The traditional law firm model is dying a long, painful death.
As tried and true rainmaking techniques gasp their last breaths, partners with their eyes on the future are starting to worry. Managing partners and their contemporaries around the globe are mulling over passing their batons to their junior counterparts but are starting to realize that there aren’t too many eager hands that are ready to grab their seat at the leadership table. The once-full leadership queue that used to drive firms forward is much less crowded than it once was, and this is threatening the legacy of firms worldwide – and the pocketbooks of partners eyeing retirement.
Younger attorneys are often not interested in climbing the leadership ladder in their firms. Most are preoccupied with an existential wrestling match between their interest in practicing, their need for a steady income and their commitment to spending time with family and friends, and their employers are unable to provide them with satisfactory solutions. The only way to secure sustainable growth and an enduring legacy is for senior partners to step up and invest in their less-seasoned talent. The right investment is not sales training, traditional business development coaching or bigger marketing budgets. Instead, tomorrow’s presumptive leaders need to develop leadership skills – which, incidentally, is not taught in law school or in typical associate programs found in small, mid-size or even BIGLAW firms.
A lawyer who possesses stellar technical ability, has been published 100 times, teaches law school courses and is recognized by her peers as an outstanding professional is still totally unprepared to be charged with contributing to the overall growth of the firm. Being a skilled attorney does not a rainmaker make. Nor does lawyering lend itself to business savvy or management ability. In most communities, there is no shortage of good/great/smart/lawyers to deliver quality work to their clients, but if firms do not begin strategically planning for the future by empowering their younger attorneys to make a commitment to the overall growth of the organization, mass exoduses will ensue.
There are 4 critical elements to making lawyers into leaders:
The biggest fear of the Millennial generation is failure. Of course, no one enjoys failure, but professionals in their 20s, 30s and even early 40s share a paralyzing fear of making mistakes and disappointing others. I see evidence of this on a daily basis in working with younger lawyers, and when I share my observations with those charged with their development, there is always disbelief. This fear has been the Achilles’ heel for an alarmingly large number of associates and junior partners, regularly sabotaging their business development and origination efforts. In fact, many of these lawyers may seem confident, but they are actually incredibly insecure. They need their more seasoned counterparts to provide the regular guidance, support and reassurance they need to encourage them in their rainmaking efforts, which is usually a challenge considering the senior attorneys likely did not receive anything of the sort from those managing them.
How can senior partners better understand how to help their younger colleagues? It’s simple, ask them. There is nothing more effective than creating direct lines of communication throughout the firm. Senior leadership must make sure that they take the time to understand the motivation of their younger staff before they impose their own vision on those responsible for getting the majority of the work done.
In the eight years I have been working with attorneys and law firms, I have never encountered a firm that had a clear and detailed path to partnership to share with their partner-hopefuls. I’ve heard everything from the fear of “making promises” to “unproven” lawyers, to the fact that “it’s just not done,” to a chorus of “I don’t knows” as excuses for the absence of a partnership development program.
Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable for attorneys to overwork themselves in the hopes of getting tapped to join the partnership table. Other than origination goals, there were little other criteria provided to ambitious lawyers to help them position themselves to join the leadership queue. Those days are over. In addition to their massive fear of failure, the Millennial generation demands transparency, something utterly foreign to most law firms. They need to know what to expect from their efforts before they commit their time and energy to any endeavor.
This includes not only the rewards, but also a clear indication of sacrifices that may be necessary and the resources the firm is willing to provide to support them on their professional development journey.
As I explain in my book, Path to Impact: The Rising Leader’s Guide to Growing Smart, Millennials were raised like veal. The advent of technology and the fact that most younger professionals were essentially born with a smartphone in their hand, have crippled their ability to effectively advocate for their needs due to the fact that their self-sufficiency muscles were never allowed to develop the way those of the Gen X and Baby Boomer generations were.
This presents a huge challenge in today’s law firms because senior partners expect their younger colleagues to fend for themselves when it comes to figuring out origination, client management and firm politics. This is a dangerous practice that is one of the biggest contributors to firm turnover, a very real threat to firms of all sizes. The assumption that junior staff does not need careful and consistent guidance from their senior colleagues is a guaranteed way to kiss an enduring firm legacy goodbye.
I am not promoting the idea of partners reading the minds of their associates, but the key to success lies in the younger lawyers’ ability to eventually advocate for themselves, and this can only be developed with the help of their supervisors.
Marketing budgets are worthless if they are not accompanied by strategic business development plans that are individualized and tailored to each attorney’s interests, strengths, goals and challenges. Most firms will assign each lawyer with origination expectations and a bucket of funds that are supposed to be used for “marketing”. In this case, there is usually a loose directive to use the money towards entertaining clients, attending conferences and paying for various networking events. Time and time again, I’ve seen attorneys who either end the year with their budget barely tapped, or those that blow all their funds on 3 large networking events, with nothing left to complement a more strategic approach to growth.
Blown marketing budgets are an example of wasteful spending in law firms that should be generating a robust return on investment. If each attorney felt more empowered to make sound decisions in terms of where they spend their time, energy and money, they’d be less stressed and generate more business.
Empowering young lawyers to make sound decisions is not just about bringing in new clients, it is also crucial to setting the stage for the next generation of leadership. Attorneys that are considering eventually taking the reins must be equipped to do so with a comprehensive program for leadership development. There are many ways to provide leadership development support for aspiring partners, but the most important aspect of any investment is the buy-in from the future leaders themselves. No matter how great the coaching, mentoring or workshop, if associates and junior partners struggle with seeing themselves at the leadership table for whatever reason, firms will be challenged in reaping a healthy return on their investment – and will also face an uncertain future.
What can your firm do right now? Here are a few tips on how to insure the longevity of your organization:
Instead of allocating one sum of money each year for a combination of marketing and business development, firms should have three separate “buckets”: Marketing, Business Development and Professional Development (specifically Partnership Development). All firms need rainmakers, but without qualified and informed leadership, no amount of new revenue will save a sinking ship.
Create (internally or in partnership with an outside resource) a formal Path to Partnership program that provides younger attorneys with a clear idea of what it takes to become a partner as well as what they’ll need to do to excel in a leadership position.
Encourage and facilitate mentoring programs, both internally and with outside resources.
Maintain a clear and open line of communication between junior level staff and senior partners. Some conversations will push people out of their comfort zones, but as long as they are appropriate in tone and language, an active dialogue will always improve morale.
Be sure that the firm’s brand is deeply understood by all lawyers, and that senior leadership consistently sets the example for the culture and level of service that clients regularly receive.
About the Author
Wendy Merrill is the Founder & Chief Rainmaker of StrategyHorse Consulting Group. She is committed to helping impact-oriented ambitious professionals and Rising Leaders to realize their growth potential by strategically navigating obstacles to success that are often created by themselves and others. Through coaching, workshops, strategy sessions, speaking and her bestselling book PATH TO IMPACT: THE RISING LEADER'S GUIDE TO GROWING SMART, Wendy focuses on preparing tomorrow's leaders to steward their organizations and communities into the future. In both her personal and professional life, Wendy enjoys mentoring professionals and entrepreneurs, and is a proud winner of the Greater Baltimore Committee Bridging the Gap Award, given to leaders that foster the success of women and minorities in business.