How Law Firms Select The Wrong People To Become Partners

Many law firms could do a much better job of selecting partners.  Law firms routinely create a process for evaluating partners, but too often that process is critically flawed.  Here are five recurring problems I have observed over the years in my role as a consultant to law firms:

  • Failing to set clear criteria in advance of what is required to make partner.
  • Relying on too narrow a set of selection criteria.  Most commonly this involves equating being a very good or exceptional lawyer with being a good business partner.  Being a partner involves much more than the ability to write briefs, negotiate contracts, or demonstrate other lawyerly skills.
  • Failing to give enough weight to a potential partner’s business development accomplishments, managerial ability, or issues related to temperament.
  • Giving too much weight to the fact that a lawyer has a big book of business and ignoring evidence that the potential partner is seriously lacking in other ways.
  • Relying too heavily on credentials or social indicators as opposed to demonstrated ability and results.  One common example is when firms give a lot of weight to the law school from which someone graduates rather than looking at what they have actually accomplished.

Law firms don’t make unfortunate partnership decisions by accident.  Too often the bad decisions are a function of a flawed selection process.  Below is a list of some of these procedural shortcomings:

  • Failing to collect and share relevant information.  Law firms tend to spend a lot of time reviewing the writing samples of internal partnership candidates as well as their past performance reviews.  But how often do they talk to staff members, more junior lawyers, and clients about their interactions with the people they are considering making partner?  Not often enough.
  • Failing to create a culture that encourages many lawyers and staff members to weigh in on the potential partner’s candidacy.  At many firms, the decision to make partner is dominated by the firm’s “heavy hitters.”  That is why young lawyers are encouraged to fund a mentor or “rabbi” who can advocate on their behalf when the partnership meets to make partnership decisions.  The reliance on a limited number of influential partners can become problematic when it causes others to withhold information or not share their views because they feel it would be futile or even damaging to their careers to do so.
  • Being oblivious to confirmation bias.  Too many law firm partners adopt favorites.  Critical decision makers at the firm see these folks as stars and the firm stops looking for evidence that this conclusion was wrong or premature.  This is especially problematic when the favored candidate looks like or has a similar background to the people making the partnership decisions.
  • Falling victim to recency bias.  Law firms give too much weight to a strong recent result such as landing a big client at the expense of examining someone’s pattern of conduct and results over time.
  • Failing to examine or give adequate weight to issues outside the office that relate to a person’s long-term stability and availability.  It’s no secret that lawyers suffer from an unusually high incidence of depression and substance abuse.  There are important legal limitations on employers’ ability to collect or even inquire about such issues.  And the last thing we need is law firms that stigmatize employees or make it more difficult for employees to get the assistance they need.  Some firms have, however, gone too far in the other direction.  For example, they make someone partner without ever taking that person and their significant partner out to dinner.

Many factors go into deciding whether to make someone a partner.  Predicting human behavior and future performance is an inherently speculative exercise.  If a firm makes enough partnership decisions, it will come to regret at least some of them.  But law firms can and need to do much better at avoiding systematic biases and flaws in the process of selecting partners.  Examining their selection process and past partnership decisions in light of the factors listed above would be a good first step.

How about you? What factors have you observed that have led to law firms making bad partnership decisions?