can assist if you are unsure about how to handle this aspect of assignments.

Finally, when the assignment has been completed, the partner can “tie the bow” on an assignment by connecting it to career development, in a later conversation that covers four things:

  • tell them how the work product was used in the overall transaction or litigation
  • pass on any expressions of client satisfaction
  • ask the associate what they learned from that assignment
  • ask the associate what kind of future assignment would be a challenging addition to their career trajectory.

Assignments are not just about obtaining a work product.  They are about developing and retaining talent.

5 Compensation Issues to Review at Reopening

David Cruickshank

Partner compensation cuts. Furloughs. Layoffs. High receivables. Clients in crisis. Despite all these dismal legal media headlines, there will be a reopening of the economy. Demand for legal services will return, perhaps more slowly in some sectors.

Meantime, your firm’s compensation cuts and adjustments are the pain still felt and talked about by all your partners and employees. They’re asking: “Will compensation return to normal?” As leaders, you’ll have to answer and consider tweaks to your pre-pandemic system.

To begin with, leaders should consider a self-assessment of how they handled partner and associate compensation issues during the pandemic. Warren Buffet famously said: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s been swimming naked.” While self-assessment can be uncomfortable, it can also pinpoint surprising positives as well as criticisms of past actions. We’ve worked with firms who use surveys, interviews with partners and upward reviews to get honest feedback on their leadership or culture*. An assessment from within or with outside support applies equally to your handling of compensation in the Covid-19 crisis. While every firm will discover different strengths and weaknesses, we predict that these 5 issues will surface in most.

1. Transparency and Trust

In our conversations with partners, we frequently hear that transparency about how compensation decisions are made and what factors influence those decisions is a highly valued feature of a compensation system. In making decisions about recent cuts for partners and employees, leaders should have been transparent about who was affected and why. Ideally, leaders will have consulted those affected in advance. In the recent cuts, some of the best practices did not involve “across the board” or “equal treatment”. They affected partners first, and more significantly. Firms protected lower-salaried employees from any cuts.

How does your recent transparency record match what you normally do with annual partner compensation? To the extent that you were as transparent, or more so, your leadership credibility will be intact. If your self-assessment reveals lower appraisals of transparency, trust in leadership will be eroded.

Transparency builds trust. We hear time and again from younger generation partners that compensation decisions should not be made in a “black box” environment. They do not need to know every detail of each decision or even each partner’s compensation. But they want to know the criteria, have some idea of the weighting and have input about their past and future performance. Do you need to tweak transparency to rebuild trust?

2. Overweighting Originations

When the tide is out, we may find that originations from high performing partners are down, and that average performers had even weaker originations. If firms place high weight on originations, especially over only the past year, the quantitative compensation rankings may be very scrambled at 2020 year-end. There may be pressure to penalize or exit partners at the bottom of the rankings. Those same partners may have proven their worth in more qualitative measures but get little credit. The tweaks to consider will be:

  • down-weighting originations, even in more flexible, non-formula systems;
  • placing a specific weight on originations and other quantitative factors; and
  • averaging originations over two years back, plus the current year.

3. Increased Weighting for Qualitative Factors

We often help firms articulate and measure qualitative performance that will be given weight in partner compensation systems. We think that, this year, some of these factors were very critical to the future of the firm, though we won’t recognize that importance until late this year. Looking at partner performance over 2020, review the partners who excelled at:

  • Client relations. Keeping stressed clients informed and supported. Cross-referring those clients to other firm services, such as real estate partners who could help re-negotiate a lease.
  • Mentoring, training and counseling. Even the best associates will be concerned about getting enough hours or getting feedback. In a remote working environment, effective partners replicated the office “drop-in” or coffee break discussion by making individual video calls or doing small-group check-ins.
  • Innovation. What did partners do to pivot the firm’s business, attract clients to new services or create legal project management innovations? A crisis can be an opportunity for innovators. Does the compensation system recognize innovation efforts, even though some may fail?

If these factors do help offset weak originations and keep associates busy and onboard, should they not be upweighted in the future?

4. Your Benefits Package

When associates and staff reflect on their pandemic experience, the benefits of some meals and the gym membership may not seem as important as some other benefits. First among these, though not listed in the benefits package, is job security. Every associate and staff member will be thinking about this as we move toward reopening. Firm leaders and partners will have to take specific actions, mostly through communications, to “keep the keepers”. Reassure your best people. Talk them through their next level of development.

