Of course, this assumes that associates receive written annual performance evaluations that are well conceived and productive for both reviewer and reviewee. Unfortunately, all too often, there is no organized program of performance evaluation that allows regular review of the professional growth and development of firm associates.
For example, a firm may decide that an associate must have completed not less that seven years of acceptable legal experience and at least two years time spent with the firm before initial consideration as a potential partner. During the latter part of the 1980's, the so called partnership track moved from a 4-6 year consideration window to as much as 7-9 years in major firms around the country. Managing partners found that the historical expectation of new associates of "we only hire potential partners" was simply unrealistic and could not be met profitably. The whole concept of leveraging associates to make more profit available to partners was under serious reexamination.
A management error which compounded these unrealistic expectations was to imply to associates that the transition from lowly associate status to that of exalted partnership was somehow guaranteed through a kind of lock step mentality. In other words, associates would perceive that election to partnership was solely dependent upon the ability to survive for the requisite number of years. Then, the "holy grail" of partnership would automatically be within their grasp. Unfortunately, this was never a complete truth which resulted in disappointment and disillusionment for many young lawyers.
Some firms reacted in all too typical "crisis oriented" short-term management style by laying off large numbers of associates, who after all are the most expensive portion of the operating overhead. Many others were more creative and invented tiered levels of associates and partners. The extension of the time track previously mentioned went into effect with a vengeance. These efforts were all thinly disguised methods of deferring partnership without confronting the major issue of overhauling the entire partnership selection process.
Unfortunately, promises made became promises broken in the area of partnership selection. Associates at many firms arrived at the threshold of the "inner sanctum" only to be told that the rules had been changed for partnership selection. With this formidable and frightening development, it is no wonder that associates questioned the loyalty of the partners to the staff as well as to each other. Lateral movement between firms by senior associates and partners occurred at unprecedented levels never before seen in the legal profession.
As the months pass, it is becoming more and more obvious that the years of almost uncontrolled expansion in the legal profession are indeed a thing of the past and probably will not be repeated again at least within the foreseeable future. Difficult and sometimes painful management decisions must be made and effectively implemented to foster renewal of profitable growth or even for the survival of the firm, in all too many instances.
One such decision will directly affect the process of partnership selection as more and more firms abandon the traditional approach described in previous paragraphs. It is no longer acceptable to use tenure as the primary criterion for evaluating potential partners. Greater flexibility and more subjective analysis will become the tools of effective managers as new means for identifying the critical criteria for selecting new partners.
The legal profession is filled with tradition and unchanging habits as well as generally being cursed with incompetent managers and firm leaders. When economic times were almost out of control on the upside, it did not take a management genius to guide the organization and let "nature take it's course". However, well managed firms now have a unique opportunity to break out of the traditional mold and create some new concepts that are based upon proven management principles. The entire partnership selection process now can and should be evaluated and reviewed. Here are some perceived advantages to the concept of using merit- based criteria:
Good managers have always known that promotion and financial reward should be determined on the basis of individual merit and not with undue consideration of simple tenure. Simply existing in a job assignment or even progressing in measured steps is not in itself sufficient reason for substantial rewards.
Creative and forward thinking law firm managers now have an opportunity to introduce a system of rewards for consistently superior performance as a welcome change to lock-step progression. Associates who demonstrate partnership characteristics can be identified, nurtured and individually groomed for early election to the partnership ranks. This new incentive will provide tremendous positive motivation for those associates that want to be measured and evaluated on their individual merits. Use of merit oriented criteria will also enable the creative manager to quickly identify the associate who lacks desire and motivation, so that management can assist that person to change or be terminated early in their career.
It is not necessary to move an entire class at the same progression rate or to distribute similar year-end bonuses. Individuality can and should be recognized at all levels within the firm. Associate attorneys are the primary asset of any law firm, and the effective management of that asset is one of the highest priorities for all firm managers.
Clearly identified criteria for partnership selection must be a prerequisite to a merit-based evaluation system. Management must be able to answer the inevitable questions that will arise when one or more associates is selected for a more rapid move toward partner- ship. This will be particularly "sticky" the first time that a young associate (based upon tenure) is selected for partnership ahead of a more senior associate (based also upon tenure). Honest and clear communication with all associates will promote effective understanding and concurrence by associates with this new policy.
The potential "stars" will soon distance themselves from their contemporaries. Management can then deal individually with associates who have demonstrated by their unacceptable performance that they are not potential partners.
This process is based almost entirely upon the "carrot" principle of motivation rather than the more heavy-handed "big stick" approach. Every associate has the same opportunity to respond to the incentive of merit based performance evaluations rather than be pushed, pulled or brow-beaten toward improved performance.
If there is one key to guarantee a successful and positive transition, it is the willingness of the partners to be open and candid regarding the reasons for the changeover to a new process. Lawyers are bright people by definition, and they are responsive to positive motivation. One way to virtually assure discontent and turmoil among the associate ranks is for the partners to be less than honest and straightforward about a change in the partnership selection process.
Many firms are now staffed with associates who do not have the vaguest notion about the details of how partners are selected in their firm. They speculate among themselves, generate rumors and ideas without foundation and generally follow the script of "the blind leading the blind". Positive resolution of this and many other similar issues is exceedingly simple - regular, clear, concise and candid communication between partners and associates.
After the firm has decided to move forward with a merit-based system, the following steps must be taken:
To attract consistently superior talent, the system of performance evaluation must be based on individual merit. The various permutations of performance evaluations systems that are present in most firms generally reward tenure and not merit. Therefore, a fundamental change is virtually inevitable, if the firm truly wants to generate superior quality within the partner ranks.
This article does not contain any listing of proposed selection criteria which is intentional. The firm itself must create it's own criteria and methodology for measurement, both objectively and subjectively. The process for accomplishing this task is outlined in previous paragraphs.
The decade of the '90s contains many new challenges for firm managers. One of the best ways to prepare to meet those opportunities is to guarantee that a cadre of superior partners are being generated through a merit based selection process.