Are some of your lawyers a bit bored? Might this cause some under-performance issues?

This chimpanzee was enjoying a snooze this sun...

Nothing much to do – have a nap!

If they are bored, let’s start by exploring what might be causing the boredom?

One of the subjects that one of my partners Sally Woodward and I are really interested in is motivation – in particular, what motivates and demotivates lawyers. We’ve asked hundreds of lawyers ‘what motivates you?’ and have used a diagnostic tool to help us develop a quantitative response.

And what are the answers? Well, whereas it’s important to recognise that we’re all unique, most professional lawyers are motivated by the challenge inherent in the work itself – in other words, by having opportunities to solve difficult problems and see the result of their efforts. Aspects such as High Pay, Congeniality, and Status can be important for some but are less important as motivators for what you might call ‘the average partner’.

Assuming these results are right, I believe that many partners are bored and demotivated because of the lack of variety in their work. They experience too many similar matters requiring similar documents to be drafted and similar issues to be negotiated. Where’s the challenge and reward in that?

Another related issue causing the problem is the lack of career planning in most partnerships. You get made a partner and that’s about it. I come across many partners in their 40’s who have reached the top of the lock-step and begin to wonder ‘is this all there is?’

You might be made head of a practice group or something similar, but many aren’t attracted to this role. It’s seen as more admin work and a source of hassle typically having to deal with intransigent fellow partners. No thank you!

Neuroscientists are also gathering increasing evidence that suggests we are stimulated by the act of learning. It’s interesting to reflect on what opportunities firms provide their lawyers to continue learning and developing new talents once they are made partners.

What might be making matters worse is the current difficult economic market. To avoid taking risks, firms may be discouraging partners from experimenting in their approach to solving client issues. And experimenting can be fun for many people.

What makes this issue more important is that bored partners tend to have lower performance figures. Firms might be getting better at managing out poor performers, but surely there’s a better way, perhaps by avoiding the problem in the first place?

Where’s the passion? How to find the passion?

I’ve coached more than 100 partners over the last few years and this issue comes up a lot. As an aside, when I was asked the other day what I did for a living, I found myself saying ‘I help partners find their passion’. It got a strange reaction, understandably, but fortunately I was able to go on and explain.

To help partners find their passion, not surprisingly for a coach, I use a series of prompt questions.

To capture their technical strengths, I ask them to go through their matters over the last 3-5 years and ask ‘what is the basis of your expertise?’ An interesting follow-up question is ‘is there anything that, if we added it to your expertise, would make you a real ‘wow’ in the marketplace?’ For some, for example, this might be leading a particular type of cross-border transaction.

Then we look at their skills. I ask ‘what are good at and where are your development needs?’ For one commercial litigator who didn’t have any particular focus in his practice we discovered that he was good at IT and was a bit of a whizz at putting order into reams of paperwork. We turned this into a substantial element in their role in the firm as well as outside the firm in various working parties.

I also look at their network. Who do they have good relationships with inside the firm and outside? Notice the reference to ‘inside the firm’. For many partners, particularly specialists such as tax lawyers, litigators etc, it may well be more important to have good internal relationships to develop their practice. It’s your fellow partners that will feed you lots of work if you go about building relationships with them in the right way.

Finally I ask that vital question ‘what gives you joy?’ If we can’t find that in a partner’s career, it’s unlikely that the career will be easy to sustain.

So what can firms do about the boredom?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Talk about ‘motivation’ at partner reviews. Your senior partners should be thinking about ways in which other partners can be stretched, challenged and motivated.
  2. Firms should consider introducing a career path for partners. Alternative roles, which partners could be offered include:
    • Client Relationship Partner – with the objective of ensuring key clients know they are loved and introducing more services to them as required
    • Leading a project to develop a new methodology (eg to find cheaper ways of working)
    • Becoming an ambassador in the market place, perhaps chairing a trade association
    • Client secondments – yes, even at partner level
    • Office secondments – the bigger firms send partners out to China, Dubai etc for short periods
    • Building academic links for the firm – so your firm is seen as ahead of the pack.
    • Producing technical bulletins – to ensure your firm has a top reputation in your marketplace.
    • Pro bono or charitable work – a way of giving meaning to legal work and giving to society
    • Firms could consider introducing more training, personal development and coaching for partners
    • Firms could encourage creative thinking and experimentation – particularly if this might lead to finding better and more efficient ways of delivering client service.

One eminent consulting firm has created the role of ‘elder’ for partners towards the end of their careers. Their prime job is to ensure the firm deepens its sense of identity and holds on to its culture and values. What a great and rewarding job that could be, for the right partner of course!

And what about giving partners time off to enjoy a hobby? Motivation studies confirm that jobs can’t give us all that we need. One of my fellow singers in The Bach Choir is an eminent Judge. It takes some juggling of diary commitments, but it’s do-able and the singing helps beat the stress!

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