Partner meetings should be better. As I discussed in last week’s column, Biglaw firms tend to hold glorified lunches, sprinkled with some generic info-passing, instead of real informative meetings for partners.
It does not have to be that way — even if your Biglaw firm ascribes to a “partners are just our highest-paid employees” ethic. And especially if your firm is serious about involving partners in the firm’s business as much as possible in these days of behemoth Biglaw firms.
What kinds of improvements to partner meetings would I advocate implementing?
How about having three partners a month (one new, one medium, one old) give a three-minute description of their practice, background, family, and hobbies? With far-flung offices, and practice group structures that often result in the different practices operating as mini-law firms in their own right, it is not uncommon for Biglaw partners to know relatively little about fellow partners in their own office, to say nothing of the tax partners or two who alternate their time between Seattle and Tokyo, setting up tax havens for the Japanese Emperor and his family. I am willing to make the three-minute investment to know who I can email in the firm for Tokyo bar recommendations. And to amuse myself by looking for a way to name-drop the Japanese Emperor as a firm client in a totally inappropriate context. Maybe during an otherwise nonsensical meet-and-confer on a discovery issue. Generally, the more partners know about the scope of the firm’s client base, the better. For serious reasons too.
I think the introductions are a good idea. I can already see the exercise turning into a bit of a roast, as some real estate partner from Boston talks about his sailing hobby, and one of his colleagues interjects a retort about the time the speaker crashed his sailboat in to the dock (with a client onboard) after a few too many mojitos celebrating a big closing. Forcing lawyers to speak publicly, in a way where they will be motivated to express some personality other than being a pain-in-the-ass, is always worthwhile. It also enhances firm cohesion, so that firm partners visiting the Boston office have something to joke about when they run into our erstwhile Captain in the pantry. All this good stuff in just three minutes per partner.
But I would not stop there. I would also force our “volunteer presenters” to answer questions from the partnership for an additional two minutes each. Rapid fire-style. No responses of more than ten seconds. Call it the “Justify Your Existence” round. Some possible examples:
(1) What are your average billables per year and why?
(2) Who is your biggest client and how did you land their work?
(3) What have you done in the last two weeks to attract new business to the firm?
(4) Do your associates like you or hate you?
(5) How much would it take to get you to sell a client’s confidential information to a competitor?
The last question aside, I like the idea of partners “answering” to colleagues in a direct way. I would not mind sitting through the exercise myself. And I really believe that everyone would gain from the experience in some fashion. For all the lip service that Biglaw firms give to the importance of cross-selling, it always has amazed me how little is actually done to advance that particular cause. I think the fifteen-minute investment of otherwise useless time, so that partners could learn a little more about each other (and interact), could do a lot to increase everyone’s comfort level with each other. Additional comfort could lead to additional cross-selling. Anything is better than hearing about some golf event the firm sponsored.
Marketing should be more involved in partner meetings as well. Why not take ten minutes to talk about (1) an unsuccessful pitch, and (2) one that worked? Biglaw firms are constantly fighting for market share, so partners need every edge. We pay the marketing people plenty of money, but generally we don’t get as much information out of them as we should. Today’s Biglaw partners need to know as much as possible about their firms’ existing and perspective client base, and how the opportunities to grow the pie develop and are dealt with by the firm. Most well-run firm practice groups do a variation of this routine at the practice-group meetings. Time to roll it out on the big stage.
Another way to improve the quality of partner meetings is to have the managing partner, or a trusty lieutenant, talk about two firm initiatives of strategic importance, for the short-, medium-, and long-term periods. Short-term agenda items could the executive committee’s take on the partnership candidates this year. Or how best to shrink the associate bonus pool. Medium-term items? That would be the time to talk about planning for the next partner’s retreat to an airport-hub, gambling, and high-class escort service kind of town. Long-term issues could include talking about office expansion plans, with an eye towards capturing the lucrative international white-collar defense market in Sinaloa.
Most importantly, the financial update during partner meetings should be tweaked. Less on the absolute numbers and dry performance metrics. More analysis of trends, risks, and opportunities. I want to know when we have an office in a city where the rents for Class AAA space have doubled. Likewise, it would be informative to learn how the firm’s investments in certain practice areas are panning out. Or where we have real need for laterals to service a growing amount of work. Again, we pay good money to the financial people. Let’s hear some actual analysis and forecasting from them. I don’t need a tutor to read last month’s balance sheet. Thanks anyway.
Finally, for the most radical proposal. Every partner meeting should include some input from a firm client. Pick a city, pick a big or small client. But we need to hear from clients. Live. In person. About their business. About the quality of our work for them. About why they chose us, instead of Biglaw firm number two, or boutique number three, or their ex-husband’s Uncle Hugo. About what we can do to get more of their business and help them succeed. We need to hear this. Every month.
Recap time. Fifteen minutes for “Meet Your Partners.” Ten minutes for Marketing. Ten for the managing partner. Ten for the improved financial update. And fifteen for “Meet Your Clients”. An hour well spent. Stop by reception for some Tums as you head back to the office. No one told you to eat three chicken avocado cheddar cheese wraps.
N.B. Everyone needs to vote next week. Too often we take our rights for granted, or only care about our right to make money. A vote today helps preserve the rights of our descendants to vote generations from now. My pick: Romney. Biglaw-related reason why? Simple. Recently, the New York Times ran an article from James B. Stewart, a journalist who used to work at Cravath. I loved the line in the article about how in a universe of equals (sparklingly credentialed Biglaw associates), it was the people who loved practicing law who ultimately made partner. In my opinion, Romney wants the job of president and will give it a real go. My sense is that Obama likes being president, but not the actual work — kind of like being president of the Harvard Law Review but never publishing. Romney/Ryan for me.
What do you think of these ideas about partner meetings? Any others to share? Please let me know, either by email or in the comments below…
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.