My Blog - Connecting the Dots

How to get lawyers to play ball (Pt. 2 of 4)

Posted by Jack Bostelman on May 27, 2012 | 0 Comments

In the last post, Keith Mayfield, chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm, persuaded the head of the firm's commercial real estate group to support the initiative to hire lateral partners and train existing partners so the group can capture more premium work. To accomplish this, Keith used proven principles observed by leaders of leaders:  apply personal effort, establish trust through one-on-one communications, frame the question in terms that align with the targeted leader's interests, make a bargain with the targeted leader and mobilize pressure from third parties.

Engage the project leader

Keith had previously convinced Jeff, the head of the commercial real estate practice group, that Jeff was not the right person to run the initiative. The other candidates are Larry, the senior partner and mentor in the commercial real estate group, and Bob, the rising star partner expected by many to succeed Jeff some day as head of the group. Keith has decided that Larry is the right person to lead the effort. Larry won't feel threatened by the arrival of new lateral partners, as the younger Bob might.  Larry is also naturally more of an organizer and teacher, making him a better match for the required tasks.

Frame the issue. In Keith's approach to Larry, he employs the same principles he used in gaining Jeff's support. He knows Larry enjoys problem-solving and very much enjoys being highly respected by his colleagues within the firm. Keith emphasizes the challenges the project poses, his confidence in Larry's ability to resolve them and the visibility of the job within the firm.

Address his interests. Keith also tells Larry he will protect Larry's compensation for the two years he envisions the project will last, despite the greatly reduced time Larry will be spending on client work. Larry is nearing retirement and slowing down a bit. He's been concerned the firm will pressure him to retire at earliest eligibility. Keith says that if the project is a success, he hopes Larry will continue overseeing the training program and helping to establish similar lateral partner/training programs in other practice groups for several more years.

Apply third party pressure. Finally, Keith asks Jeff as chair of the group to emphasize to Larry how important this project is to Jeff personally. Larry is delighted with the entire proposal. Before agreeing, though, he wisely obtains Keith's commitment of ongoing visible support and the necessary administrative and monetary resources to make the program work.

Plan the project

Larry starts work on the project by outlining its main elements:

  • Identify and bring on board lateral partners who can lead the practice to acquire more premium work and who can mentor other partners.
  • Design the curricula and formats for the separate partner and associate training programs, and arrange for partners to teach them.
  • Design and build the electronic knowledge base library.

Larry recognizes that each of these main elements will require months to complete, and that the entire project will require two years to plan and execute. He also recognizes that because it requires cooperation from so many lawyers, the project will be difficult. Reminding Keith of his commitment regarding resources, Larry persuades Keith to allow him to hire a consultant with expertise in the relevant areas.

Next Larry assesses the degree of involvement required by the firm's lawyers for each of these elements, in terms of both what help is needed from them and how their buy-in will be obtained. He assembles a group of partners of varying practice categories in the commercial real estate group as his advisory committee. While he truly wants any useful input they can give, Larry's main goal is to gain their buy-in and have them persuade other partners in the group to support the program. Larry lays out some other steps, frequently consulting Keith, Jeff and the consultant. At the urging of the consultant, the leaders establish success criteria for the project's main elements.

Steps for lateral hiring

Obtaining buy-in from the existing partners in the group is one of the most important aspects of the lateral partner hiring program (together with deciding on the premium work to target and hiring the right lateral partners). This goal is best achieved by applying the same principles outlined above under “Key Takeaways”, including making a personal, one-on-one effort, gaining trust and addressing the interests of the existing partners. Larry's key steps are:

  • With Jeff (the practice group head) and other star partners, identify the types of premium work the practice group will seek. As part of this process, get buy-in from the star partners for the overall program.
  • Convene two meetings of the commercial real estate partners to discuss the overall program. Jeff should chair these meetings, but Keith should attend as well. The first meeting lays out the proposal and its main elements, including the types of premium work being sought and the potential financial benefits the firm will receive from having more premium work and from general up-training of associates. After the meeting, Jeff, Larry and the other star partners lobby as many of the other partners as they can, on a one-on-one basis. The second meeting is not a formal vote, but seeks a consensus to proceed. Achieving support of the group's partners will be essential to the program's success.
  • With the HR Dept. and star partners, identify several lateral partner candidates who can do the premium work being sought. Have them interview with many more partners than is strictly necessary, again to get buy-in from as many partners as possible.
  • Tie part of the annual compensation of the lateral partners to the performance of the practice group as a whole.
  • With the existing star partners and the new lateral partners, design a new business strategy for capturing premium work. This effort can also serve as a first step in integrating the new lateral partners.

The first success criterion for the lateral partner initiative is that during the first year, the new and existing partners bring in work at a 20% premium to existing rates, in a volume equal to a specified percentage above the average collections per partner for the group. In other words, the group needs to bring in more premium work than the laterals alone can service. During the second year, the specified percentage increases, indicating the premium work is being spread among an even greater number of partners. The second criterion is that the laterals become accepted by the lawyers in the practice group, and devote substantial efforts to training. This criterion will be evaluated subjectively by Jeff (the head of the group) and Larry (the leader of the initiative).

