From Problem Partner to Productive Partner: Helping Your Law Firms’ Underperformers

Topics: Client Relations, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Practice Engineering, Practice Groups, Practice Innovations, Talent Development

underperforming partners

It can be stressful to coach your own partners, but it can also be rewarding. Once a partner has successfully turned around their practice, they will be invigorated.

All law firms have underperforming partners. Leadership hopes the issue will fix itself, but it won’t. Dealing with underperforming partners is one of those topics that make managing partners and firm leaders cringe. No one wants to have “the talk” with the underperformer.

To be an effective leader and to move your firm forward, however, you have to address this situation no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. By flushing out the reasons and adding structure to the individual’s practice you might be able to take the underperformer to an acceptable level or even motivate them to become a top performer.

First you have to ask what it is that makes you say this partner is an underperformer? Are they missing deadlines? Not billing enough hours? Failing to act in the best interest of the firm or of the client?

You have to start with your firm’s expectations of a partner. Do all the partners know what it means to be a partner in your firm? How do they know this? Do you discuss it at partner meetings, or have it written down in an owner’s manual? It’s hard to hold partners accountable to an intangible idea of what it means to be a partner. Start by writing down the expectations. Here are some categories to keep in mind.

  • hours;
  • business development;
  • case/matter/team management;
  • practice/department/office leadership;
  • firm leadership roles;
  • civic/association involvement; and
  • collegiality.

Now that you have an idea of what is expected can you determine how many partners actually meet these expectations. It would be wise to know what percentage of partners meet these expectations before speaking to the underperformer.

To throw a monkey wrench into this discussion further, think about gray-area considerations. Such as, what about a partner who has a leadership role yet their hours have slipped? What about the service partner who bills a good amount of time, but doesn’t step up when asked to do more for the firm? Are they underperforming at some level? Each firm needs to qualify what it means to perform as partner before identifying who is an underperformer.

Reasons that Partners Underperform

There are three main reasons partners begin to underperform: situational issues, practice issues, and age-related issues.

Situational issues are events or changes to the partner’s standard operating procedure. If the partner does not have a plan to address a certain situation that may come up, they can begin to flounder. Some situational issues that might happen are:

  • loss of major client(s);
  • market-driven change; and
  • standards increasing over time.

Practice issues come about when the partner fails to stay on top of their own career. They look up one day and see that they are not practicing in the area they want, they are not at the level in the firm that they desire, or they see their area of practice as no longer vital. These are a few practice issues:

  • failure to reinvent skills;
  • failure to progress;
    • stalled out mid-career; or
    • lack of business development or client-service mindset and skills;
  • change in life circumstances;
  • burnout; and
  • comfort and compliancy.

Age-related issues are another concern. Statistics show that 50% of partners in law firms are 55 years of age or older, but with ego and self-identity driving many partners to stay in their practice longer, their age-related issues will affect firms. It’s wonderful if a 75-year-old is actively adding to the bottom line of your firm — but what if they are not? The age-related issues are just as daunting to overcome as situational and practice issues. The following are a few to consider:

  • transition of client relationships;
  • financial setbacks and recession stretching out retirements;
  • ego-preservation;
  • timelines/phase down;
  • life-driven changes
  • personal illness; and
  • family issues or illness.

Each one of these issues can be a blow to a partner’s career, and if they are not equipped to manage the situation, they can fall victim to a downward spiral. Without the firm’s support, training, and guidance, partners who are suffering from any of the above issues might not know how to proceed.

As the firm leader it is your responsibility to determine the root cause of the partner’s poor performance and help the partner understand and address it.

How to Help Your Underperforming Partner

There is a lot of talk these days about coaching in the workplace and this is one of the circumstances where it truly is a best practice. Of course, determining who should be the coach depends on the firm — a managing partner or practice group leader may not always be the best person. Here are some tips to follow if the firm determines to keep the coaching in-house:

  1. Be a good listener — The coaching relationship starts with listening to the partner. The partner may feel attacked or wrongfully identified as an underperformer, especially if they have not been receiving feedback on a regular basis. They may think, “This is news to me!” — again, especially if they don’t have a clear understanding of the expectations. Once you have explained the firm’s point of view, listen to the partner’s explanation of his or her performance. Take notes so you can address their points one by one.
  2. Ask the partner to share the issues or concerns — It is possible the partner is relieved to be called out because he or she is aware that things have been slipping but was uncomfortable bringing it to anyone’s attention. Ask questions that will help to identify which category of underperformance is happening: situational, practice, or aged-related. It is possible that it’s a combination of all three. Extract as much information as possible so you can offer the best guidance.
  3. Ask the partner to look for ways to solve their own problems — As the old adage says, “Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” The same works in this situation. By brainstorming ideas with the partner, he or she might come up with a tactic they can implement to effect their own changes. Situational issues can be addressed with new business plans or by making more of an effort to grow current clients. Practice issues can improve by attending continuing legal education programs to learn new practice areas, or attending well-being sessions to lessen burnout. Age-related issues are more delicate and may end with a decision to leave the practice altogether.
  4. Identify resources — What is apparent is that the partner is suffering. If they knew where to turn, then the underperformance would not have risen to the level that leadership needs to get involved. Before the coaching begins, have a document that lists names and contact information for the resources your firm provides. Included on this list might be an employee assistance program; the mental health coverage provided through your insurance plan; and your state’s Lawyer Assistance Program provided by the state bar. If outside coaching is an option, then offer partners names of vetted coaches and allow them to select the one that’s the best fit.
  5. Help partner set targets and goals — We all know when you write down a goal you are more likely to commit to it, so help underperforming partners determine what they can do to overcome the behaviors that are causing them to underperform. You can use the acronym SMART as a framework for goal setting.

S – Specific: The goal should be a specific task, activity, or achievement. Do not use words like “better” or “improve”, as these are hard to quantify.

M – Measurable: The goal must be measurable, like an increase in hours billed or an amount of business development that will be conducted each month.

A – Attainable: The goal should be realistic enough to reach, but not so low that it’s not really a goal.

R – Result-oriented: The goal is set with the intention that there will be a positive outcome for the effort to achieve it.

T – Timeframe: The goal must have a deadline attached to it, otherwise there is no sense of urgency to make any changes.

  1. Hold partners accountable — This is one of the hardest things a managing partner or firm leader must do, especially if the underperforming partner is also a friend. The entire effort of reversing underperformance hinges on the assumption that the partner will do what has been asked of him or her. Unfortunately, some partners will try to fly under the radar if they think no one will hold them accountable for making improvements, and law firm leaders have to be aware of that.
  2. Celebrate successes — A good coach reinforces behaviors and applauds outcomes along the way to encourage the partner to continue the path back to being successful. These rewards for attaining set goals should be designed ahead of time. For example, if business development activities are converted into clients, then more funds for business development could be budgeted.

It can be stressful to coach your own partners, but it can also be rewarding. Once partners have successfully turned around their practice — going from problem partner to a productive partner — they will be invigorated.

And you, as the firm leader, might see them begin to excel again and have more energy to put back into the firm, to everyone’s ultimate benefit.