Admit it. All of you who have worked in law firms have met one.
The partner you want to avoid in the lift. Perhaps she’s the one with the really (really) bad temper. The table thumper. Maybe he’s the one who makes trainees cry. Is it the one who seems to have avoided any sort of diversity training at all?
Lots of law firms have at least one of these stereotypes. Hell, maybe you’re one yourself!
What I’m investigating today is bad partner behaviour. I don’t think the behaviour really needs much in the way of explanation beyond that in the paragraph above – let’s just define it as behaviour which is inconsistent with the firm’s values and which most people would view as unacceptable.
But this isn’t unique. This behaviour happens in corporate life too, and the public sector, so why focus on law firm partners?
I believe there are a number of factors that make this type of behaviour harder to stamp out in law firms than in other organisations, and that’s what I’d like to explore.
Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, cultural change can be particularly hard in law firms, and many of the reasons why organisational change is difficult apply equally to changing individual behaviour. However, when it comes to large scale change, it maybe that to effect change firms dedicate resources and engage particular external expertise if they don’t have it in-house – This type of focus is unlikely to be applied to changing the sorts of behaviour we are looking at here.
But perhaps linking this type of behaviour with culture change is too abstract. Maybe it’s just a simple people management issue? Call in the HR team?
Alas, this is often not as straight forward as it is in a corporate environment. Firstly, the partnership structure of the majority of law firms means that the problem partner is likely to be an owner of the business, and as a result have a certain amount of weight (actual and perceived) that comes with ownership. By contrast it’s unlikely at the moment that the HR Director will have equal status, although this may change in the years to come.
In practical terms this can mean firstly that junior lawyers and support staff might be less likely to report the unacceptable behaviour. Secondly, it may mean that the HR team are not as empowered as their peers in corporate environments. One structural observation I’ve made in larger firms is that often the HR Director is a relatively senior professional, brought in to advise on strategic issues (such as talent management), but that they are supported by a relatively junior team on the operational side of matters. Thus the HR personnel at the “sharp end” of behaviour complaints can often be outgunned by the partner in question.
So if the HR department has challenges, how about peer group management? Surely the partnership as a whole will quickly identify and deal with the problem behaviour?
Maybe, maybe not.
It certainly depends on the firm (which circles back to the earlier link to the firm’s culture), but in my experience this is something that partners find very difficult. Perhaps again the partnership structure and the idea of relative equality among the equity partners plays a part, but I suspect more likely it’s that a large proportion simply prefer to avoid the conflict and hassle associated with peer-group people management, and critically that they haven’t been given the skills and tools needed to do the job effectively.
Given that exiting a partner does typically remain more complex than removing an employee (particularly if the law firm want to avoid any subsequent legal action and bad publicity), the last factor should not be underestimated. Law firm partners, even in the biggest firms, have often received a limited amount of management training, particularly when you consider that managing professionals is known to be among the most challenging categories of people management (good reads here are “When Professionals Have to Lead” by Delong Gabarro and Lees, and “Aligning the Stars” by Tierny and Lorsch).
The lack of training and reluctance to head into what might be a difficult conflict (another great read is “Difficult Conversations” by Patton, Stone and Heane) can be compounded by the fact that resolution may not be swift, and often partners get little credit for this type of non-chargeable activity, no matter how valuable it is to the long term health of the firm.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s not overlook the elephant in the room. Economics. In reality, the reason the unacceptable behaviour has carried on for so long is often that the perpetrator is a rainmaker. Huge billings = lots of power. While this may seem cynical, it might be that the firm management are aware of the behaviour, and are prepared to tolerate it to realise the revenue stream from the partner in question. In other firms it may be less overt, and the problem simply manifests through the fact that the high billing partner just has a lot of power.
Plenty of reasons not to deal with the issue, but I think we all know that’s not the answer. Aside from all the direct consequences of this behaviour (potential claims, loss of productivity, morale damage etc), it maybe that the junior assistant who walks out of the door, is the managing partner of the future.