Career management plans: a good step forward, but…

Career management plans: a good step forward, but…

Focus groups of more than 900 law firm associates, conducted by Walker Clark members worldwide, have consistently identified the availability of career planning as one of the most important factors that cause good associates to stay at their firm. Associates typically express this in terms such as:

I want to know what I need to do in order to become a partner in this firm someday.

I want to understand clearly what the firm expects of me in terms of performance.

On a parallel intellectual track, many law firm partners have never considered in depth the professional knowledge and business skills that every partner in the firm should display, nor how those requirements translate into observable and, in some cases, measurable behaviors. This is why, for some law firms, election of a new partner is more an act of faith, supported by hope and guesswork, rather than a well-informed business decision.

Many law firms have purchased "off-the-shelf" or slightly-tailored from "career management systems" from human resources consultants.  A few of the packages are reasonably good in terms of providing a basic structure by which to manage associate performance and development.  Most of them, however, appear to me to demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of the practice of law in a law firm.

As one law firm partner told me, "It was like the HR consultant just crossed out the word bank from his last project and wrote in law firm."

Or as another one once remarked to me, "I don't think the company that sold us our associate career plan ever even talked to one of our associates, much less any of the partners."

These criticisms might have been exaggerated a little, but they point out the risks and disappointing results of purchasing an off-the-shelf HR package and calling it a career management program.

Nonetheless, any effort to provide structure, policies, and processes to career management in a law firm is a good step forward. However, even the best career management plan cannot implement itself. Even in detailed and well-documented career management systems, there is always a risk that weaknesses can sneak into the system.  These are usually the result of a half-hearted implementation by the firm or of diminishing partner attention and participation over time.

This is why so many law firms have very elegant-looking career management manuals gathering dust on managing partners' bookshelves.

As you consider how you manage the careers of your firm's associates, remain alert to these frequent flaws.  They can creep into even the best-managed law firms:

  • Performance standards and evaluation criteria that focus on "knowledge" and "attitudes," rather than observable professional and business behaviors
  • Promotion criteria that are not linked to specific, defined achievement of skills and demonstrated business and professional performance
  • "Competencies" that have not been tested to ensure that they skills that associates need to master in order to become productive partners
  • A lack of ongoing coaching and feedback between the formal performance evaluations
  • Performance evaluations that exist only on paper and fail to include any meaningful discussion of the associate's performance
  • Inconsistent or non-existent mentoring, regardless of the existence of a formal "mentoring program"
  • Weak business skills development in areas such as marketing, sales, negotiations, law firm economics, and coaching and feedback of junior lawyers and staff

A weakness in any of these areas can dramatically affect associate retention and readinesses (on the part of those who remain) to assume the responsibilities of partnership in a modern law firm.

To read more about career management plans, visit the Walker Clark Worldview Blog.