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Taking Ownership

Practice Building Strategies for New Partners

Thinking like an Owner.

 Table of Contents

July/August 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 5 | Page 32
Features

Transistions: Becoming a Partner

Taking Ownership: Strategies for Making Sense of Making Partner

Now that you are a newly minted partner, the big issue is to understand how your role has changed. From how to think strategically, allocate investment time and balance your career with personal time, here's help in getting the needed perspective as quickly as possible.

Congratulations, you made it. After nine years of hard work, personal sacrifices and constant learning, you are a newly minted partner in your firm. The big issue now is to understand how your role has changed. Some might say you’ve reached the top of the ladder, only to be introduced to the bottom rung of a new ladder. A puzzle metaphor, however, is probably more fitting. There is a jigsaw puzzle on the table and you are being asked to put your pieces into it. But you are standing too close to see where the pieces fit. You need to pull back to get the right perspective. Let’s explore how to get the needed perspective as quickly as possible.

During your midlevel and senior associate years, the partners observed and evaluated your work not annually, but daily. In nearly every law firm, when partners consider an associate’s progress, they exchange phrases such as: Did she step up? Has he focused on the client’s needs as much as the language of the documents? Does she manage up effectively, bringing only the important matters to the billing partner’s attention? Those associates who stay on track to partnership demonstrate that they have what it takes to handle legal matters, teams and client relations on their own. The upshot of their efforts can be summed up in one phrase: taking ownership.

Now that you are truly a full-fledged owner in the firm, your partners will expect you to think and act like an owner in all the work you do. But you already knew that. What you may not know, though, is that your success will also depend on instilling ownership in others. Surveys conducted by Kerma Partners of the best practices of highly regarded partners show that this is the behavior that defines the real leaders: They move beyond acting like an owner to also develop the ownership mind-set in associates and younger partners, which further leads to higher quality of work (a client-directed issue) and commitment of team members doing the work (a firm-directed issue).

So as a new partner trying to get perspective on your role, your central theme will be: act like an owner and instill ownership in others.

That probably sounds pretty abstract. How will you translate it to daily work? For one thing, you can be sure that it will require changing what you do now. Changing how you act and how you develop yourself and others will be your most frequent experience as a new partner. And changing is what will give you the big puzzle perspective.

Looking at what has to change, the specifics may vary based on the firm and the individual. But there are certain ownership themes, with corresponding internal and external focuses, that are common and we can use them to illustrate. Looking at the accompanying chart (below), you will see that our “umbrella themes,” in the left column, are strategic thinking, investment time, and conservation of time and energy. The boxes in the two right columns are illustrations of the types of goals and activities that correspond to the themes. Depending on your firm’s size and culture, you will want to supplement or edit. But in each instance, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal should be quality and quantity, you will need to ask yourself this critical question: How can I make the best contributions as an owner, taking into account all the other responsibilities in my life?

Strategic Thinking chart

As a new partner, you are probably content to leave the strategic thinking to the firm’s senior management. Perhaps they had a retreat a few years ago and you heard the firm’s goals were settled there. Or maybe your practice group has a written strategic plan and the practice group leader is engaged in fleshing it out. It’s not your thing, right? Well, not exactly. As an owner, you have to be part of implementing strategy or the firm’s grand plan will remain just a pretty document.

Your first step is to gain solid knowledge of what the existing strategy is. In a typical firm, it may be assumed that “you already know.” But this is far from the truth for a lot of new partners. Junior partners cannot know by osmosis what senior management’s strategy is and they need concrete coaching and direction to turn strategy into action. This means you have to ask to be coached on the firm’s goals, practice group plans and any broad client strategies that are in the works (such as cross-selling transactional work to particular litigation clients or the like). These will be crucial keys in your new perspective.

Another critical element in internally focused strategic thinking involves writing a personal business plan for your own activities (sometimes called a personal marketing plan). Experienced partners can mentor you in how to best develop the steps and goals involved in doing this. If your firm has in-house marketing staff, they will have templates and examples for your use, too. Law firm marketing literature also offers you a guide. But remember, while this activity is internally important, the contents of your personal plan will be mostly externally facing because it needs to focus on target clients and industries.

When considering the external focuses of strategic thinking, here is what to keep in mind: As an associate, you were rewarded for quality legal work and top-level client service, owing to attributes such as being responsive, developing legal alternatives, showing personal interest and the like. As an owner, you have to keep all those attributes and add an external focus—which means understanding the client’s business. When we survey clients about what distinguishes a firm, what adds value for them, they most often say something like this: “There are several choices of firms to deliver top-quality legal work from talented individuals. What distinguishes this firm is that it understands our business and where we are going with the business.”

Thus, as an owner, understanding the client’s business should be central to your strategic thinking. This often involves nonbillable time spent on taking a middle manager or assistant general counsel to lunch. It involves understanding the opportunities and threats to their industries. It means extending your reading to industry newsletters, Web sites and blogs by industry insiders. You also have to track clients’ national and international ambitions. If they are talking about an acquisition or an arbitration hearing in Chile, what do you know about the legal and business environment of that country? An owner thinks about helping the client solve problems even before the client knows there is a problem.

Investment Time

The business adage “what gets measured gets managed” is finally arriving in law firms. Historically, of course, firms have followed the dictum “what gets rewarded gets managed”—namely, the billable hour. The measurement of what businesses call “investment time,” sometimes called firm contribution time, is more common in other professional services firms than in law firms. Some accounting firms, for example, expect all partners to spend 25 percent of their time in what lawyers call “nonbillable” activities, such as managing, mentoring or networking. The fact that lawyers call these types of activities “nonbillable” betrays two things: (1) many firms don’t ask you to record this time or finely tune the description of it, and (2) there is no clear connection between contributions that cannot be billed to clients and annual compensation for lawyers. Firms that truly pull together around a strategy tend to measure contribution time and reward it. (How this is done successfully is the subject of another article.)