Steps for partner training

Make it work for the partners being trained

The most important part of the partner training program is getting the less-experienced partners to overcome their fears of failure and to participate both in the training and in the actual premium work. The five lawyer personality traits described in Part 2 of my first post (Welcome to my blog for law firm leaders) come into play here:  skepticism; autonomy; resistance to change; high sense of urgency, leading to undue focus on client work; and great interest in new learning. The collaborative meeting style is intended to overcome the first four of these, as are the financial incentives. The fifth, learning new things, works in favor of the program.

Make training non-threatening

  • Style the partner training program as a series of “working group meetings”, not training sessions. Conduct them in a roundtable (not lecture) format emphasizing case studies and encouraging discussion. This format is one to which the partners can relate and in which they will feel the least threatened, because it follows the formats of their own client meetings on transactional matters and their internal practice group meetings.
  • Conduct all sessions in person at the relevant offices, to the extent possible, with video conference participation only where the number of partners in an office is very small.
  • Include one-on-one coaching of the less-experienced partners by Larry and a few other respected and non-threatening partners. Jeff should participate as well, to the extent he can be pushed to do so.
  • Convene an after-hours cocktail or dinner event after each teaching session, where partners can informally get to know the teaching partner, commiserate over being back in school and generally feel like a team.

Create incentives for attendance

  • Remind partners of the favorable economics of premium work to the firm and to the individual partners in the group.
  • Make attendance mandatory (to the extent it can be with partners) and give billable hours (and CLE) credit for attendance.

Create incentives for the teaching partners

The teaching partners need to be motivated with a combination of administrative support and financial incentives.

  • Work with the new laterals and the existing star partners to develop the curriculum and assign teaching responsibilities. Each lateral and star partner should be expected to teach. Recruit associates to assist in preparing written course materials, giving them billable hours credit for that work. Editing the work of others will be easier for the teaching partner and make it easier to convince him or her to conduct a particular course.
  • The HR Dept. does not have a former practicing lawyer on staff who can assist Larry in managing the development of the curriculum and creation of the written materials with the teaching partners. Larry believes (correctly) the firm should hire such a person, whose first priority is the commercial and real estate group initiative. That person can work not only on the partner and associate training programs, but also on the knowledge base project. Keith thinks this is an unnecessary cost. In order to maintain Larry's trust, however, Keith agrees to hire such a person.
  • Have Keith protect the compensation of the star partners and the laterals for their time spent teaching and mentoring.
  • Tie part of the annual compensation of the teaching partners to the performance of the commercial real estate group as a whole.

Address the implementation phase

After the formal teaching phase is over, the training program continues in a hands-on phase.

  • Include training on business development strategies to capture premium work. Protect the compensation of the laterals and star partners who share premium work with less-experienced partners.
  • For the first few premium billing matters on which a less-experienced partner works, include an experienced partner as co-captain, informing the client that the firm will eat the extra partner hours. Protect the compensation of the experienced partner for time spent co-captaining.
  • Have Keith and Jeff clearly communicate that a partner's compensation in the group will be increased for successful completion of premium work, and will be reduced for avoiding premium work. Attempting premium work and not succeeding will have a neutral effect on compensation.
  • Using the firm's competitive intelligence resources, identify to the partners the firms that are competitors for the desired premium work, and regularly communicate wins and losses of the firm and those firms.
  • Communicate at practice group meetings and through e-mails the successes of the individual less-experienced partners in completing premium work and of the group as a whole in gaining more premium work.

Principles behind the partner training program

The steps for the partner training program described above follow the leadership principles described in Part 1 of this series under “Key Takeaways”:  apply personal effort, establish trust with the persons being led through one-on-one relationships, address the interests of the person being led and communicate a commitment to satisfy those interests. The steps also follow the motivational principles outlined by Harvard Business School Professor Thomas DeLong and his colleagues in their fascinating book, When Professionals Have to Lead (Harvard Business School Press 2007):  the need for achievement, the need for affiliation (being part of a team) and the need for power.

The success criterion for the partner training program is that a specified percentage of the hours worked by the less-experienced partners during the year are attributable to work that is billed and collected at a premium. That percentage increases in year two of the program.

In the next post

In the next post, Larry will lay out the steps to bring the associates on board with their training program. He will also become deeply involved in the electronic knowledge base project. We will see how he fares.

[Photo credit:  © Lushpix Illustration /]

About the Author

Jack Bostelman

Jack Bostelman is the president and principal consultant of KM/JD Consulting LLC. Before founding KM/JD Consulting, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.


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KM/JD Consulting LLC renders impartial practice management advice to law firms on improving efficiency, increasing profits and reducing risk, emphasizing knowledge strategy.

Jack Bostelman, President

Before founding KM/JD Consulting LLC, Jack practiced law in New York for 30 years as a partner of pre-eminent AmLaw 20 firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

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