ADMITTING NEW PARTNERS AND CLASSES OF PARTNERS
AS THE DEMAND FOR LEGAL SERVICES CONTINUES TO LAG

by Joel A. Rose
 

A new survey of law firm leaders reveals that partners at a majority of the firms don’t have enough work, and that demand for legal services is lagging behind pre-recession levels. Yet, despite this gloomy assessment, law firm leaders report that their partners are resistant to change.

Unfortunately, there is no conventional wisdom about when the current lagging demand for legal services will turn around. As a result, these uncertain times have served as an excuse for many firms of all sizes and specialties to review the breadth and depth of the profitability (costliness) and expertise of their lawyers in the various practice areas and seek to recruit attorneys who control work of clients in practice areas that are strategically important.

Since the objective of admitting partners in a law firm is to generate profits for equity partners,  more firms are examining the wisdom of creating new partners and are ascertaining the timeliness of addressing problems with under-productive partners, i.e., reduced compensation, de-equitization, early retirement, etc.

During this time of “economic uncertainty” it is vitally important that partners critically examine their law firm before making “blanket” modifications to the partnership structure/admission practices simply to satisfy the current, and perhaps short-term economic issues. First, assure that the partners have carefully analyzed the various components of their firm’s economics and have taken appropriate steps to improve its financial health. Then, conclude whether the firm’s partnership structure/admission practices are a root cause of the economic problem. For example, what changes/modifications to partnership admission will be beneficial?

Consider modifications to existing criteria established for partnership admission and an increased length of time to partnership. It might be advisable to review associates with a more critical eye, so as to determine more quickly the lawyer’s suitability for continuation. This may  lead to increased terminations but also avoid dealing less objectively with associates who have expectations based in significant measure on longevity. Ascertain whether it is timely to seek withdrawal of under-productive partners and/or whether there are candidates for early retirement.

What adverse effects will result from seeking modifications to the existing culture for economic reasons? Resignations of associates who are displeased over the changes in required service or protocol and feel that their trust in the firm has been misplaced; inability to replace defections in a timely enough fashion to provide continuity of service; loss of revenue; loss of clientele and morale depression.

The firm must examine the process as well as the criteria for partnership carefully and, before modifications are made of any sort, a consensus of the partners should be reached.

There are issues to be considered and addressed by all partners; they will undoubtedly view them in part on behalf of the firm and in part as potentially affecting each of themselves. Criteria must, for each potential partner, include:

Client origination. The ability to develop and originate new clients for the firm is one of the most significant criteria that will be considered. Although this criterion is certainly important, it is not of itself a condition precedent for elevation to partner status. It is generally recognized, however, that the ability to originate new business is a much desired attribute.

Economic consideration. A law firm must be able to justify the progression of associates to partner status on an economic as well as a professional basis. Factors that must be considered when determining the feasibility of adding another partner include: (a) the present and projected strength of the practice area (or whether the department can sustain another partner); (b) the individual's historical productivity level (billable hours history); (c) the individual's ability to sustain a high productivity level at a partner's billing rate; and (d) the individual's ability to support himself or herself as a partner.

Collection of hours billed, realization on hours billed. This is certainly as important as the number of hours billed. Although billing 1,750, 1,800 or 1,850 hours in one year reflect dedication, hard work and devotion to the firm, nevertheless, realization on only 40 percent of the hours billed adversely impacts on the bottom-line productivity of the substantial investment of time made by the billing associate.

Client relations. Most firms encourage associates to establish a professional relationship with clients. Thus, the ability of the associate to relate and interact with a client is an important factor to be considered.

Handle complex matters with minimal partner supervision. The demonstrated ability to handle complex matters and to function effectively without close partner supervision is another key factor. Associates wishing to be elevated to partner status must demonstrate their ability to manage, service and relate to clients without substantial or significant input from the originating partner.

Professional skills. Associates on partner track must develop a "professional identity" within and outside of the firm for skill in their specialty areas and possess a breadth of skills or the ability to transcend a narrow specialty, if needed. Also, candidates must obtain strong marks in legal analysis, writing, oral communications, negotiating ability and the sound exercise of judgment, and so on.

