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November 22, 2011 6:40 PM

The Young Lions

Posted by Aric Press

Last month we held our first conference for new partners, big-firm lawyers promoted since 2008. It was a bracing and satisfying experience. These young lions weren't jaded; they had just enough anxiety about the future to engage with each other and a faculty prepared to challenge all-too-comfortable assumptions about their practices and their lives.

To prepare for this meeting, we surveyed about 5,600 new partners, from The Am Law 200 and the big firms in Canada and London. Looking for benchmarks, we found a mostly optimistic group, although one with a healthy and appropriate dose of worry. The anxieties tumbled out in answers to our open-ended questions.

For once, we'll start with the positives. Sixty-one percent reported that their new jobs were what they'd expected, and another fifth found their new roles were better than they had anticipated. Overall, the new partners are basking in the land of more: more money, more responsibility, and more information about their firms. However, their workload and their time with clients and, alas, with family are all about the same.

Most said they felt prepared for the new role, but only 45 percent were satisfied with the formal training they received. There's no surprise there. Less than half had had any formal training in business development or leadership skills or had received a 360-degree review.

The most surprising finding was their career paths. Listening to law firms talk about their cultures, I'd long thought that it was the rare partner promoted from the ranks who didn't start out at the firm. Yet nearly half of the respondents—48 percent—reported that they had changed firms before becoming partner.

That suggests three things: Firms are actually far more welcoming of talented young lawyers, whatever their provenance, than they let on. Second, for all the trouble firms go to in recruiting first-years, it doesn't sound as though they're getting it quite right. I don't know why they would—the way they recruit is quite haphazard and not very serious, despite all the bells and whistles. Third, headhunters regularly say that the first move is the hardest. With nearly half this group already veterans of changing places, further mobility seems likely in their future.

For all that, anxiety lurked, much of it concentrated in three areas:

• Clients: The new partners have few prospects of attracting new clients. They don't know how. Junior partners don't have access to mega-buck clients who can pay mega-fees. And they now find themselves competing with other partners. Some of those partners are reluctant to refer work because suddenly the ex-associates' rates are too high!

• Their firms: The same issues were raised repeatedly. Their firms have been slow to embrace nonbillable-hour arrangements, even though clients seem very interested. And many new partners cited the problem of succession planning. At firms where rainmakers and origination credits rule, some senior partners won't let go. It was sort of a Charlton Heston at the NRA moment: You'll take these clients out of my hands when you pry my cold dead fingers off their files.

• Themselves: Several new partners spoke of a personal crisis. Having been promoted, they now found themselves lonely and isolated, facing a very unclear career path without guidance or formal training.

Overall, the partners seemed to fall into two groups, one concerned about a lack of training and direction, the other full of gratitude to mentors who had, over the years, shown them how to write business plans and manage cases, and who are still available to them.

No one expressed doubt that they could handle the legal work. But there was some sadness, even a touch of anger, from those who found themselves feeling alone and needing help. There are at least two obvious remedies. First, get some help. Autonomy doesn't amount to much if a partner doesn't feel able to hire an executive coach, marketing trainer, or therapist. Second, this is a new partner's first leadership challenge. If he or she doesn't feel well prepared, the next group coming along won't either. What can a mere new partner do about that? Fix it—with a broad systemic effort. Or at least take on a few bound-for-partner associates and help to prepare them. Leadership—it can begin with small acts of kindness.

Press, ALM's editor in chief, can be reached at apress@alm.com.

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To the extent these new partners remain service-oriented and expect to inherit clients or to be fed business, I think they're done a profound disfavor. Learning how to bring in new clients or to be responsible for generating their own business is freeing, creative, and provides far more control of their own futures. Becoming business-oriented is hardly rocket surgery but requires an attorney to look around and learn something out of their comfort zone.

Obviously, these newbie partners need formal training in both marketing and sales. Given the competitive marketplace in professional services, ranging from law to management consulting, how we market and sell makes all the difference. Recently I received three days training in sales. My mindset and tactics improved so much that I have brought in more business since that than I had in months.

Partners might not transform into Super Rainmakers but they can bring in enough new business to gain power in the firm.

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