Partner Interview Questions to Sort the Wheat from the Chaff

Here is a list of penetrating questions to assess whether an existing senior associate should be made a partner.

On Transition

  1. What does being a partner at this firm mean to you? Why?
  2. What do you see as your principal challenges in your first year as a partner?

On Generating Fees

  1. How will you generate a minimum of [X] in fees in your first year?
  2. How much of the [X] will be taken from existing partners and how much is extra?
  3. What value of instructions came to you directly last year and this year?
  4. Have you generated fees from clients that were not existing firm clients? If so, how much and how did you do this?
  5. What could be done to improve the profitability of your workstream? Probe use of technology?

On Business Development

  1. How would you describe your practice? How is it changing?
  2. How do you keep abreast of market developments?
  3. What clients are you focusing on and why?
  4. What business development have you done?
  5. What are the key selling messages for your practice area? How are we different to competitors?
  6. Tell us about a difficult client situation and how you addressed it?

On Team Development

  1. What are our challenges in motivating associates? What HR policies would you change to improve morale or motivation?
  2. What contributions have you made to any HR initiatives (eg recruitment)?

Tips for Senior Associates Being Interviewed

  1. Rehearse your answers – a lot!
  2. Before you go into the room, take some deep breaths, be tall (ie lift your head a bit) and envisage yourself in a positive environment (a visioning technique used by sports professionals).
  3. Walk in positively and confidently. Smile, but not inanely. Sit forward with hands on the table.
  4. Give yourself a few seconds to think before answering. That’s allowed!
  5. Try to structure your answers using ‘there are 3 aspects…’, ‘there are pros and cons…’, or tell a story starting with what the situation was, what you did and ending with what impact your action had. Use ‘I’ not ‘we’.
  6. Be honest!
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The Two Workshop Process for Developing a Strategy

Mention that you are devising a new strategy and your staff will probably be full of dread. And cynicism! After all, the last one didn’t amount to much!

Here’s my Two Workshop Process to devise a practice group strategy and plan that will be effective and that partners and staff will be committed to.

Pre-Workshop 1

For a large department (say more than 30-50 lawyers), appoint a small project group comprising some partners and associates to lead the process and a small steering group (comprising other influential partners) to act as the internal client.

At the outset consider why you need a strategy. Here’s how to address the cynicism and ‘sell’ the project:

  1. Review what work the firm has lost because it wasn’t ‘top tier’?
  2. Analyse client feedback (comments such as ‘We gave the work to a rival because it was bet-your-ranch work’)
  3. Review any macroeconomic trends to see what will affect your area of work

There are two persuasive arguments: either, look at this description of nirvana if you change (ie move up a tier), or look how bad it might get if you stay as you are!

Also, start thinking what your compelling vision might be. People will be more attracted to a strategy if the ship is sailing to Rio than some other places I could mention!

Another initial approach would be to conduct a confidential survey amongst partners and staff to ascertain concerns and aspirations.

Workshop 1

The first part of the discussion should be on data and diagnosis, such as:

  1. Where are the opportunities and threats?

You could analyse in further detail the market by looking at the sectors you are interested in to assess the market sizes (H/M/L) and likely rates of growth and profitability of this work.

You might also carry out an analysis of profitability by sector and work type before the first strategy workshop.

  1. An honest appraisal of your capability.

What are you good at? Be honest! What, if added to your capability, would make your service offering even more compelling? 

  1. Competitor activity?

Is there anything you can learn from other firms? What are competitors doing to improve their offering? Are there new potential competitors or business models to consider that might radically change the market for your services?

If you do spend time on this, of course, you should probably choose not to do what competitors are doing and deliberately do the opposite. Focus on your unique strengths! 

Output from Workshop 1

The second part of your first strategy workshop should focus on answering the question ‘so what?’. You need to provide an overall strategic focus for all associated practice groups (a sort of departmental glue!). Specific outputs should be:

  1. High level strategic goals – these could be in terms of reputation, growth (revenue and profit), geography, sectors, type of work, service offerings etc
  1. High level strategic options – what are the general approaches you need to do more of, less of or differently to achieve these goals and the opportunities in the market. Being all things to all people doesn’t work very well as a sustainable strategy.

