Law Firm Layoffs Continue — Quietly — to the Detriment of Service Partners

At a recent presentation to students at a local law school, I emphasized that law firms are still downsizing, in order to deal with continuing underutilization.  The layoffs are not as spectacular as they were in the past few years, and therefore rarely make headlines like this recent one anymore.  But they continue nonetheless.

I was making this point in order to emphasize the perils of becoming a service partner.  In “olden days” this was often called a “worker bee” partner.  In the Finders, Minders, Grinders scenario, this would be a Minder as a partner, or perhaps Grinder as a partner or associate.  In short, if you are not familiar with these terms, we are referring to an attorney whose career involves servicing clients of some other partner(s).

How does one become a service partner?  Early in one’s career, one is convinced by one or more partners with heavy books of business, that they do not have to do any rainmaking on their own in order to do well, and even to become a partner; just service the partner(s) clients and that will be sufficient.

Many a capable attorney has been drawn by the siren’s call of no marketing necessity, and the ability to do nothing but practice law to their greatest capacity.  Many have made the ranks of partner, although for the majority who worked at firms with non-equity partners, that is the level of partner they achieved.  Still, even without a share of profits, and perhaps no say in management, having the title and a nice compensation package was more than adequate when coupled with the ability to ignore rainmaking responsibilities.

Here’s the problem.  It’s a lie.  Maybe a good-intentioned lie, but a self-serving lie nonetheless.  Because when a lawyer depends on someone else to fill his or her plate with work, in all likelihood that lawyer will eventually have an empty plate, and no justification for continued employment.  In some small percentage of such cases, the service partner may eventually “inherit” the desirable clients when the rainmaking attorney dies or retires.  But that assumes that the rainmaking attorney makes it a point to actively work on succession such that the relationships that matter are passed on to the service partner.  In my experience, that’s not going to happen often.  So eventually, at the point in one’s career when the attorney expects to start working less hard, he or she becomes a liability due to a lack of work, and has to start all over again somewhere else, or as a solo with no business and lots of experience.

Some firms have called me in to deliver the bad news, because no one within the firm had the ability to look the 70+ year old attorney in the face and tell him/her that the firm could no longer economically justify their existence at the firm.  The feelings of betrayal are incalculable.  The attorney feels that the “deal” with the firm required them to continue to fill his/her plate.  Why aren’t other partners, younger partners, feeding them work to make up for the partner who retired or died?  Simple:  they are going to push the work downward, so as to maximize their profit, as well as their control.  They are not comfortable pushing the work up.  They can not critique performance comfortably, and many times, the older partner doesn’t treat their clients with the same significance as clients from the more senior partner(s) who used to feed them work.

Law firms today can’t afford to elevate attorneys to true equity partnership positions unless they are also rainmakers.  So don’t be drawn by the siren’s call of alleviation of rainmaking necessity, to rocky waters where your ship will eventually crash and sink.  Stay the course.  Even if it means asserting your rights to keep some time to work on your own meager clients, as you build your book of business.  Your very existence will some day depend on it.

1 Comment

  • By Lidia, April 23, 2013 @ 6:32 am

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