Assuming your firm does not currently measure and reward investment time, you can still do this personally. Your firm’s timekeeping system can make codes available to you so that you can record your contribution time daily and get reports monthly. Now that we’ve removed that excuse, what are the internal and external aspects of investment time?

Internally you may have to do some exploration to learn what the firm expects its partners to contribute outside of billable activities. For example, are new partners commonly assigned to a committee? In larger firms, junior partners are often asked to run or monitor the work-assignment system. If you have choices in assignments, it is worth your while to investigate two things:

  • What have new partners in the past few years found rewarding—professional development course leadership, career counseling, formal mentoring of associates or the like?
  • How will the firm recognize your investment time in a given activity?

While the second question may not totally govern your choice of what activities to pursue, it is an honest consideration. Many partners who contribute long hours internally are disillusioned down the road if only the production hours are acknowledged by the firm. If the firm wants you to measure investment time specifically, there is a better chance that the time will be rewarded through leadership responsibilities or compensation.

Turning your attention to external investment time, you will not need a lecture on the need for business development. There are two key questions for you to ask the firm or practice group:

  •  Will I get more training and coaching on business development skills?
  •  What activities does the firm support in line with its strategy?

Good direction from the firm on these two issues will help you spend your business development time wisely. Some of the “win-win” activities for both the individual partner and the firm are writing in legal and industry publications, speaking at conferences, and delivering legal education programs for clients. Activities like these can build your personal reputation and the firm’s brand simultaneously.

Another important area in externally focused investment time is recruiting new talent for the firm. Every partner can and should contribute to recruiting. The goal is to determine how you can best contribute. Perhaps you think you are less effective as an interviewer, for example. Then ask the firm’s recruiting staff about other jobs, such as volunteering to integrate lateral hires into the firm or analyzing candidates’ resumes.

It is important to note that although here we are considering investment time in a category separate from strategic thinking, they assuredly overlap. Top firms, for example, have a strategy for diversity, for talent development, for pro bono and for business development. In executing those strategies, new partners play a vital role because they are closer to the associate experience, both positive and negative. Accordingly, they can help the firm identify its weak spots and devise associate-friendly solutions in unique ways.

Conserving Time and Energy

A recent talent management survey conducted by Kerma Partners found that one of the development areas most sought after by partners was “how to conserve my time and energy.” This need, which emerges later in the partnership years, is predictable from the moment you make partner, and you should begin to address it now. Think of it this way: Your career so far has been like a 10-kilometer run. At present, you feel trained and ready for a marathon. But everyone will tell you that if you’re going to make the distance, you have to pace yourself to avoid burnout. The enjoyment of a 35-year career may in no small part depend on some things you decide to do in the early years.

Internally, that means honing certain skills. For one thing, to keep moving up the level and value of your work, you must learn how to delegate and build teams. These are invaluable skills that can be learned in training and practiced on the job. Planning and project management can also be learned and can prevent a constant resort to crisis management. Because you will have a trusted team and clearly assigned associates to back you up come what may, these skills, in turn, are going to help you protect family time and personal time when you hit the crunch phases.

Building skills as a manager is one part of your professional development as a partner. Keeping up with your legal field is another—so how to best use your time and energy to stay up to date without falling overboard? Teaching others is one great way to force you to stay on top. Writing client memos is another. Meeting colleagues at key events like ABA meetings also works. In other words, match some motivation with some continuing professional education. It is a better investment than watching tapes for CLE credits.

While the external focus of time and energy conservation is a bit more abstract, most lawyers have likely been making related choices about their work and client preferences since their early years as associates. But it pays to revisit the questions now—and going forward at least annually. Here are primary issues:

  • Are you doing work you enjoy?
  • Is the work challenging?
  • Are you enjoying the client relationships?

Some partners convert these questions into annual goals so that they challenge themselves to find new work, delegate more often to others or even fire problem clients. Paying attention to these questions will help ensure that you conserve your energy for the longer run. This also requires paying attention to strategy. To get that cutting-edge work, you will have to leverage the human capital available to you—associates, staff, teams and your own skills.

Externally, partners get called upon to engage in many outside activities as well—such as participating on charitable boards, in civic or political activities and in university alumni work, to name a few common ones. Conserving energy will require you to cull things from a growing list of outside to-dos. Some of the same “sorting questions” that you will use to analyze your practice priorities and client relationships will apply in culling outside activities, too. You must regularly ask: Is this particular activity still productive, enjoyable and worth the investment in time and energy?

How the Pieces Fall into Place

In most law firms a description of a new partner’s job would focus heavily on getting the client work done most effectively, while at the same time building a strong track record in developing new business. And obviously those factors are important. But thinking like an owner means more than that. By thinking strategically, planning your investment time, and attending to your long-term energy and enjoyment of this profession, you will have a much better perspective on how to make sense of the puzzle called your partnership. Your personal success and the growth of your firm depend on it.

About the Author

David Cruickshank is a partner in the consultancy Kerma Partners and is based in New York. He advises law firms on practice management, leadership development and talent retention strategies. A former law professor and practitioner in Canada, he works with professional development partners, departments and hiring partners to convert training to a strategic advantage of the firm.

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