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Firms falter as partners enforce closed door policy

Firms falter as partners enforce closed door policy

IT MAY look like a partnership, feel like a partnership, but many law firms work more like a network of sole traders under one roof, a commentator from the UK told a law firm management…

IT MAY look like a partnership, feel like a partnership, but many law firms work more like a network of sole traders under one roof, a commentator from the UK told a law firm management conference.

In this environment, firms are losing lawyers who think they don’t receive sufficient access to partners, are not being nurtured, and are not getting enough access to interesting work.

As partners work under extreme pressure, they often put on a “mask” to protect themselves against criticism, and to shield their reputations, Paul O’Byrne, a consultant from the VeraSage Institute, which promotes “value pricing” in professional firms, told the Australian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) conference on the Gold Coast. He argued that many partners and senior lawyers work hard to speak only in “business talk”, and maintain a facade that breeds dishonesty and ineffective communication.

“Even though they call them partnerships, they are more an organisation of bodies, where there is no connection,” he told Lawyers Weekly.

The ramifications are dire, including a break down of law firm culture and, importantly, a wave of departing lawyers, who are not receiving adequate mentoring and training, O’Byrne said.

“A real problem is staff turnover. When people leave they say it’s about money, but if you get someone really skilled to do the exit interview, it often turns out they are leaving because they feel there is no reason to be there. They think they are not being nurtured,” he said.

While it is well know that Generation X and Y are demanding more interesting work, more training and mentoring, and more contact with clients than generations before them, some firms only understand this on an intellectual level, said O’Byrne. He attributes much of the problem to what he terms a metaphorical “mask that changes the way people communicate” and fully understand each others’ needs.

“I think firms realise this on an intellectual level, but they don’t understand it. Partners say ‘I do give them work to do’. But if you don’t know someone’s ambitions, you don’t give work to them in a way that actually fits with their own skills and ambitions, and their own lack of skills,” he said.

“There are always one or two people in a firm who engage with everyone, but it is too few in the legal profession.”

According to consultant Sue-Ella Prodonovich, principal of PTB Consulting, it is not all about partners being unwilling or incapable of giving junior lawyers interesting work. Many firms have senior lawyers, just under the partner rank, who are holding work, she said.

“In more streamlined firm structures, partners have to pass work down. But as firms don’t make new partners, that layer is starting to absorb new work, and stop the work going to more junior levels,” she said.

“As firms create positions such as senior counsel, and other non-partner positions, all very senior, this further encourages this pooling of work at the senior level.”

On the matter of junior lawyers complaining they don’t get access to partners, O’Byrne argued that partners are often unwilling to have them close enough. Again, he attributes this to self preservation, and an unwillingness to put themselves at risk of receiving criticism.

“In firms you don’t get access to partners. Partners will not take junior lawyers out to meet their clients. The senior people have a massive fear of making mistakes, looking stupid, and as a result they don’t tend to take junior staff out in case they make a fool of themselves,” he said.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth HR manager Alexis Navie defends partners, however, claiming that they are under a lot of pressure in their work, and this cannot just be attributed to their being unwilling to take risks. She argued that if coaching and mentoring is not in their skill set, a lot of partners will not automatically spend time with junior staff.

Navie agreed that it is beneficial to put junior staff in the same offices as partners where possible, noting that some partners will be “absolutely outstanding” at encouraging it. “I’ve seen young lawyers sitting in partners’ offices, listening to them converse with clients over the phone. They say ‘wasn’t it great the way he or she did this or that’, they are learning a lot this way,” she said.

According to Navie, many clients encourage the firm to showcase their junior people. “Clients say ‘show us who you’re working with, we want to know who they are’. I have seen feedback that would say ‘we’d like to see the people you are delegating this work to’.”

Navie agreed there is a strong correlation between partners who spend time mentoring and coaching their staff, and retention. However, she warned, “you have to look at the flipside, where partners are under an enormous amount of pressure. First priority has to be to the clients.”

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