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Law Practice Magazine

The Big Ideas Issue

How to Train and Retain Your Law Firm Partners: Best Practices and Strategies

Sharon Meit Abrahams

Summary

  • New partner development programs set them up for success early.
  • Continuous learning is key throughout a partner’s career.
  • Senior partners need to make room for the next generation.
How to Train and Retain Your Law Firm Partners: Best Practices and Strategies
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When the term "partner development" comes up, many attorneys immediately think of grooming young lawyers for partnership roles, yet the ongoing development of existing partners often receives less attention. Frank Sheppard the managing partner at RumbergerKirk emphasizes, “Training needs to begin when they are young lawyers, and that learning never has an end date.” The training and development of partners is a cornerstone of law firm success, spanning from their induction into the partnership to their retirement.

Examining a partner's career life cycle, it is evident that professional development should be tailored to the unique needs at each career stage.

Life cycle stage

 Professional development needs

 Newly promoted partner

 Orientation to operations of the firm

 Junior partner

 Development of management skills

 Productive partner

 Expansion of business acumen

 Senior partner

 Cultivation of leadership skills

 Super senior partner

 Planning succession and retirement

Each stage offers opportunities for a comprehensive curriculum that addresses both the individual's and the firm's needs. Here are insights into effective training at various partner levels.

Newly Promoted

Law firms have three divergent approaches for training new partners. Some begin training when attorneys are associates, others start post promotion and the final group elevates the attorneys with the hope that they will figure it out. Larry Campagna, managing shareholder at Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Aughtry, P.C., laments, “Too many firms elect partners and expect them to learn by osmosis.”

Training new partners helps them develop the necessary skills to become successful attorneys and eventually leaders in their firms. This investment demonstrates the commitment the firm has to the young partner, which will reduce attrition and enhance engagement. Law firms that deliver new partner programs conduct their programs in a one- or two-day retreat format. If the firm is hybrid, their in-house programs are often delivered via 60- or 90-minute video webinars spread over a period of weeks or months. Other firms send their attorneys to outside programs like those at LawVision, Harvard or Young Partners Accelerator.

The topics covered in these training sessions can vary depending on the firm, but an important topic is one that raises awareness of the partners’ wider responsibilities. Melissa W. Nelson, chief learning and development officer at Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC explains, “[partners] share a responsibility for influencing or motivating associates.” To harness that capability, Levenfeld Pearlstein introduced a three-month, skills-based program that teaches partners how to develop their influence to impact greater career, firm and client success. Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP’s new-partner training, “helps their partners to understand their roles as stewards of the firm,” notes Marlon Lutfiyya, director of talent and diversity.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of topics for consideration when designing new partner training.

  • Values and expectations of partners
  • Role of the partner
  • Partner compensation, benefits and taxes
  • Firm financials, billings, collections, alternative fee arrangements, etc.
  • Conflicts, new business intake and professional responsibility
  • Firm and practice group strategies
  • Balance of professional and personal responsibilities
  • Business development requirements and support

The goal of any orientation program is to give enough information so the attorney can become comfortable in their new role, but not so much that they forget everything that was addressed.

Junior Partner

After a few years as a partner, the focus should shift to enhancing management knowledge and skills. Given the significant impact of managerial quality on team retention and performance, it's crucial for junior partners to develop competencies in supervision, communication and emotional intelligence.

Training can be sourced from legal consultants or through partnerships with educational institutions, as demonstrated by Bilzin Sumberg's collaboration with the University of Miami Business School. Jessica Buchsbaum, their chief legal talent officer, explains they have created, “a series of 12 sessions over a year/year and a half.” Whether a firm decides to create their own series or outsource it, these are topics that will build knowledge and solid management skills:

  • Advanced communication skills
  • Delegation to help others grow
  • Effective feedback and mentoring
  • Managing difficult conversations
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Time management in relation to others
  • Legal project management
  • Recruiting, hiring and training
  • Work product quality control
  • Conflict management
  • Management styles in the workplace
  • Self-analysis of own management style
  • Coaching skills
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Building internal relationships

Junior partners are susceptible to headhunters so investing in them is a way to create loyalty. Creating an academy-style initiative will demonstrate that the firm wants them to have a successful career. If this is not possible then do what Lisa Keyes, partner and director of professional development at King and Spalding suggests, “find opportunities to bring ‘training’ to the partners at meetings they might already be having, such as a practice group or office partner meeting.”

Productive Partner

Often mid-career partners are forgotten when it comes to further development. The assumption is that they have skills and know what is expected. There are three categories that partners can fall into at this stage in their career. First, some partners are looking toward leadership roles with little understanding of what this entails. Second, there is data that suggests some partners fall through the cracks, become underproductive or are relegated as service attorneys. And finally, there are those who are doing well but need continued development because the world around them constantly changes. 