Options are likely to include developing more distinctive service offerings and remaining flexible so the team can take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

The Project Group then presents the output to the Steering Group members. Have they missed anything? Ultimately the output should be shared widely with colleagues to get initial buy-in. What about involving some friendly clients as well?

Workshop 2

The second workshop develops the details of the strategy (ie put ‘flesh on the bones’) and addresses any feedback given.

Start the second workshop with this question: ‘In what ways is it important for us to be better than our competitors, whilst building on our strengths?’

Answers can be collected on post-its and clustered to see the themes. Project team members vote of their preferred responses. Then brainstorm creative approaches for putting these projects into action.

The following topics should probably be on the shortlist for larger firms:

  • How to be more innovative,
  • How to build closer client relationships,
  • How to get more international referrals,
  • How to stay ahead of the curve on technology etc

Champions would be sought to develop ideas. Tell them to select someone outside the project group to partner with. Champions to be given two weeks to provide more detailed and costed plans. Ideally the plans should include how to get quick wins.

Post-Workshop 2

Individual partners and senior associates should draft their personal business plans which need to be aligned with the overall plan. Progress against these objectives should be monitored and reviewed as part of the appraisal process.

If this process looks too onerous, you have two choices:

  • Do nothing and let your competitors get ahead with an effective business strategy
  • Appoint a good facilitator to guide you through it…I know a few!




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How to Walk in Your Client’s Shoes

Client’s shoes?

We all know we should try to put ourselves in our client’s shoes. But it can be hard to do that when there’s so much going on in our own shoes.

So here are some thoughts about what clients might be feeling:

  • I’m taking a personal risk in my selection of advisers
  • I like to be in control and my advisers might take that away from me
  • Will I be made to feel inadequate?
  • Will these advisers help make me look good?
  • This firm talk a good game, but will they really deliver – loads of other firms didn’t!

Here are suggestions for approaches to adopt to increase the chances of winning work from clients:

  • Show that you’re bothered to find out about this prospective client and their sector. Visit their site. Read up about their competitors and the issues in their market.
  • Don’t just think about the needs of the client as an organisation. Think about your client as a person. What are their KPIs? How can you help them deliver?
  • Spend more time asking about them and less time talking about your firm.
  • Demonstrate that you’ll be helping your client achieve greater mastery in their role.
  • Avoid just making assertions about how clever or experienced you are. Everybody else is doing that. Instead provide Tell stories about how you’ve found ways around challenging situations.

I heard a story about a lawyer who kept a pair of moccasins under his desk and every time he tried to be more client-centric he put them on! Whatever helps! But what could you do to be more focused on clients?


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Selling is About Asking the Right Questions – Try BICS

The average professional adviser talks too much in selling situations. The art to winning work is to build credibility, rapport and trust in client relationships. And the best way to do that is primarily through asking questions and demonstrating that you are listening and tuning in to what the client is saying. Easy to say. Harder to do.

So, here are some tips on the art of asking the right kind of questions. I use the acronym BICS to explain the sequence:

B – ‘Background’ questions

I –  Questions to uncover ‘Issues’

C – Questions to review the issues and build ‘Concerns’ in the mind of the client

S – Questions to draw up an action plan to provide appropriate ‘Solutions’

We are not advocating going through this whole process in one go either! A pushy style should be avoided because it will undermine the trust you are trying to build in the relationship.

Examples of Background questions

In some situations, it will be possible for you to prepare before meeting the contact, perhaps by reading recent press articles and reviewing internal databases, such as who knows whom. This allows you to channel the conversation towards particular areas (eg the German acquisition referred to below). Preparation should be possible if the meeting is planned, perhaps with the contact attending an in-house seminar. But even if you just bump into somebody at a reception, start with comfortable background questions, such as:

  • How is business?
  • How is the German acquisition going?
  • How long have you worked here?
  • What is your role?