Cooperative spirit. Every attorney should be a team player. Each attorney desiring elevation to partner status must demonstrate a willingness to participate, cooperate, and get along well with clients, other lawyers and staff in all aspects of the firm. In today's economic environment, reinforced by downsizing of firms and cross-fertilization of attorneys - the willingness to accept assignments from other attorneys, regardless of who originated the client, is an important consideration.

Community involvement. Most firms encourage attorneys to become involved in community and outside activities. Participation in community activities neatly dovetails with marketing and client origination.

Personal presentation. Most firms do not possess any hard and fast dress codes. However, image often is perceived as being important. And personal presentation projects an image.

Non-billable hours. Promotion to partner status requires more than simply billing hours during the work week. Non-billable time is a yardstick by which the firm can measure an associate's level of interest in the success of the firm.

Classes of Partners

Given the need for more careful analysis before making new partners as a result of the lagging demand for legal services and shrinking profits, it is also timely to give thought to different classes of partners.

Non-equity partners, generally characterized by a “guaranteed” draw but with no right to share in the firm’s profits. While this is potentially beneficial in the short term, issues which can arise relate to the partner’s desire and expectation that there will be an opportunity for advancement to equity status. So as not to dis-incentivize further initiative, clear criteria must be established which identify the basis for progression to equity partner status.

Contract partners, who are similarly salaried, perhaps with bonus arrangements predicated on performance. These are frequently lateral partners, whose attraction may be an existing book of business or a needed expertise in a particular field of law. Some firms have trepidation about engaging contract partners, since they may, without qualification, be inclined to move for more money, made easier by their not having been inculcated into the firm culture.

Part-Time Partners, many practitioners are concerned about whether/how to advance the careers of less than full-time lawyers. There are still many law firms who would find it problematic to consider part-time lawyers for partnership, irrespective of their age, experience and/or the quality of their performance. It has been the author’s experience that the long-held view by many/most law firms that a part-time lawyer lacks commitment, coupled with the fact that part-time work is not often well-defined, results in a perception that less than a 24/7/365 involvement severely limits advancement and career options.

Factually, surveys have shown that flexible work arrangements are sought and considered to be more desirable for women lawyers. Therefore, if women are not encouraged to balance their family and personal lives with their careers, there is a far greater likelihood that they will seek other opportunities, resulting in very expensive attrition. Replacing a seasoned third-year associate will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and indoctrination. Firms face increasing pressure from clients and lawyers alike to maintain a diverse workplace. Client relationships may be adversely affected as well, particularly if the departing lawyer has had positive experiences with the client.

As the result of the above, a firm which is unwilling to address a more heterogeneous work environment will likely not be attractive to future hires; “word gets around.” Just as important as well as all of the objective considerations is the importance of a value system which respects family and quality of life commitments.

Every law firm faces voluntary and involuntary separations of partners through retirement, lateral movement and death. It would therefore be sensible, particularly given the evident changes in our society, e.g. desire for more relaxed lifestyle, diversity and balance, to consider the advancement of part-time lawyers to partnership. Clear and distinct guidelines must be established for ascension by part-time lawyers to partnership.  Although consistent with all lawyers considered for partnership, existing partners will undoubtedly be watchful for:

•A fixed required annual hours production which is consistently met;
•Evidenced determination to advance and to distinguish oneself as a lawyer;
•The ability to develop and maintain clients in a substantial way, resulting in the buyer’s having a substantial practice;
•Interpersonal skills which result in harmonious relationships within the workplace; and
•Demonstrated loyalty to the firm and the partners – a subjective, but rather easily detected characteristic.

Details of a part-time partnership should be in writing and made known to associates who identify their need for such consideration on a going-forward basis.  They would clarify, among other things:

-Expectation of and commitment to a predetermined number of both billable and non-billable hours.
-Base compensation which is consistent in its comparison to full-time partners, with the difference in required annual hours.
-Incentivized bonus compensation similarly must be addressed but may be more subjective in its determination.

Conclusion

While developing strategies to cope with the lagging demand for legal services, lawyer management must understand their partners' expectations so that the former may develop and begin to implement strategies to reduce costs and enhance the volume of profitable business which, in turn, leads to increased revenue per lawyer and profits per partner. Lawyer management in the better managed firms recognize opportunities, implement action plans and assume risks that will provide their partners and associates with the framework for building stronger and more successful law firms.

 

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates