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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

July 20, 2016

I’m a new partner in a small law firm where a few partners are unproductive with low hours. No one is held accountable and it’s driving me nuts. Is it reasonable to insist on agreed expectations?

Julie Q. Brush

Like it or not, partnerships are a lot like marriages. They require the same level of aligned values, communication, trust, respect, consideration and appreciation in order for them to work. And like marriages, nobody in the union is perfect. So challenges inevitably arise. Sometimes these challenges are small-a bump in the road, small potatoes, penny ante. Other times they can be material and undermine the integrity of a partnership.

Complaints of unproductive members who are not pulling their weight are significant issues that should be discussed and resolved within your partnership. The very existence of your firm depends on it. If the elephant in the room is not acknowledged and addressed, negative feelings will fester and manifest themselves in a variety of destructive ways. And it will only be a matter of time before the firm fractures. So “agreed expectations” is not only reasonable…it’s an absolute must.

With this said, you are a newly minted partner-without much time logged in as a member of the club. So raising such hot button topics so soon into your tenure may be met with anger and offense. Deflecting attention away from the relevant issues as well as the solutions needed for your current situation. So I recommend that you first take some time to assess the true dynamic of the firm and your partners. It doesn’t have to be years, but enough time for you to understand what’s going on from your new vantage point.

In addition, these are sensitive topics-chock full of emotions for the people involved. Especially for those partners who are experiencing difficulty measuring up to their earlier rainmaking selves. Undoubtedly they feel some frustration, fear, anxiety…perhaps a little embarrassment. They may also feel a sense of entitlement…Payback for carrying the load in their younger days. So when you’re ready to lead the charge, be mindful of these dynamics and approach the conversation with sensitivity-in a respectful, logical and non threatening way.

So, what do you say for an opener when facing a potential nuclear reaction? Below are a few examples:

“I wanted for us to meet to talk about how the changes in the legal profession are affecting small law firms like ours. And how we-as partners-can work together to ensure we adapt, stay competitive and remain happy in the firm. Since we are a small group, most everything that happens to us has an impact. So as we head into the New Year/new quarter etc., I thought it would be productive to discuss some important topics in order to gain mutual understanding and agreement.”

“I am new to the partnership and I want to make a positive contribution to the firm. So it would be great to know what the partners think works and what could be improved in the firm as we try to stay competitive in the market. There seems to be two issues that have a big impact on the health of the firm: billable hours and partner productivity. I’d like to discuss both in greater detail and create agreed expectations.”

“I wanted to raise a couple of topics that I know will be sensitive, but I think it’s important to have an open, honest and respectful conversation about them if we are to make this firm a success and be happy members. The topics are partner productivity goals and billable hours. Generally speaking, the inability of partners to work together to address these issues has been an underlying factor in the demise of many firms. So I think it would be beneficial for us to discuss and have a common understanding as the firm moves forward.”

Billable hours and partner productivity are lightning rod issues for small firms. And corralling mutual agreement is not going to be easy – as people’s egos, self worth and livelihoods are at stake. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had in order to maximize the health of the firm and give everyone their best shot at happily ever after.

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