Coaching Partner Candidates: 7 Questions to Ask
By Breandan Filbert
January 18, 2024 | 5-minute read
Business of Law Attorney Talent Recruitment, Compensation, Professional Development and Retention Content Type Podcast Content Level: Essential
Advancing to partner takes more than just legal skill — lawyers must demonstrate they will be long-term assets to the firm’s financial, reputational and operational success.
Many savvy partner candidates will call upon their legal marketing colleagues to help them achieve this next level. While the specific partnership criteria and process varies from firm to firm, there are seven key areas that should be incorporated into a candidate’s written plan or interview preparation.
Within this context, it is the role of a legal marketer to help lawyers reimagine their roles — to see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem than their practice or industry area, and to see themselves not just as timekeepers but emergent firm leaders. This doesn’t require dramatic shifts; in the book “Atomic Habits,” author James Clear discusses the power of 1% improvement each day. With this approach, lawyers can make a few small shifts yielding large results.
As the adviser, start early; if your firm runs on the common calendar year and will be interviewing and making decisions in Q3, you will want to meet with candidates in January or February. (Partnership committees are not naïve; they can see when a lawyer has thrown together a plan at the last minute, or worse, when they are all talk and no action.)
Start by making an initial plan that addresses these seven areas, then check in each month. Ask a lot of open-ended questions — How would you approach this? What would work for you here? — then help the lawyers modify their approach and own the strategy. Set dates and times to check in on progress. Celebrate the wins, however small they can be, and encourage the lawyers to focus on consistent, steady progress. A small, well-executed action plan beats a lofty plan that never comes to fruition.
Keep in mind you are supporting habits that will shape a career by helping individuals make a few adjustments in a couple of areas, then adding a couple more the following month.
What follows are seven questions lawyers looking to advance into a partner role should be prepared to answer and the thought process and firm knowledge behind each question that legal marketers should be equipped to speak to while coaching these lawyers.
1. How will you optimize your billable hours and revenue over the next one to three years?
What current matters does the lawyer anticipate generating revenue in the near future? What can the firm “count on” from this lawyer before additional business development (BD)?
Think also about how this lawyer’s role will change, from associate to partner. What work might be best reassigned to a lower-level timekeeper? What new projects might the lawyer be poised to take on?
Does the lawyer have any ideas for new approaches or new alternative fee structures for the current workload that could benefit the clients and the firm?
2. How will you generate new clients?
What are the lawyer’s plans to develop (or add to) their book of business? Get specific: What are the companies, who are the contacts, why are they solid leads? What resources (e.g., travel, additional lawyer support) might the lawyer need to court these clients? What kind of fees might this work command?
3. How will you expand current client relationships?
For current engagements, how can this lawyer help to get more similar work or cross-sell? Think across practice areas, industry groups and firm offices. This is where in-house marketers can be very helpful in brainstorming potential collaboration; you often have far more visibility into potential collaborators in different locations or teams than the lawyers.
Note: Keep a “no surprises” policy. If the partnership candidate is not the relationship attorney, encourage them to take any of their ideas to that individual first, rather than leaving that person to hear about client expansion ideas from the partnership committee.
4. How will you build your personal brand?
People do business with people, not necessarily firms. Catalog the lawyer’s activity to date building visibility through social media, public speaking, writing for the firm or external publications, serving on boards and more.
Be prepared to also work with the lawyer on how to evolve their personal brand if they become partner. Outline a plan for attending events, building referral partnerships and engaging with the community. You may also need to assist the lawyer in identifying speaking opportunities, conferences or trade shows, as well as a plan to ensure these opportunities deliver returns on investment (ROI).
Be pragmatic about what is realistic given the lawyer’s workload (and the billable hours and BD promises you made earlier). Include a budget for any necessary memberships or travel.
5. How will you serve as a good firm citizen?
Partners are owners, and owners are invested in the firm’s growth and success. How will the lawyer help with firm operations, governance or culture?
Has the lawyer served on any firm committees or internal working groups? Have they contributed to any recent firm projects? Assist them in outlining this history and share ideas for future firm service.
6. How will you create or support external partnerships for the firm?
While they may differ depending on the practice, key referral relationships — banks, insurance companies, accounting firms and others — can be very lucrative for the firm; these relationships extend the firm’s reach and generate referrals.
What contacts does the lawyer have that may lead to new referral opportunities? Help them brainstorm ways to build and foster these connections.
7. How will you support firm expansion?
Beyond cash receipts, how will the lawyer help the firm grow? Do they have potential lateral candidates or professional staff who align with the firm’s values and goals to refer? If the firm has expanded into new cities or regions, how can the lawyer help these new offices onboard and thrive?
Most of these strategies are not difficult, but they are time-consuming. Given the extensive demands on an associate’s time, marketing professionals can be instrumental in helping them develop and formalize their ideas, prioritize, and focus their energy.
Not only is it fulfilling to provide this kind of coaching and support to junior lawyers, but it can also deliver long-term benefits to legal marketers who show their value, intelligence and results to future leaders of the firm. By asking the right questions and showing a knowledge of the firm’s business context, you can position yourself as an effective adviser for more big-picture concerns later
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