Partner performance all boils down to 3 KPIs

By Jacqueline Burns|27 November 2017

Of Australia’s 50,000 private practice lawyers, around 8,000 are employed as below partner-level fee earners by firms that have two or more partners or principals (Urbis 2016 National Profile of Solicitors Report), writes Jacqueline Burns.

Despite the “subdued economy and intensely competitive market”, major firm partners in Sydney and Melbourne generally earn upwards of $1 million (source AFR). What’s expected of them in return?

Most law firms have performance management frameworks in place to measure and monitor the performance of their legal, shared services and administrative staff.

These systems and processes can make or break careers and will direct, if not dictate, decisions relating to advancement, involvement, remuneration and reward.


But what about the performance of the partners? However major or minor the firm, at minimum, partners are generally expected to contribute in three ways:

1. Feed their team

2. Meet their own financial targets

3. Grow the business

It is noted that in small firms partners may also have a fourth responsibility, namely to manage some aspect of the business.


1. Feed their team

In a law firm, each partner is typically responsible for a team of lawyers. This gearing model provides cost benefits for clients, allows work to be delegated to the appropriate (ideally lowest) competency level, aids professional development and succession planning, and liberates partners to meet their other obligations.

In Australia’s largest commercial law firms, there is a ratio of 3:2 lawyers to every partner.

A fundamental responsibility of being a partner is to feed their team – to keep the lawyers who are within their span of control busy and engaged. If a lawyer does not achieve their budget or is not engaged, the first question to ask is what amount and quality of work is being delegated by their supervising partner?

On this metric, let’s look at some of the attributes that separate leading partners from lagging partners.

Leading partners:

- Take responsibility for their team’s utilisation and engagement.

- Prioritise team performance over their own individual performance.

- Involve and instruct their lawyers while at the same time appropriately supervising their actions and performance.

- Are responsive to requests for more or more challenging work.

- Seek out and are responsive to internal or external secondment opportunities.

- Nurture and encourage performance and progression.

Lagging partners:

- Do not take responsibility for their team’s utilisation and engagement.

- Rather than delegate, hog files so they can personally benefit from the billings.

- Ignore or refuse lawyer requests for more work or more challenging work.

- Deny their lawyers internal or external secondments.

- Are more likely to retrench lawyers because of their failure to feed their team.

2. Meet their own financial targets

It’s impossible for anyone to perform 100 per cent of the time. Every practice, every practitioner, will go through down periods – times when internal or external or even personal conditions negatively impact performance. But what if mediocrity becomes the norm?

Few employed solicitors will get away with sustained underperformance. Partners shouldn’t either.

A fundamental expectation of partners is that they will meet the financial targets that have been set for them. It’s called leading by example.

Let’s examine some of the attributes that separate leading partners from lagging ones.

Leading partners:

- Consistently meet their financial targets.

- Are accountable.

- Expect underperformance to be addressed.

- Understand underperformance cannot be sustained.

- Make financial performance an agenda item at partner and team meetings.

- Are open and transparent about financial targets and their team’s individual and collective performance.

- Develop their team’s practice management and financial acumen.

- Make consistent and data-driven decisions.

Lagging partners:

- Commonly don’t meet their financial targets.

- Are not accountable.

- Allow, tolerate, perpetuate sustained underperformance.

- Discourage or block financial performance from being discussed at partner and team meetings.

- Withhold reports and information that will assist their team’s understanding of practice management and financial matters.

- Do not make consistent or data-driven decisions.

3. Grow the business

Finally, it is the responsibility of the partners to grow the business. That does not mean others in the firm do not also play a role, but the responsibility rests with the partners.

Grow the business means the partners will work individually and collectively to win new clients, expand existing clients, develop new services, and improve their service delivery.

How can you tell if your partners are performing against this metric?

Leading partners:

- Actively seek out opportunities to introduce their clients to other individuals and practice areas.

- Actively seek out opportunities to cross-sell their services to existing clients.

- Always invite a colleague or team member to accompany them to meetings.

- Know who is the relationship partner for each of the firm’s key clients.

- Respect the role of the relationship partner and adhere to the firm’s key account management protocols.

- Actively participate in professional and industry bodies.

- Maintain a high level of understanding about their clients’ industries and businesses.

- Actively support the firm’s marketing and business development team and efforts.

- Understand how they can add value to the clients – and do so.

- Understand their client’s pain points.

- Keep abreast of technological advancements and opportunities to scale, automate, digitise, streamline, achieve process improvements.

Lagging partners:

- Are reluctant to introduce their clients to others in the firm.

- Do not seek out opportunities to cross-sell their services to existing clients.

- Seldom invite others to accompany them to meetings.

- Bypass the firm’s relationship partners and disregard established key account protocols.

- Don’t share their contacts or even allow their details to be housed in the firm’s CRM system.

- Are not active participant’s in their industry.

- Make little effort to understand their clients’ industries or businesses.

- Find excuses not to add value to their clients.

- Do little to support the firm’s marketing and business development team.

- Show little, if any, interest in best practice, industry advancements, technology developments or any way to improve client service or service delivery.

How are the partners at your firm performing against these criteria? Are they leaders or laggards?

Leave your comments below.

Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns is a B2B marketing steward and strategist who specialises in services, solutions and intangible products. Her agency, Market Expertise, provides the full suite of marketing services to businesses in the professional services, financial services, technology and adjacent sectors. Jaci is an established columnist and freelance contributor, who writes about marketing, technology and management issues.

Partner performance all boils down to 3 KPIs
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