Managing Partner Stephen Armstrong, John Claydon and Norman Letalik - Making time for talent


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Managing Partner Stephen Armstrong, John Claydon and Norman Letalik - Making time for talent

  1. 1. hr people management Recession? this is the time to build stronger relationships with employees and communicate as frankly as possible. By stephen armstrong, John claydon and norman Letalik Making time for 56 talent managing partner, may 2010
  2. 2. ‘People’ issues can have a profound impact on a firm’s professional and buildinG blocks to improvinG pErformancE manaGEmEnt economic success, and, as our previous article for Managing Partner sought to • Identify the generic (e.g., negotiation, writing) and practice-specific (e.g. corporate demonstrate, the line that separates transactions) legal knowledge and skills – often referred to as ‘competencies’ – these from economic issues can be an needed by the firm’s lawyers, given the nature of its practices; artificial one.1 • Identify the business, or ‘soft’, knowledge and skills needed by the firm’s lawyers Now is not the time for ‘business as (e.g., client relations, business development, practice management, leadership); usual’ in how firms manage associates, • Specify which skills and knowledge in these two categories should be achieved relying on the theory that they should all at each of the firm’s career levels (e.g., junior associate, senior associate, income be happy just to have a job. The question partner, equity partner); is not whether they will leave this year, • Set out a training plan – a ‘curriculum’ – for helping lawyers to develop the but how energetically they will work for knowledge and skills they need. Tailor the curriculum to individual circumstances the firm’s benefit and, once the economy by requiring professional-development plans for all legal professionals, guided turns, whether the best will then leave. and monitored by mentors; Even more important, your lawyers • Incorporate the competencies into your evaluation process, and ensure that it need to develop their skills as quickly as is effective. Does it provide associates with specific guidance about their next possible. Now – when firms are reviewing developmental steps? Does it provide a fair and accurate picture of how they their strategy and lawyers are not as busy are doing? If you have not recently reviewed its effectiveness, interview some as in the recent past – is the perfect time partners and associates about their perceptions. to take professional development in your firm to a high level. The buildings blocks of a systematic approach to improving practice and culture. Follow the same situations when it is unavoidable, but also professional development include procedure for the business category, with at other times when it helps an associate identifying the generic skills needed and the assistance of people familiar with to grow? If enough of this coaching is setting out appropriate training plans (see that area. Once all the competency lists not taking place, consider using upward box, top right).2 have been formulated, repeat the process evaluations and training programmes to develop the training curriculum to improve the situation. One sad consistency in competencies and then to draft course descriptions consequence of law firms’ increased Undertaking these tasks may appear consisting of concrete learning leverage was the decrease in informal daunting, and some large firms have objectives. Implement this through mentoring, coaching, and conversations undertaken multi-year projects, supported external as well as internal courses. about careers between senior and junior by consultants, for such a project. As part of the review of your lawyers. There is now an opportunity to However, less ambitious approaches professional-development programme, regain some of that lost ground. can also be effective. Many firms will you should also focus on the key already have something approximating elements of on-the-job training: your Revisit career tracks and job categories competency lists, such as sets of assignments system and your senior As the first part of this article performance evaluation criteria, perhaps lawyers’ attention to coaching and mentioned, an increasing number of including benchmarks for partnership feedback. Do you have a process for firms have also concluded they need to admission that can serve as a foundation ensuring associates receive the range and rethink how they promote their lawyers for the competency lists for senior sequence of assignments they need to and define their roles. This rethinking is associates. Other useful sources include develop? Do your senior lawyers step up leading to two kinds of changes. regulatory authorities, the websites of to their responsibilities to train juniors? First, more firms are moving away continuing legal education providers, the In particular, do they coach about ‘soft’ from a ‘lockstep’ system, in which professional associations of law firm skills as well as technical legal skills, and associates are promoted and given a raise education specialists, and (more recently) do they provide feedback, not only in every year, and towards a ‘levels’ system. books and articles about competencies.3 In this new system lawyers are grouped Under the guidance of those “one sad consequence of in several levels – perhaps three or four responsible for leading the firm’s law firms’ increased leverage before partnership – with promotion professional development program, dependent on developing the necessary was the decrease in informal assign one or two students/trainees skills and knowledge (and, potentially, on or junior associates to research these mentoring, coaching and the firm’s need for associates at the more sources and compile samples of conversations about careers senior level). Firms taking this step almost competency lists. Agree on a consistent between senior and junior always have a competency framework in style, and have the lists reviewed by small lawyers. there is now an place, so they can describe the skills and teams (a senior associate and partner, expertise associates need to be promoted opportunity to regain some of for example) in each practice area for and provide a more objective basis for content and compatibility with the firm’s that lost ground.” evaluations. Associates will still usually 57
