Performance Reviews should have as their main purpose to assist the person concerned to reach their full potential and succeed. Unfortunately both terminology and practice don’t always serve to achieve this. This does not have to be so.

It seems a momentum is developing in the corporate world for organisations to move away from performance reviews, certainly the once a year, formal jobs. It is only a matter of time before this trend gets some traction within the professional services market. I would caution against this. The rationale about moving away from performance reviews seems to be:

  • once a year is not enough and is far too long a gap between ‘discussions’;
  • they are not popular;
  • they are not done well;
  • they are often disguised as something else (e.g. a retrenching tool);
  • they don’t achieve what they should.

While all of these points may be true in many cases it is not necessarily a good reason to not have them. It has always been a concern for me what they are termed and how performance reviews are conducted and perceived in both the corporate and professional services worlds. As a result they certainly don’t do what they are meant to and are most often even resented.


Continue Reading

Picking right people resized
Picking and grooming the right successor in the context of the firm’s future strategic needs is arguably one of the most important duties every partner should have and carry out. Few do.

Arguably one of the most important things a partner should and can do for his or her firm before he/she retires is choose and groom a suitable successor. Given the ageing in the profession worldwide in recent decades succession is a subject that is getting more and more attention, and rightly so.

More and more clients are wanting advice on how to address succession within their firms. A common theme one comes across however is that it is assumed there is some sort of single system or process one can put in place which will address the matter and that will be that. It is also sometimes assumed the issue can be addressed ex post facto, sort of ‘in arrears’, and all will be well. Unfortunately it is not so easy, nor should it be. It is far too complex a subject for that to be the case. These are some of the many reasons why succession is not properly addressed by professional service firms.

For instance, for the right person to succeed a partner it would normally take years or even decades of preparation by both the partner retiring and the successor in relation to his or her personal brand, , technical skills, practice area, industry sector, staff and most importantly, clients. There are many things that need to be taken into account and put in place over time.

It is relatively easy to do a quick test on how your firm is travelling in the area of succession. Think of the last half dozen partners who retired or left the firm. How many developed suitable successors who covered the items mentioned above? Go further, ask how many left anything of lasting benefit in the firm? You may be surprised and saddened at the outcome.


Continue Reading

Open plan offices are not new, even for law firms, and no doubt there are a couple of examples in your region. The jury does still seem to be out though in regard to the pros and cons.

While there are those who proudly espouse the virtues of ‘open plan’ with benefits like:

  • better staff interaction;
  • everyone seen to be on the same footing;
  • more work gets done, etc.

others think they are a crazy idea. Arguments against tend to revolve around confidentiality, the need to work in peace, no interruptions and so on.


Continue Reading

The President of the Law Council of Australia today published a column in the ALMJ along the lines of the title of this blog post – as a request was made for readers to complete an important survey, and given the importance of the subject-matter and the tight time-frame I have taken the liberty of repeating the column verbatim below. Links to the surveys have been provided. [See also the recent LLB post referencing Jordan Furlong’s article in the latest Edge International Communiqué on this subject]:

You can possibly help women lawyers in Australia by completing the surveys referenced in this post – please see the clickable links (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

“In my first column for the January edition of the Australasian Law Management Journal I referenced addressing the high attrition rates of women lawyers as a priority for my tenure as President.

Since this initial column, the Law Council has made significant progress in this regard. On May 6, the Law Council officially launched the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS). Research shows that there are significant gaps in diversity in more senior roles in the legal profession. Although women are graduating with law degrees and entering legal careers at higher rates than men, significantly fewer women continue into senior positions within the legal profession.

The Law Council of Australia has engaged Urbis to undertake a national research study to address diversity within the legal profession. Through this study, the Law Council is seeking to obtain quantitative data and confirm trends in progression of both male and female lawyers, and produce a report outlining practical measures which can be implemented to address the causes of high attrition rates among women lawyers, and re-engage women lawyers who have left the profession.
Continue Reading

Law firms don’t recognise that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies not in their hands, but in the hands of their employees. To make matters worse, some of this power also lies in the hands of former employees, potential employees and other “employment stakeholders” such as recruitment agencies and digital media channels dedicated to commenting on the foibles of law firms.

