Taking the Lead: Getting Your Partners to Take Action

In Taking the Lead, Law Practice Editorial Board members Ed Flitton and Karen MacKay tackle the ins and outs of running a law firm, providing expert guidance that every managing partner can use.

Over the past few months, I have been in a number of law firms where the partners say all the right things in a meeting—and then they go right back to their offices and not only fall back into old habits, but worse, freeze into inaction. So what is a managing partner or group leader to do?

Many years ago a fellow named Art Linkletter had a television show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” I remember one episode where he asked the children why they ignored their mothers’ requests or, alternatively, what would make them comply—as in, what triggered them to actually go to the dinner table, brush their teeth or get their pajamas on. Without hesitation one child said, “I wait ’til I hear the feet.” “What do you mean?” Linkletter asked. “Well, I don’t really listen to all the talking,” the child said, “but when I hear her feet [read, she’s heading in my direction] I know she means business, so I do what I’m told.”

Karen MacKay

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

The lesson here, of course, is that talk is cheap and too often brings little results. Action, on the other hand, conveys that you are serious—and that inaction on the other person’s part will likely have consequences.

Now, let’s apply this to how you, as a firm leader, can get your partners moving in the desired direction. Here is a top-10 list of ideas to use when you want them to respect “the sound of your feet.”

  1. Don’t hide behind e-mail. The benefit of e-mail is that all partners get the same information, presumably at the same time. The risk is that the real message of your words will be lost without the emotional context of in-person contact. Remember that you have to engage their hearts as well as their minds if you want real change.

  2. Engage your partners one at a time. Yes, this kind of one-on-one interaction is time-consuming—but whenever you can connect your message to partners individually and personally, it represents an opportunity to effect change.

  3. Get your firm’s administrator involved. To further inspire action, you might try taking the good cop role to your administrator’s bad cop role. To keep everyone on their toes, reverse roles the next month, when the administrator can listen with empathy and you can play the heavy.

  4. Be consistent. If, for example, you require that all equity partners bill out quarterly in order to get a draw check, you need to ensure there are no exceptions to the policy. Period. Consistency is critical.

  5. Get their staff involved. Lawyers typically are more afraid of their own assistants than they are of anyone in a leadership role. So if you can make something that will please staff contingent on partners delivering action, odds are good you’ll get some solid “behind the scenes” support from their people.

  6. Communicate a clear vision of the future. Create clarity around what the firm would be like with a change in partner behavior, and what impact the change would have on all the individuals involved.

  7. Respond to partner inquiries with confidence. When, for example, your partners ask you why the firm is not doing “that”—meaning something that’s happening in another firm—respond that it’s because “we are doing this” and be confident and consistent in your responses. This is hard work, but it is key to achieving the direction you’ve set.

  8. Hold them accountable. When you’ve had a one-on-one meeting with a partner, follow up with an e-mail confirming the commitments the individual made in your meeting. Keep your commitment to follow up further with this partner, too.

  9. Keep smiling. It will make them crazy.

  10. Finally, for your self-preservation, limit your time availability. Your partners can suck you dry, particularly if you are in a firm where you have a full or partial practice to attend to in addition to your management role. Set your available time slots and let your partners know that when you are working for your clients you are off limits.

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 edition of Law Practice magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Copyright © Phoenix Legal