Health care, sick leave and disability benefits will be under a new spotlight. Firms may need tweaks or new plans to meet new employee and partner needs. For example, will some need leave to care for sick or disabled parents? Do you have such a benefit?

5. The Level of Monthly Draws

In most firms a core amount of partner compensation is really paid in advance of collected profits. These are monthly draws that are viewed by many partners as “guaranteed minimums” (but of course, they are contingent on actual collected profits). On reflection, do you need to re-balance the amount that is pledged to monthly draws compared to year-end distributions? Another common category is a bonus pool amount that is held for year-end, both for associates and partners. That category will certainly be downsized at year end. All the pieces of compensation distribution may need review, and if you are making those adjustments for 2021, the internal consultations have to start now.

We all hope the tide will come back shortly after reopening. A candid review of your crisis response and tweaks to your compensation will demonstrate leadership and stability. Above all, you won’t be swimming naked in 2021.


*In addition to compensation reviews, Edge performs Cultural Assessments in law firms, to test the reality of the culture the firm believes it has. Contact [email protected] to learn more.

How to Run a Remote Working Meeting

David Cruickshank

Frustrated when your online meeting starts 15 minutes late because participants struggle to join? Annoyed by the barking dogs, background traffic and participant chatter? Can’t wait until this badly run meeting is over? If this is your experience as a participant, think about how poorly this reflects on the meeting chair and the firm’s IT support. If you are a meeting organizer or chair, you can control many of the problems, and save your reputation, by trying some of these tips.


This article addresses two types of meetings: (1) group conference calls, and (2) video conferences on platforms like Zoom or Go to Meeting. Tech preparation for the video conferences is more extensive. As chair of a meeting, you have to team with IT to fully understand the tools on the platform and be able to use them without much support. For example, on a conference call platform, can you mute all participants from the call originator? On a video call, do you know how to share the slides on your screen with others, then stop sharing?

Tech Tips Sheet

Working with IT, prepare a “tech tips sheet” that will go to all participants in advance. Some typical tips will include:

  • First-time users should log on 15 minutes ahead of the start time, and have a “help” text number or email address to contact IT with concerns.
  • All participants should be able to locate their “mute sound” buttons – phone, laptop or in the video platform.
  • Know how to stop video and start it (while maintaining audio).
  • Recommend that participants wear earbuds and use a headset if they plan to speak.
  • Indicate the location and function of chat tool and “hands up” tool (on video platforms).
  • Identify the meeting code (and password if required) with a colored link.
  • Set out the “normal mode” expected for the meeting (e.g., all participants on mute until asked to speak).

Circulate the tips sheet when the call is first announced and again on the morning of the call.

Timed Agenda

An informative agenda, with suggested timing for each item, will help the chair keep the meeting on track. Timing should be in real time. For a 10:00 a.m. meeting, the overview and first information item might take seven minutes. The next item would be set for 10:07 a.m. In a video platform, you can share a slide of the agenda every 10 to 15 minutes, just as you would ask participants to look at their printed agenda in a live meeting.

I recommend an annotation for each agenda item. Is the item a matter for discussion and decision? Or is it for information? These codes will determine how to handle the item, as I discuss later. They also help you to sequence the agenda, with most information items toward the end. If you don’t get to them, you have other means to disseminate information.

If there is a presentation, and perhaps a different presenter, indicate something like “Jane Smith to present” beside the item.

At the top of the agenda, state the start and stop time in the time zone of the chair. I recommend 45 minutes for most meetings. Massive amounts of billable time are being consumed in most law firm meetings; remote work meetings could be worse. As with tech tips, send the agenda when the call is announced and again the morning of the meeting.

During the Meeting

The chair should start on time and should immediately request that all participants mute sound, and then direct them on video participation (camera-sharing or not). Refer them to the tech tips sheet then, again, start on time – no matter how many participants have joined.

Information Agenda Items – Protocols

If you have information items (updates, financial reports, directing participants to other reading, etc.), put one of these first on the agenda. This lets latecomers join while the meeting is not yet in discussion mode. Save other information items for “need to know” in advance of a discussion item or for the end of the agenda.

In a video platform, show a slide of the timed agenda and state your hope that the group can respect the allocated timing (but also demonstrate some flexibility). Whether in a conference call or on a video meeting, I recommend that comments and questions about information items should not take up meeting time. On conference calls, those comments or questions can be sent to your assistant’s email or a Slack channel. On video platforms, ask participants to type their comments in the chat pod of the platform. You will review and deal with them offline.