Law firms don’t appreciate that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies with their employees, and even their former and potential employees, as well as with other parties like recruitment agencies . These other parties determine the brand. Firms assume it is what they offer that matters, but that is but one small component in the mix. (© Sean Larkan 2012)

This is because a firm’s employment brand is based on how the firm is perceived and experienced as an employer by existing employees, past employees and potential employees, as well as by other parties such as recruitment agencies and the media. Its employment brand is not what the firm thinks it is, but what these ‘others’ think it is.

This is a harsh lesson for most firms to stomach. It can be mystifying. Firms assume their employment brand is based on what they say in their recruitment materials, on their website, what they do, what they decide to offer employees as part of their employment package, and so on.

Instead, the power lies in the hands of others, the firm’s employees, past employees, potential employees, and others in the recruitment and media industries. What employers offer to their employees is merely part of what we call their employment brand offering. Firms still have a great deal of work to do to build their employment brand. For a start:

  • you must clarify your employment brand offering – identify, clarify and agree all the things you do offer to existing and potential employees and what makes working for the firm special and sets it apart. Bear in mind that standard features and benefits don’t make much of a difference; they don’t differentiate a firm as all firms offer them anyway – if they don’t now they can easily and quickly replicate them;
  • you must achieve Brand Fusion™ which is essentially ensuring that what you offer is actually experienced or has been experienced in the case of past employees. This is no mean feat given that you are largely dependent on the exigencies of individualistic, independent-minded partners to act as your front-line troops in making this happen;
    Continue Reading

Like finding the toilet roll  empty, or getting a puncture, some things never come at a good time. But, of course, these things do happen so most of us have learned to respond with equanimity and of course maybe even do a little forward planning!

The same applies to losing a really top calibre lawyer or support staff member (especially to the dreaded opposition); just when you thought he or she was well settled and was going to be part of your landscape forever (‘even though I hadn’t told her, I thought she had ‘future partner’ written all over her’). It is always unwelcome, sometimes seems a bit unfair (‘we always treated her so well and she seemed so happy’) and the timing is always bad (‘I have just introduced him to the the new oil and gas matter and client loved him‘).

When something unwelcome happens, like losing high calibre staff, the challenge is always to retain some equanimity and try to understand it for what it truly is, and not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean not acting, or simply doing a few operational things as a knee-jerk reaction on the surface of things. It requires in-depth strategic analysis, careful review and thoughtful implementation with a view to re-building trust in your employment brand. (Sean Larkan 2012)

Especially for firms that put a lot of time and effort into their people, events like this can cut to the bone.  It can be very demoralising and quickly impact confidence. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible as you feel you are doing things right.

Real concerns should arise when it starts happening with some regularity and becomes a pattern. It is not just an isolated incident based on exceptional circumstances. Word about things like this – key staff losses – can spread like wild-fire, and this can have a severe impact on a firm’s employment brand and on engagement levels. Social media, Linked In facilities for recruiters, plus recruitment agency networks ensure the market knows about these patterns long before most firms even realise its happening. This is when leaders and managers need to take remedial action and get to the bottom of it.

As much as these events require a decisive response from leadership, the danger is that it can often cause knee-jerk reactions and the implementation of solutions which may seem okay on the surface, and may even appease (including one’s conscience), but in reality don’t do much to change anything substantive for the long term.

