Picture This: Partner Engagement

Lateral partner movement is up, but the jury is still out on how useful laterals are to a firm’s long-term financial health. There is, of course, the role (or lack thereof) of strategic planning and process-design in failed partner acquisitions, but what about the emphasis we put on the value of our employees? So I took a moment to daydream about the perfect firm. At this firm, they really believe in the old saw about “our people are our most important asset”, and they back it up with action. They have read the studies showing the correlation between higher engagement and greater financial performance, and, as a result at this fantasy firm, the partners and administrators are fanatical about tracking employee and partner engagement annually. They have succeeded in building an engaged partnership, doing well in every area measured using the Q12 © employee engagement framework developed by Gallup. This is how I imagined a young partner at the firm would describe her life there…

I’m a nonequity partner in a large office of a global firm. I moved to the firm when I was a 5th year associate, made partner in my 9th year following law school, and have been a partner for three years. Last week I was having dinner with some of my law school classmates who are partners in other firms, and they couldn’t believe how satisfied I am with my life. They told me stories that highlighted how unhappy they are in their professional lives, but I couldn’t identify with them. Here’s a bit of what I told them happens at my firm:

  • My firm has a rolling five-year strategic plan that is shared with all equity and non-equity partners. In the 3rd quarter, I start working on my individual business and personal development plans which will parallel the firm’s plan. I share my plans with my practice group leader in the 4th quarter, and we discuss any revisions that need to be made.

  • My practice group leader and the department’s manager follow up with me periodically to make sure I’m executing on my business and personal development plans and making progress on the goals I’ve set for myself.

  • I serve on the firm’s lateral partner recruiting committee and enjoy helping to shape the direction of the firm through our strategic hiring. We focus on making sure new laterals are a cultural and business fit, that he or she is willing to contribute to the firm’s overall success by helping others. We also have an effective lateral partner integration program to ensure the new partner will make friends throughout the firm.

  • Last year, in preparation for new leadership roles I would be taking on in the firm, I attended a leadership training program for newer partners. I learned more about my leadership style and set stretch goals to continue my leadership learning.

  • My firm’s compensation system is open, and I feel that credit is allocated fairly. Because I don’t have to worry so much about getting my fair share, I can focus on servicing my clients.

  • Our legal recruiting and HR teams have really improved hiring, development and retention processes. I have a small group of smart and enthusiastic associates who I enjoy training and developing. Our non-legal staff, including paralegals, assistants, records managers and floor messengers, are professionals and help contribute to client service and the bottom line.

  • I was worried that my firm would expect me to be exceptional in all our partner competencies. In reality my practice group leader realizes that I’m a very good lawyer and a terrific business developer. She often pairs me up with another partner who is a terrific lawyer but is less confident at business development. We have become a great team when it comes to client satisfaction with our work and getting new work from those clients, not to mention referrals to potential clients.

  • Every week or so my practice group leader or office managing partner will stop by and make note of some new work that I brought in or an article that I published. I’m surprised, but gratified, that they take the time to keep up with what I’m doing.

  • Even more gratifying, one of the executive committee members who I worked with a few years ago remembers my children’s names and regularly asks me how they’re doing. He reminds me of times he chose family obligations over work and exhorts me to follow his example.

  • I have good friends at the firm and frequently socialize with them and their families.

As I said, my friends didn’t believe I could be so satisfied with my work until they heard about my firm.

From fantasy to reality… Of course the fantasy firm, being able to execute perfectly on all areas of engagement, could implement everything it needed in order to create a top-performing workplace. In our workaday reality, firms can look for the “low hanging fruit” to figure out where small changes could result in engagement gains. For instance, a practice group leader or office managing partner can set aside a regular time to reach out to partners to discuss their recent achievements. Or a firm could create an individual business and professional development plan template that ties in with the firm’s strategic plan, for partners to use when they are preparing for the next fiscal year.

But don’t stop with the easy steps. According to Gallup, “[m]any large-scale studies started in the late 1990's have demonstrated that business units with more engaged employees have better odds of achieving the outcomes their organizations desire such as revenue, profit, customer engagement, safety, quality work, and employee retention.” With higher employee and partner engagement, you will see higher productivity and profitability, increased client loyalty and reduced turnover, moving your own firm closer to our dream version.