At this stage many partners are focused on growing their book of business. David Freeman, founder of the Lawyer BookBuilder suggests, “The next phase is to become a solid rainmaker, which often requires a different level of skills, discipline and planning than what got you to become partner.” Freeman points out that “becoming a rainmaker is a huge career advantage. Of course, you can make more money, but you also gain more control over your career, and you can achieve greater stature and power in your firm.” This is an important message for those designated as service partners and have the stress of wondering if their plates will be full. Business development training is readily available from online, self-guided programming to comprehensive training with one-on-one coaching. A curriculum for business development might cover business development plan writing; SMART goal setting; internal /external credentialling; differentiating the firm and your practice; networking and referrals; communication with client; and cross-selling and cross servicing.

“Understanding that there is no one ‘right’ business development style,” Nelson says her firm, “strive[s] to meet each partner where they’re at in a way that builds on their natural strengths.” This is a key philosophy for all firms to follow because attorneys will excel only when they are supported in the business development efforts that fit their personalities.

It is important for underperformers and service attorneys to have a clear understanding of the firm’s financial practices and how it affects their compensation. The training topics discussed at Honigman LLP, “include revenue streams, cost structures, billing/collections/pricing, [and] client and matter management,” notes Kaushi S. Muthukuda, manager of attorney professional development and lateral integration. Muthukuda also shares that they discuss, “market trends to best equip [their] attorneys to manage their practices and draw a meaningful link to how what they do impacts the firm.” Development programs geared toward reinforcing financial expectations are important, so no one falls through the cracks.

Technology training is an ongoing development hole because many attorneys do not want to take the time to learn the new systems brought into their firms. Partners should be offered technology training on a continuous basis as well as one-on-one, so they cannot claim “they didn’t know.”

Senior Partner

The Peter Principle is the concept that members of a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent. This sounds harsh but it is exactly what happens in law firms. Firm leaders tap highly productive partners who are unprepared for the nuances of firm leadership.

On the other hand, it is wonderful when a partner steps forward to say they want to be considered for a leadership position. Managing partners declare this does not happen enough. There is a myriad of reasons from structural to cultural that prevent this from happening organically at some firms. To overcome the drought of potential leaders, firms can offer ongoing leadership development programming. As with the other partner training there is an abundance of consultants, universities and third-party providers that offer leadership training to law firms that might include drivers of economic performance in legal services; consideration of strategies for long term success with alignment in practice areas and professionals; an exploration of firm culture and how it impacts success; how the firm may be differentiated from other firms. This may include a consideration of the client experience and how it impacts success; and how industry disruption and other factors may be drivers of innovation.

Leadership development programs, distinct from junior partner management training, should focus on strategic vision and firm advancement.

Super Senior Partner

Even seasoned partners can benefit from continued learning. An important development period of the attorney life cycle is the close of a practice or career. In contrast to the general population, many attorneys of retirement age resist retiring. The author of Retirement by Design, Ida Abbott says, “Lawyers who have something to look forward to in retirement and realize they have many options ahead, readily plan for it. But some lawyers have worked so long, so hard, and so successfully, that their work has become their primary source of purpose, value and identity.” Four main reasons for this resistance are:

  1. Loss of identity
  2. Reluctance to leave
  3. Fears about transitioning
  4. Failure to succession plan

To encourage attorneys toward retirement, firms should help them grapple with what they will do next. Appoint a trained firm leader, an outside consultant or a coach to meet with senior attorneys. These individuals will discuss whether the attorney can afford to retire, determine if they are psychologically ready and, most importantly, if they are emotionally prepared for the next phase. Retirement can be a daunting transition, so candidates need as much support as possible to move forward.

Just as firms often avoid retirement planning, they also resist succession planning due to fear of difficult conversations. However, they must establish a succession planning process. A succession plan identifies which attorneys will transition client relationships once an attorney decides to retire. The potential replacements should be developed through client meetings, case/matter discussions, understanding the client’s goals and managing the relationship.

This is the final development opportunity a firm has, and it should be handled with the same level of commitment as all the other training. Start the conversation with the ABA Model Rules (and several other jurisdictions), which include a comment in Rule 1.3 stating that the duty of diligence may require a lawyer to develop a succession plan. This empowers firms to strongly encourage senior attorneys to begin the process.

Partner development is a pivotal aspect of a law firm's success, necessitating a strategic approach to training and development at every career stage. By investing in comprehensive development programs, law firms not only enhance their partners' skills and engagement but also secure their long-term success and stability.

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