In the work I have done with firms around people strategy and we consider these strategic issues, two things come up as common threads:

  • when times are good – staff recruitment is going well, staff calibre is good and turnover is down – firms assume it is because they are doing a heckuva lot of things right (and have earned this status because of all the good things they are doing around people). Interestingly, dig deeper and you may find this is not in fact the case.  They may have hit a lucky streak (it happens) or be regarded as the ‘flavour of the quarter‘ in the recruitment channels (it happens). Further investigation can reveal that  many of the people fundamentals have not in fact been properly addressed;
  • when times turn bad (sometimes, unaccountably, not long after they were good), firms are invariably surprised and anxiously cast around for causes. They tend to hone in on what appear to be the obvious reasons (e.g. a few partners with poor records of managing staff, benefits needing tweaking etc), try to address these and too quickly conclude ‘job done‘. Unfortunately, superficial, knee-jerk responses usually achieve very little, even though they may keep a board and some partners happy for awhile. Chances are that down the line the same problems will still exist, the reason being that they are founded in culture and well established cultural norms which and run deep to the heart and soul of what the firm is or isn’t about. They therefore need much more thorough, thoughtful treatment.

When this sort of pattern arises around losing key staff it is a sure signal that firms need to take very careful and serious stock of what they are or are not doing in relation to their people. It’s a big job, it is complex and touches on so much of what a firm is or is not; it  should quickly becomes priority numero uno.

I would start by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • are our partners and managers more focused on meeting their own targets and performance criteria than they are on delegating good quality work and providing good access to clients, good feedback and other support staff crave and need to grow;
  • what is the state of our employment brand? Do we have a brand strategy? Do we understand brand and what constitutes our employment brand? Do we achieve Brand Fusion™ i.e. ensuring what we promise and say we do in regard to people, we actually do and deliver?
    Continue Reading

My wife and I bought a small farm three years ago. As the grazing was leased out to a beef farmer the quality of the boundary fencing was paramount. The lady we purchased from told me up-front (and has reminded me ever since!) – ‘now Sean, remember to walk your fence-lines‘.  She was essentially saying check them regularly for breaks, leaning or weak posts, or other issues, but also to see what was really going on around the farm – ‘you never know what you may pick up‘.

This advice reminded me of my days helping to run large law firms – I happened to enjoy walking around, at least weekly, talking to staff and partners in various sections of the firm – apart from being enjoyable, it was amazing how much one picked up and could convey in those informal interactions.

Remember to walk the fence-lines of your firm – talking to partners and staff – you will pick up on issues, identify achievements and be showing an interest in those who make the wheels go round (Sean Larkan image ©: Austral Eden region, NSW)

I did notice though as I got busy, or we had to deal with one or other crisis, this practice somehow seemed to slip into the background, priority-wise. Sometimes too, one may be tied up with a merger – ‘important stuff‘, and it always got priority. It always took time to get back to the walking around ritual, each time reminding myself – ‘can’t let that drift’.

I had this message brought home to me again last week when the editor from the publisher of my upcoming book on law firm branding arranged a new time-table for me. I had fallen behind my schedule – she said with my consent she would ‘walk my fence-line’ i.e. keep closer tabs on me. What a nice way to say ‘listen, I am keeping an eye on you – time to start delivering‘!

There are a number of benefits flowing from walking the fence-line:
Continue Reading

You can be the brightest spark in the office but if people can never get hold of you, or after they do you take ages to respond or are simply unreliable, no-one is ever sure you will do the job, professionally you are going to do yourself in.

Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the workshop, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image - Old Dairy Gerringong - ©2012)
Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the shed, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image – Old Dairy Gerringong – ©2012)

I know of one professional who is highly sought after due to his niche practice and ability. As a consequence he is very busy and time-poor. So busy in fact that he has an automated message responding to his emails, always, saying ‘sorry tied up doing x, y or z. Your enquiry is important, I will revert etc’ – unfortunately, you usually don’t get a response from him, not even later. You soon get the message, his work is more important than your enquiry or message. He has made himself inaccessible, is unresponsive and in your mind will probably not be reliable to deal with. In fact he also appears to be discourteous.

On the other hand we all know professionals who are busier than most, but who still manage to be remarkably accessible, courteous, responsive and reliable – some come to mind for me – Michael Katz, chairman of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, Rob Otty, Managing Director of Norton Rose RSA, Jordan Furlong my partner in Edge International, Giam Swiegers, National CEO of Deloitte, Australia, John Poulsen managing partner of Squire Sanders (formerly Minter Ellison, Perth), Roger Collins Chairman of Grant Thornton Australia and Derek Colenbrander CEO of CareFlight Australia.