Notice that some of the questions are about the business and some of them are about the person. Clients typically buy from advisers when they feel there is a personal connection (ie rapport). It can help if you open up a bit about yourself, such as where you live. But, because everybody is different, you need to find a way of connecting that suits the client.

I walked into a partner’s office once and saw lots of photographs of mountains on the wall. I don’t know much about mountains, but I’m a keen amateur photographer, so we talked about the pictures and started to build a good personal connection.

The discussion should not be an interrogation. Avoid the sequence question-answer-question-answer etc. Instead, try question-answer-comment, question-answer-comment, etc.

Also, you will accelerate the process if you ask good probing questions based on what the client has just said.

  • Can you say more about that?
  • In what way?

Examples of Issues questions 

Assuming you have successfully built credibility, rapport and trust during this opening phase, you will find the conversation moves on. Sometimes the client will escalate the conversation and disclose particular challenges they are facing. This might happen in your first discussion, though it usually happens subsequently.

Questions that can draw out the challenges facing the client, include:

  • What are you working on at the moment?
  • What priorities do you have over the next year or so?
  • Are there any particular challenges you’re facing?

Notice how these questions are deeper than the ‘background’ questions and require a closer relationship for the client to be comfortable answering them.

Examples of Concerns questions 

Empirical studies show that buyers don’t necessarily buy anything to address their challenges. They need good reasons to make a purchase, particularly if this involves giving work to a new firm! The most effective advisers do not offer solutions too soon. If they do, the client will probably give you a polite ‘no’. What often happens is they cancel the next meeting. This is a sign that they weren’t convinced that there was value to them in giving up time to talk about the issue further.

The most effective approach is to help the client appreciate the benefits of addressing the issue, as well as the risks or implications of them not addressing it!

Questions designed to achieve this include:

  • If you could avoid these disputes, what effect would that have?
  • What would be the impact of resolving this? On the business, on you or your department?
  • What’s the worst that has happened?
  • What could happen if this is not addressed?

A partner skilled in this technique managed to sell his services to a contact who said early on in the meeting that he used a magic circle firm and he was very happy with the service from them. The prospect of work did not look promising. However, through some skilled questioning the partner raised the awareness of the risks in not having a second string firm ‘in the wings’, in case their usual firm was conflicted out. He won some work on the basis that the client could now be assured that there would always be a firm which could help!

The other result from carrying out this phase of the selling conversation effectively is that the adviser has helped the client see the value to them of addressing their concerns. They can perceive the benefit of addressing the issue and can see the value of mitigating the risks. They now know that they are not going to pay a bargain basement fee.

Examples of Solutions questions

This phase is relatively straightforward. Questions need to be designed to move towards a solution involving you helping the client, such as:

  • Would you like to talk about ways of addressing this issue?
  • What exactly would you like to achieve?
  • Who else might need to be consulted to move forward on this?
  • Would you like to know how we could help?

Quite often the client gives you what are called ‘buying signals’ when they raise the practical aspects of moving forward.

Kipling had some wise words on this subject of questions:

“I kept six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew.  Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who”

Then there’s the old Chinese proverb:

“He who asks a question risks being seen as foolish for 5 seconds, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever!”

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Beware Making Assumptions About Others

Or, why you never want to share a table with a stranger, by Douglas Adams

I had the great pleasure of meeting Douglas back in the 1980’s in his flat in Islington, London. He tells the story like this…

“I had gone to catch a train. I was a bit early and went to get a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary looking guy in a business suit and with a briefcase. He didn’t look as if he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across the table, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, picked up a cookie and ate it!

Now this is the sort of thing that the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing or education that teaches us to be able to deal with someone who in broad daylight has stolen your biscuits.

You know what would happen if this was South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly have been gunfire, helicopters and CNN reporters. But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do some of the crossword, couldn’t do anything and thought: What am I going to do?

