In my coaching work over the last 10 years, I’m coming across more and more partners who seem somewhat burned out!
For some it might be a case of them having worked on the same kind of deals repeatedly – drafting similar documents, negotiating the same old warranty and indemnity clauses etc. For others it might be the continuous pressure of delivering the chargeable hour numbers.
But what’s particularly worrying is that some of these partners are in their 40’s! They’ve got another 20 years or so before retirement.
This issue of what to do with the older workforce exists more widely. The changes in demographics are worth considering because they are startling. For example:
- Globally, the number of people over 65 year old is set to double within the next 25 years
- In rich countries, the number of people aged over 65 will roughly be half the number of people aged between 25 – 64 by 2035 (In Japan and Germany the percentage will be nearer 70%)
- Better educated and higher paid workers are working longer – in the US, 65% of post graduates are working beyond retirement age (compared to 32% of non-graduates).
It seems to me that what’s lacking is a career path for partners that creates continued stimulation for them as well as space for the bright, ambitious associates to come through.
Early phase career options
Upon being appointed as a partner, the focus should probably be on building a sustainable practice. There could be a focus on building up a particular type of work or expanding a work flow from a different geographical location. In many firms, the admission to the partnership is already substantially based on a business plan that the partner has for ‘growing the cake’ in some way.
It is worth bearing in mind that partners seem to find it difficult to be respected in their firms if they haven’t built a practice at some stage in their careers.
Middle phase career options
I suggest that there are two broad career options for partners in most firms – management or technical.
The management route offers the following options:
- Client relationship roles – managing the team and client relationship
- Sector responsibility – creating a cross-firm focus on an industry sector (eg retail, financial services etc)
- Taking responsibility for recruitment, marketing, managing WIP for your practice area
- Practice group head – having accountability for delivering bottom-line results for a team
- Central management – contributing to managing the firm as a whole.
The technical career route should be equally respected and encouraged. Firms, particularly those at the premium, added-value end of the market, need to have a reputation for being insightful and at the leading edge. There is a need for:
- Thought leadership papers to be researched and drafted
- Bulletins on important cases or on the implications of new legislation
- Networks to be built with leading practitioners in ancillary fields (tax, accounting, banking, government, academia etc)
- Conferences to be chaired
Later phase career options
This is where firms seem to be a bit stuck. For example, many partners who’ve committed to management roles find it hard to go back to fee earning.
So I have what I think is a good idea to avoid all that wisdom being wasted– post-plateaued partners who have lost some of their drive and energy for fee earning could become ELDERS of the firm!
In many communities elders are defined as ‘repositories of cultural and philosophical knowledge and are the transmitters of such information’.
Could law firms benefit from older partners adopting an equivalent role? They could:
- Contribute to making ethical decisions about important issues, including conflicts
- Be on panels for recruiting lateral hires
- Carry out mentoring roles for younger partners
- Be ambassadors of the firm in the wider community
- Assist in 360 degree feedback reviews with partners
- Assist in any discussions about remuneration or bonuses
- Provide a teaching role, sharing their wisdom
Why waste all that insight and wisdom? Surely there’s a role for an elder or two in your firm?
For further insights into career paths for lawyers see https://tonyreiss.com/2013/05/14/career-progression-for-lawyers-transitions-and-reinventions/
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