October 22, 2012

Finding Help with People Issues

Every managing partner I know is challenged by people issues. Whether it’s a brilliant associate who isn’t reaching her potential or a partner who appears to have gone off the rails, people issues frequently require special approaches. It’s pretty difficult to have all the answers yourself, so having a few trusted resources will serve you well.

Winning the competition for talent is critical to your firm’s success. Of course, trusted recruiters can be your allies in this, by keeping your firm on the radar screen and spreading good words about you in the marketplace. But it’s not just about recruiting the best students from law schools or focusing on lateral hires.

Leaders with a long-term view are focused on treating people well throughout the arc of their careers with the firm: on the way in, as they develop, and when faced with a departure. You should clearly understand where all your lawyers are trending and take steps early in the game to help when it seems like someone is wandering off track. For when you need an extra hand with that, the following can be of help.

Executive coaches. Given the complexity of life combined with the complexity of the business of law, often people can feel overworked, overcommitted and pulled in all directions as they try to be good lawyers, worthy colleagues and great parents. In addition, there are times in any career when people can simply go off the rails. They may be disenchanted with their practice, their colleagues or the firm as a whole. Their hours may begin to slip, they don’t attend functions and they are generally unproductive or unhappy. There are many reasons for performance or behavioral lapses, as you well know.

In response, many firms are embracing executive coaching as a resource for lawyers at various pivot points in their careers—for example, at the threshold of partnership, when they become parents or when they take on their first leadership role. Good coaches can provide the extra support to give highly capable individuals what they need to reach their potential. As the firm’s leader, get to know a few who will invest the time needed to get to know you and the nuances of your firm, so that when you have a need, you can draw on them as resources.

Ethics advisers. Another key resource you should get to know well is a lawyer external to the firm who specializes in ethics and professional conduct. As a managing partner, you can only hope that you’ll never have a rogue partner or an internal issue that requires this type of advice—but if you have a serious problem with one of your colleagues, you need to know who to call when the time comes.

Your state bar can be of immense help in this, too, of course. You should especially get to know your bar’s practice management advisor (for those fortunate enough to have one on staff).

Outplacement professionals. Ultimately, there are times when all other avenues have been exhausted, and you must make the decision to ask one of your colleagues to leave the firm. It’s never easy, but here again, some trusted external resources can help. The best firms engage outplacement providers for support. Outplacement professionals are there to help the individual you are terminating—but be assured they are also there for you. They can help to map out the entire process, including the timing, communications and contingency issues, as well as help the departing lawyer find a new opportunity.

While leadership can be extraordinarily rewarding, it can also be extremely challenging and, without question, people issues top the list. However, you should be able to handle it all more effectively if you have proper resources to call upon.