Discussion and Decision Items – Protocols

Items that are marked for discussion and decision can be managed with the acronym DAPS: Discussion, Decision, Action, Person, Summary.

Discussion and Decision

The chair should state the agenda item and the time allocation, then frame the decision to be made (e.g., “We’re here to decide whether to add two junior associates to the litigation department”).

To control discussion, a chair can benefit from the protocols of air traffic controllers (ATCs). ATCs are efficient and inclusive in their communications. Here’s an example:

ATC: “Delta 350”

Pilot: “Delta 350”

ATC: “Maintain 25,000 feet, to heading 270, call at beacon.”

Pilot: “Maintain 25,000, heading 270, call at beacon, 350”

This entire conversation can be heard by everyone on that radio frequency.

In a conference or video call with large numbers, it is more often a free-for-all than air-traffic efficiency. The first and loudest voice is heard – perhaps more often than most would care for. The chair can use the following protocols to avoid chaos and manage discussion:

  • If you expect multiple speakers on an issue, ask for the names of those who want to contribute. Keep a speakers’ list.
  • Recognize a speaker by name, and ask them to unmute.
  • If there are subgroups by practice or by geography, canvass each group (e.g., “We’ll start with contributions from the Phoenix office”).
  • Consider giving the speaker a time guideline, as TV interviewers do: “Jim, we have about a minute left.”
  • Close that contribution with a thank you and a “please mute” suggestion.
  • Toward the end of each item, ask for any additional speakers or limit to a couple more.
  • State your view of the consensus. Votes tend to be infrequent in this type of meeting. Then declare a decision: “We’re going ahead with those two hires for this fall.”


Further action is usually required to implement the decision. The chair should state that action or ask for action. For example, on the hiring decision, the chair might say that he’ll put it in the hands of the recruiting committee. A participant might suggest that the diversity committee be involved as well.


The chair should name the person responsible to carry out the decision and report back, where that is warranted. Too many law firm decisions are left with no accountability or implied accountability, and timely implementation doesn’t happen.


Like the pilot receiving ATC instructions, the chair should succinctly summarize the decision, action and person. Ideally, a separate note-taker for the meeting will record this.

Video Call Practices

A video call, most often a webinar platform, has a tech method for recognizing speakers. There is a “hands up” tool that allows participants to raise a hand virtually, and thus signal that they wish to contribute. Here again, an assistant to the chair could help by taking down the names from the “hands up” tool. Your tech tips sheet will illustrate how to find and use that tool. Don’t take time in the call to try to train a user. In fact, even for a conference call, I think that a video platform, with audio only, is superior to traditional conference-call technology. You can present, you can mute speakers on most platforms, you can have a chat room and a “hands up” tool.

My colleagues at Edge suggest that for smaller video meetings (ten participants or fewer), a chair can ask for “hands up” in the old-fashioned way – by looking at the Zoom screen and seeing who has a raised hand.

A recent article from the New York Times offers a broader consideration of video call best practices.


Whether you realize it or not, your leadership reputation is going to be tested by conference-call and video-call management. We’re tempted to blame the problems on the users. Instead, meeting organizers should get ahead of the tech-challenged users, set timed agendas, start on time and follow proven protocols for efficient meetings of remote work forces. It’s a measure of effective leadership.

Law Firm Leadership: Consensus or Command?

David Cruickshank

When I prepare to do law firm leadership workshops, usually with practice group leaders, I do advance interviews with a selection of leaders. One key question that I ask is, “What leadership practices are admired in this firm?” A common answer is, “Leads by example.”

Where the managing partner is seen as a positive example of leadership, we often then turn to discussing his or her style of “leading by example.” Some partners admire a “take charge” leader who implements the firm’s strategy and rules, while pursuing profitability. Others admire one who leads by consensus, especially when change management is needed. Which of these styles is most effective and when?

In my work with excellent law firm leaders at all levels, I have learned that the answer is “some of each” rather than “one versus the other.” Let’s start with a common leadership challenge, one that could be firm-wide or at the practice level: “How and where should we grow our practice?” In the first phase of leading on this issue, a leader who builds consensus, then helps the group narrow the choices would be more effective. However, along the way the leader may have to adopt a command style in ruling out some growth options. When the leader is seen as a “keeper of firm history,” he or she may be able to remind partners that they decided some years ago not to pursue more work in certain business lines, or that there are documented risks to some geographic expansions.