One of the most enjoyable responsibilities I had as a former managing partner of large firms was to do a short introductory talk to new recently-joined lawyers. The discussion, which we tried to make interactive, commenced by asking what they felt they would need to do or be to succeed in a large firm environment. As one would expect coming from the brightest law school graduates, the responses were varied and fascinating. However, not many picked up on these seemingly obvious attributes: accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It was possible to emphasise these, providing examples, without names, of lawyers who did not have the best university pass or who were not regarded as the best technical lawyers in their practice area, but who rose to greatness and built substantial practices, at least in part due to these characteristics. I also emphasised that a big part of their early success would depend on their courtesy to staff, mainly support staff.

Your personal brand:
Continue Reading

What to do and what not to do with difficult partners was the subject of two recent posts (Leadership Frame #8 & #9). Coincidentally I came across a recent article from Travis Bradberry at Talent Smart (the EQ/emotional intelligence people) and he offered some more tips from an EQ perspective which I thought would be helpful for readers. Essentially this is about ensuring your own emotional intelligence is such that you are well prepared to deal with difficult partners. This requires understanding EQ and then having some EQ strategies you can use to assist in these situations.  I summarise some of these below with my liberal editing and annotation in the context of dealing with difficult partners.

Difficult partners, like angry babies, can at times be impossible. You need to be geared up to deal with them and not avoid the issues they bring to the firm. EQ techniques can provide some pointers.

Just like angry babies, difficult partners sometimes defy logic. While some partners may be blissfully unaware of the negative impact they have on those around them, some  almost seem to get satisfaction from being obstructive, creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity and strife and end up wasting a heck of a lot of leadership and management time.

Bradberry  (author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0) makes two important points:

  1. to deal with difficult people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can eliminate and know what you can’t; and
  2. the important thing to remember when it comes to difficult partners, and the impact that they have on you and the firm, is that you are in control of far more than you realize.

Suggested steps:
Continue Reading

Some partners are downright difficult. This makes them awkward cogs to fit into the firm set-up,  particularly where they are top producers, run important clients or contribute in other meaningful ways. And let’s face it, all too often they are and do.

Difficult partners are tough cogs to fit into the system. Sometimes exit is not an option, particularly where they are highly respected for their work, client management or contributions in other ways. This calls for thoughtful leadership and management. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is important therefore to work out an approach you can use for such partners.  Simply leaving it to chance, or the passage of time and hoping it will go away, or that you won’t have to deal with it, is not an option. They won’t go away and are bound to come back and haunt you and the partnership from time to time. Far better to be prepared with a sensible framework, and a willingness to take action.

Too often there is something of the bully in difficult partners, and you need to be clear to yourself and such partners that you will not be intimidated into non-action. Otherwise you are sure to lose credibility in the eyes of your partners and of course will not make any inroads in dealing with the challenging partner. You also won’t feel very pleased with yourself and your overall confidence may begin to suffer. Unfortunately, the way law firm leaders and senior managers deal with these situations offer very painful and sometimes very visible tests of leadership.

In my last post I covered a few things you should not do in such situations. Let’s now consider what you should do. In the first instance, there are what I would call fundamentals:

  • make sure your values (or cultural attributes or guiding principles as the case may be) cover things like un-partnerlike or ‘difficult’ behaviour.
  • ensure your partner performance criteria measure adherence to such values and/or behaviours.
  • be consistent in all your dealings. This means treating the difficult partner no differently to others – they still need to be shown the same respect, given a fair hearing and such like. Equally, don’t treat them with kid gloves because they are difficult; other partners who may have slipped up in some or other way and been managed rigorously will be watching whether you are even-handed in your dealings.
  • be clear that the solution is going to come from the difficult partner, not from you, from the firm or some written document. Somehow you are going to have to get him or her in the right frame of mind, and suitably motivated, to solve the problem.
What else should you do?
Continue Reading