Today's business conditions continue to have a major impact on solo and small law firm financial performance. Yet there remains a far greater and more significant problem for any small firm's future health: preparation of the firm's young lawyer (or lawyers) to assume future responsibility. It can be seen by contrasting the small law firm to the small medical practice:
In the medical office, the young doctor works in a medical internship, learning the trade and then takes over the practice as the older doctor retires. The arrangement generally does not depend on compensation: the young doctor looks to the future, likes and respects the older doctor and is eager to learn as much as possible. The older doctor, on the other hand, is happy to have a younger person to mentor and build patient relationships.
In a small law firm, a young associate works for a few years, and feels entitled to become a partner. While a good lawyer, this person has yet to develop rainmaking skills and still has no personal client following, or book of business. The result is a classic "Catch-22" - the associate should not become a partner without having clients, but is precluded from opportunities to do so by virtue of associate status.
The small law firm scenario is unique for its combination of business and professional issues. In most instances, young associates want to be considered for partnership. But having never developed clients for the business book of the firm, the associate has no real idea of what "ownership" as a partner means. Often, associates believe that their time and effort, working at partner direction, are substantially responsible for creating value in the firm and that they should be given credit for that. Everyone in a small firm creates value in this way, including staff. Yet, one would never hear a staff person ask for a partnership interest.
Associates who don't know how to develop books of business likely do not understand, or even care about, the financial workings of their firm. And when this is the case, young lawyers do not really understand that being an owner means that you are the last person to receive financial benefit from the firm ... that you are personally responsible for the debts and liabilities ... that you lay awake at night thinking how to improve the firm's efficiency and growth.
For their own professional futures, and the futures of their firms, associates in a small firm setting should wean themselves away from relying on a partner for work and instead build the ability to develop business. Given that associates typically have little or no exposure to this, the only way they will acquire it is by building up confidence through opportunities and appropriate mentoring that a more senior lawyer provides. The more a partner helps an associate undertake fundamental business development, apart from the work assigned to them, the more valuable a resource the associates will become.
The most effective tool to do that is education that improves their skills; then, involve them in the financial and organizational life of the firm so that they understand and appreciate their role and can accept more responsibility.
Young lawyers who understand how to grow a career through developing client relationships can provide more value to the firm, perform better for their clients and their firm, and better assess what they bring to the firm. They are prepared to become owners of the firm, and the firm is better prepared for the future.
Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a recognized expert in law practice management. He partners with attorneys and law firms to increase profitability, coaching them on issues of internal operations, practice development, & financial matters. Ed enables lawyers to be more effective with their clients with less stress for both the lawyer and the client. He practiced law for 25 years, has coached lawyers for 20 years, and is the author of 13 leading books. His latest book, Growing Your Law Practice Through Tough Times, was released in April 2010. Ed is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, State Bar of California (LPMT Section).
Ed is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, a board-certified Coach to the Legal Profession and a charter member of the Million Dollar Consulting® Hall of Fame. He can be reached at (800) 837-5880, www.lawbiz.com, www.lawbizblog.com and www.lawbizforum.com.