A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

The challenges keep rising for overburdened partners

In Articles, Commentary on 13 May 2022 at 7:18 pm

The full unedited text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 12 May 2022.

The partner role in law firms has always been a ‘stretch’ job – complex, demanding and business-critical. It’s also extremely well paid and prized by many. Most equity partners in Australia’s top 25 firms will earn over $1 million in 2022.

Looking ahead the partner role is only going to get tougher.

It started with Covid

The step-change in the role of partner can be traced to the start of the pandemic. 

A decade’s worth of pre-Covid records analysed by Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor showed that associates had around 10 more billable hours per month on average than partners in the same firm. However, in April and May 2020, this long-term trend reversed and partners recorded more billable hours than associates. 

The reasons cited for this shift were that clients demanded more direct access to partners to address their most pressing issues and remote working made delegation more clunky.

Two years on and the data suggests both partner and associate billable hours have gone up. Partners are still recording more hours than their associates, although the gap has narrowed.

What’s clear is that the supply side of the legal market is really stretched and a lot of the burden is falling on partners’ shoulders.

Rising expectations

Looking ahead we see client demand remaining strong. While there’s uncertainty as a result of the war in Ukraine, inflation and supply chain issues, the predominant mood is still bullish. 

At the coalface this means most partners will have to do more with the resources they have, at least in the short-term. As one partner recently commented, “when that urgent client matter arrives on my desk after a busy week, I find it really hard to ask my exhausted associates to work on it. What typically happens is that I take it home and do it all myself.”

A high demand market has put pressure on salaries and people are transitioning more frequently. One inevitability of high staff turnover is that partners spend more of their scarce time in recruitment interviews, onboarding and in ‘stay’ conversations. 

One of the solutions to address high turnover is for partners to develop deeper relationships with their team members.  They are expected to engage with team members more meaningfully regardless of where and how they work.

Leading a flexible team also brings new operational challenges. One partner I’m aware of spends around an additional 30 minutes a week configuring workload, arranging desk space, meetings and collaboration events. 

Team of the future

Over the next decade partners will not only need to become better people people but also better tech people. In the first half of 2021 over $US1.4 billion was invested by venture capital firms in legal technology. Most of this investment is in new tools to assist lawyers in doing their work and to provide better client service and value. 

Partners will have to be digitally literate to stay competitive. This means being aware of latest software most relevant to their practice, and when and how to deploy it most effectively.

Allied to the advances in technology is the growth in diversity of legal teams in terms of age, identity and ethnicity. One partner I spoke with recently commented on the challenges of leading a team of five generations: “The Boomers, Gen Xs, Ys and Zs in my team have each have their own expectations and idiosyncrasies. Tailoring the messaging and engagement approach can be exhausting and I often get it wrong.”

Create the capacity

The most obvious strategies for firms to deal with increased role complexity is to provide their partners with better support, coaching and training. 

I think this response will only get firms part of the way. 

A more profound examination of the role, and in particular the financial expectations of partners as producers, will create the capacity for them to be [1] healthier, and [2] better leaders and managers. 

The partner role is a stretch job, but stretch it too far and it might break.

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