  3. 3. hr people management receive some form of annual raise, but is solid aside from a lack of work, the significant raises may only come with costs are under control, debt is low, it a move to a new level, and the raises may does not have a lot of overpriced and be quite small or non-existent for those increasingly empty office space, the news who stay longer than expected at the same could be comforting, even if you can’t level. Such a ‘levels’ structure, which a few completely rule out lay-offs (or another firms have had in place for many years, round of lay-offs). Moreover, the fact has several potential advantages. From a that you are having the conversation may client’s perspective, it provides a better help to sustain associates’ trust in and match between a lawyer’s billing rate and commitment to the firm, even if you the value he or she actually provides. have had to undertake lay-offs and still From the firm’s perspective, it provides cannot guarantee jobs for everyone. more flexibility in controlling staffing at In some firms, such an open various levels of seniority, and therefore approach to communication may feel controlling compensation costs. And from counter-intuitive to the partners. They the associates’ perspective, it provides a may be accustomed to discussing the clearer and more motivational progression “in the year or two after business side of the firm only with through the earlier stages of their careers.4 partners, or they may fear that talking associates join a firm, it should Second, firms are becoming more openly about difficult issues will cause willing to experiment with job categories ideally begin to educate them people to worry more. In some firms, beyond the conventional ones of about the business side of the moreover, the leaders are accustomed ‘associate’ and ‘partner’. Some firms have law, and then report to them to communicating only when they have hired substantial numbers of lawyers periodically about the something new to say. In times of great who are not on the partnership track, to anxiety and stress, however, silence is firm’s performance.” perform specific tasks at lower salaries not silent. It is the echo chamber in and billing rates. Some firms, primarily which rumours and fears are amplified, smaller ones, have been using ‘on-call’ will also be more likely to feel that the and it can easily be read as a signal of lawyers to staff matters when the firm is firm regards them not just as disposable indifference. In these times, the firm’s busy, without having to add employees. employees, but as colleagues who deserve leaders should be communicating more Others have become more willing to – and can respond professionally to – a than usual, not falling silent. They should embrace tele-commuting for their lawyers, look behind the curtain that often veils a also be communicating in ways that especially when lawyers are able to spend firm’s economics from its associates. engender dialogue, rather than through enough time in the office to maintain In the year or two after associates join pronouncements from on high. their contacts with clients and the firm’s a firm, it should ideally begin to educate other lawyers. Still others have focused them about the business side of the law, References on how to lengthen career tracks and and then report to them periodically 1. MP December 2009, page 23; create flexible working arrangements for about the firm’s performance. If your 2. A recent survey of more than 500 lawyers who have young children or other firm has not yet developed this habit partners in North American firms, family obligations, so that they do not the depths of a crisis may not seem the conducted by the Firm Leader consulting lose talented and dedicated lawyers who best time to begin, but it is not too late. group, provides an illuminating profile need to scale back their commitments In fact, this kind of communication can of the skills that partners believe they for a period. At the other end of do the most good when everyone craves already have and those they lack, along lawyers’ careers, some firms are also information because they are worried. with an analysis of the implications for experimenting with new arrangements for Think about holding ‘straight talk’ law firm leaders. For more information, partners who want to scale back as they sessions with associates – not only to contact Steve Armstrong, one of approach retirement, but whose services discuss how the firm is responding to this article’s authors (armstrong@ the firm does not want to lose. the economy, but also to educate them; about the basics of law firm economics. 3. Westfahl, S., You Get What You not too late to communicate Whether you decide to undertake such a Measure: Lawyer Development For many firms, this advice may be session depends, of course, on what you Frameworks and Effective arriving late in the day, but it is still can realistically and truthfully say about Performance Evaluations, NALP, relevant. Moreover, the more associates the state of the firm. If its underlying 2008, and Bock H., and Ruyak R., know about the economics of law firms economic pillars are shaky, the gloom Constructing Core Competencies, in general, and the business of their such a presentation spreads may well American Bar Association, 2007; own firm in particular, the better they outweigh the morale benefits of 4. See Sloan, P., B., From Classes will understand the decisions the firm is speaking to associates frankly and openly to Competencies, Lockstep to making to weather the tough times. In about the realities of your business. On Levels, 2002. addition, and over the longer run, they the other hand, if the firm’s business – 58 managing partner, may 2010