'You won't make partner here' - Why it's crucial to have that difficult talk

Wansell Andrew

Bob is a great associate. He has a terrific work ethic. He really knows his stuff. Clients like to see him on the team. But he is not going to make partner. We have known it for a couple of years now. He is great doing the work, but he struggles when it comes to finding new clients or getting existing clients to send us work that was not already coming our way.

Two years have passed and we haven’t told Bob that his career with us has stalled.

Why do we find it so difficult to be honest with people we work closely with and care about? Partners rarely seek to deliberately mislead their associates about their prospects. The contrary is the case. Partners care a great deal about colleagues they have worked alongside, often for years. It is these shared experiences that are in the forefront of their mind as the topic of Bob’s future comes up, usually during the promotion round.

(Bad) reasons not to have that difficult conversation

There are lots of bad reasons not have that difficult conversation:

• “Bob plays a key role in a number of client relationships.” 

He probably does, but clients understand that not everyone can make partner and that from time to time people they are used to dealing with will leave. They will be disappointed, but their disappointment is tempered when the new team member turns out to be something of a star.

• “Bob may not have everything we expect from a partner, but you know, it will be OK to promote him.”

This argument can often carry the day if Bob is the latest in a line of Bobs that have found their way into the partnership. Some will just about wash their face as a partner, others will be in that group that consistently disappoints. They never really stop being the associate.

“Saying what needs to be said and offering a positive way forward is the best outcome”

• “I know Bob is not really partner material – how about we make him a legal director/of counsel/senior associate?” 

The of counsel role is important and valuable, and making it available to all who come up short in the race to partnership devalues it. It also crowds the firm with lawyers who are technically able but increasingly expensive and needy for work. And it makes it hard to find the work and money to invest in new talent.

 “This is all rather difficult – let’s see how Bob gets on this year.” 

I think we know how this year is going to work out, pretty much the same as the past couple of years. All we have done is kick the can well and truly down the road.

(Good) reasons to have that difficult conversation

It does not need to be like this.

It starts with clarity around what is expected of a partner at your firm. Do your associates understand what it means to make partner? Do they have an awareness of where their career is heading and where they sit in their peer group?

This awareness is shaped by regular feedback and an appraisal system that is a lot more than “that thing that HR makes us do every six months”.

With clear expectations and objectives it is much easier for all associates to benchmark themselves. It gives confidence to those who are on track to partnership, those who are targeting an of counsel role and, importantly, those who recognise partnership may be out of reach.

It may still end in a difficult conversation, but one where what needs to be said is said in a clear and unambiguous way. When the conversation ends Bob will know where he stands. Too many of these conversations end with Bob thinking “maybe next year”. Slumping shoulders, eye contact avoided and equivocal language mean the messenger has mangled the message and set him or herself up for a repeat performance in 12 months’ time.

Saying what needs to be said and offering a positive way forward is the best outcome. The best firms will have prepared for this moment and, once the anger and disappointment have passed, will begin a constructive conversation about the future. It may be a conversation about a secondment to work with a client, advice on which firms might be right for Bob and where partnership may be a prospect. It may be a switch to the of counsel career path. There will be no pressure to act quickly because the firm, and probably Bob too, knew this conversation would come around. There may be up to 18 months to work out and execute the next move. And when he moves it is positioned as a positive decision on Bob’s part.

Understanding the importance of the promotion decision to the firm, and not just the candidate and their sponsors, is often overlooked. This is where the leadership plays a crucial role in ensuring the firm follows its own rules. The more you bend these the more you undermine the firm’s philosophy around what it means to be a partner.

Andrew Wansell is chief operating officer of Boodle Hatfield

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