Consensus leaders also have to judge when the consensus-building phase is over, and action is required. One managing partner I worked with recently admitted that it was hard to be patient and seek consensus when his personal urge was to take command and act. He also recognized, wisely I think, that a moment comes when consensus can be declared, and objections recognized. Then the leader can ask for action and at that point, the command style needs to come out of the leader’s toolbox. Without that option, we see leaders who are paralyzed by consensus-building.

Firm leaders are also called upon to enforce the firm’s rules and culture. In a corporate culture, that would be pretty straightforward. The manager or HR director would point out the breach of rules and would command that you comply next time. Not so easy for a law firm leader. What should the firm leader do about the big rainmaker who regularly fails to submit billable time weekly, or to get bills out and collected regularly? In that case, non-compliance can become a negative “lead by example.” When others see there is no consequence, they are tempted to follow.

In this situation, the leader’s choice may be “command and persuade.” She would point out the rule to the partner and persuade him into compliance – but in a short time frame. At the next breakdown, the leader will need to demonstrate a consequence that is supported by firm culture.

Leadership and Risk-Taking

David Cruickshank

Election season has begun in the United States, far too early compared to most countries. The competition for leadership makes me think of leadership contests in law firms. Imagine that the term of your managing partner has expired and two candidates are standing for the post. Though campaigning is unseemly and brief, the contrasting positions of the candidates are clear. One promises to “continue to keep the firm profitable, with slow organic growth and little change.” The other says that she will “review all operations and practices, re-constitute a strategic-planning committee and take risks to innovate and grow.” Both candidates claim that their vision is essential to survive in the current market for legal services. Which candidate would win the leadership contest in your firm?

I have worked with firm leadership enough to see examples of both leadership candidates – the Hunker Down candidate and the Risk Taker. While many firms would be reluctant to elect the Risk Taker, there are some insights from research and objective leadership assessments that can help us understand that candidate.

In leadership training for law firms, I use a behavioral leadership assessment called the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). This thirty-question inventory allows leaders to assess themselves and allows others to assess their leadership. The LPI derives from international research across many industries, business types and professional services. The work is summarized in The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. In the original research, the business professors surveyed 75,000 respondents about the qualities that would inspire them to follow a leader willingly. The answers were then tested with many more observers of leadership, and the authors set out the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership and developed the leadership assessment that I use today (the LPI). The LPI has been conducted for hundreds of thousands of leaders and it has high validity and strong correlations with effective leadership.

Of the Five Practices, I am going to comment on the third:

  1. Model the Way
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision
  3. Challenge the Process
  4. Enable Others to Act
  5. Encourage the Heart

To “challenge the process” means that a leader will do two main things:

  • Seek opportunities to innovate and grow, and
  • Experiment and take risks.

While some would say that these leadership practices are irresponsible risk-taking in a law firm, I take a different view of the Kouzes and Posner research. I read it as measured risk-taking, not breaking all the china.

They advocate steps like bringing in outside ideas. For example, accountants and management consultants worked out fixed-fee pricing with sophisticated clients long before law firms turned in that direction. They call on leaders to promote innovation and to support partners who seek to innovate – whether in business development, practice efficiency or client services. Effective leaders will challenge the status quo in quiet ways, by allowing new ideas to flow freely and providing regular forums for new ideas for growth and partner development.

When experimenting, the research suggests that small victories count. In the law firm context, this means that a leader will find, seek and support a variety of experiments. Some will fail; some will succeed and translate to the bottom line. Leaders talk constantly about the small victories and look for the next experiment. The Risk Taker in the Leadership Challenge model is not betting the firm. She is promoting incremental growth with trial-and-error innovation. I would add the counsel that this kind of innovation and experimentation has to be paired with strategic focus. Every opportunity to support innovation, every experiment, should be in pursuit of a specific strategic goal.

At Edge, I recommend the Leadership Practices Inventory over other assessments, such as personality assessments, because it addresses behaviors and practical skills. We can model and train for better management behaviors; we can’t change personalities. In our training, we help leaders “challenge the process” in pursuit of strategic goals. If she were educated about the Leadership Challenge, I’d vote for the Risk Taker. In the U.S. election? Too soon to tell.

You are welcome to contact the author to talk about research-based leadership development workshops.