In the end I thought Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it. I tried very hard not to notice that the packet was already mysteriously open. I took a cookie out for myself. That’ll teach him, I thought. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time it was even harder to raise the subject now. ‘Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice…’ It just doesn’t work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we had finished them he stood up and walked away. We exchanged meaningful looks. But I breathed a sigh of relief and I sat back

A moment or two later the train came in and I tossed back the rest of my coffee and picked up my newspaper, and underneath my newspaper were my cookies.

The thing I particularly like about this story is that for the last 25 years or so there has been a perfectly normal guy wandering around with the same story – but he doesn’t know the punchline.’

If you enjoy stories such as this one, you might also like the rowing story which takes a lighthearted view about the role of HR functions and management consultants (such as myself)… at


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The Times They Are A Changing and Firms Need Better Strategies to Cope

Markets are being disrupted by new technology and this is creating a new VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Some commentators believe we are just at the start of the fourth industrial revolution.

So, firms need strategies to help them navigate through this complexity, so they can focus on winning approaches.

But many firms don’t have proper strategies. They produce visions and goals that are frankly just wish lists or pie-in-the-sky:

  • Setting targets of 10% growth isn’t a strategy.
  • Looking for a merger isn’t a strategy.
  • Opening new offices isn’t a strategy.

Instead, firms need to analyse what the fundamental challenges are that need to be addressed. They need to focus on an approach with a set of consistent actions to address the challenges.

Only then can you be assured that you’ll have a sustainable and potentially winning strategy.

For more on how to use my Two Workshop Process for devising a winning strategy see


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Derogation and Duplication in Delegation – What Clients Need to Know!

Many firms still haven’t cracked the challenges of delegating work properly. Here is a summary of the issues:

  1. Frankly most of us know that it often feels easier to do the work ourselves than to have to explain it to somebody else, who probably won’t get it right.
  2. It’s not only easier, but it feels quicker to do the work ourselves – even if it means adding more tasks to our to-do list.
  3. Many firms actually incentivise senior people to do the work themselves. They do this by offering bonuses to those who do the most work, regardless of whether it would have been better (ie cheaper) for clients if the work was done by a more junior competent person.
  4. By not delegating, it means we avoid the challenge of supervising somebody else and we can avoid having to give them potentially awkward feedback.
  5. The avoidance of delegation of course means that the junior employees don’t get stretched as much as they could be. This means in turn that they might well be less motivated and be attracted elsewhere which leads to the costs of having to recruit and train new staff. Again, there are negative consequences for clients.

Even if the work is delegated, there are potential issues. Here is what I’m told happens in many law firms, for example:

  1. The senior person tends to delegate ‘on the hoof’ rather than in a planned, well thought-through way. This can mean that important information can be missed out, such as the fact that the client appreciates a call on a Friday afternoon to reassure them about progress.
  2. The person receiving the work tends not to ask the senior person any questions. For a start the senior person seems busy (so might be irritated, if delayed from getting on with pressing matters). Also there is the risk that the junior person might ask what might be interpreted as an unintelligent question. They can think to themselves ‘I better not ask this – they might think I should know?’.
  3. The implications are often that the junior hands in something which isn’t quite right. The senior is disappointed, has to work late and hesitates to use the junior again. Not a great outcome!

So, what’s the answer to having more work delegated? Here are some ideas:

  1. Measuring and rewarding delegation can make a big improvement.
  2. Carrying out anonymous 360-degree feedback on senior staff and specifically asking about delegation, supervision and feedback performance.
  3. Encouraging juniors to ask for more work and more stretching work.

And what’s the answer to better, more rigorous delegation?

  1. Juniors having the courage to ask more questions during a delegation meeting – tactful asserting may be required!
  2. Seniors asking (in a non-patronising way) for summaries of what they have delegated (eg “Just to check if I’ve missed anything out, could you please repeat back what we’ve talked about…”).
  3. Juniors saying at the end of a delegation “Can I just check I’ve got this right, you’ve asked me to do this…”

There is a client role in this as well. When selecting firms, enquire about their delegation practices. For example, do they use checklists? Sometimes you will want the most experienced person on the case, but many times you won’t!

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