Partners in leading law firms excel at guiding clients through business cycles and around the obstacles of corporate disputes, but when it comes to plotting their own careers, many never find the time. They’re so consumed with fulfilling the tasks at hand, and so pressured by originating business and billing time, the mere suggestion of a long-term plan strikes them as laughable and far-fetched.
Why don’t more partners envision a practice plan of their own? Just as law firms resist planning for the future, a lot of the partners I talk to say that they’d rather soldier on than take the risks associated with change. Most are also reasonably happy with their professional lives and work, according to a first-of-its-kind survey by Major Lindsey and Africa. When asked to leave money out of the equation, of some 2,100 partners surveyed, “only 21% expressed dissatisfaction.” Clearly, most partners (but not all) would prefer to leave well enough alone.
In the changed legal market that’s emerged since the financial crisis, however, promising young partners have gained mobility and clout. As Baby-Boomers wind down, and Gen-Xers advance, traditional firms are (finally) recognizing that unless they adapt, they’re going to lose out. That’s creating opportunities for lateral-partner candidates, including a rare chance to chart their own course. I’ve helped place lateral partners whose experience proves me right.
In leaving their former firms, these partners rejected culturally entrenched norms that disproportionately rewarded seniority and fomented internal competition. Although their old firms had acknowledged and pledged to remedy the structural problems that sustained those norms, these partners saw necessary changes proceeding at a snail’s pace. Rather than waiting, and with many productive years ahead of them, they decided to bolt. Their individual practice plans are less relevant here than what they chose to reject:
- Insulated silos
Law firms that reward partners who hog clients not only undermine their own shot at gaining market share, they also risk losing work to competitors. Partners deserve to be rewarded for feeding work (and a measure of credit) to other lawyers and practice groups.
2. Hidden financials
The rise of international mega-firms achieved via mergers has sometimes resulted in mixed-up financials and complicated balance sheets. While it makes sense to have office- and region-specific budgets and business goals, inter-office competition harms a firm’s brand and does a disservice to clients.
Although business originations and collections will always be markers of performance, lawyers aren’t widgets. Firms should encourage and reward partners who develop personal plans that identify opportunities for market-driven growth. That’s not just empowering, it’s the professional thing to do.
Earlier this year, the American Bar Association cited the relentless demands put upon lawyers as a contributing factor in what it described as a crisis marked by staggering alcohol and substance abuse. Going forward, I’m confident that the market leaders in Big Law won’t succeed by demanding the kind of blind loyalty and grueling devotion they have until now. If you’re interested in exploring your career options, let me know. It’s high time that law firm partners own what they do.