When the Partners Aren’t Following Procedure: How You Should Respond

  • May 14, 2014
  • Allison Shields

This is one of the most frequently asked questions in my consulting practice, and one of the most frustrating for my clients: “How do I get lawyers in my firm to follow procedure? And what if the worst offenders are my partners?”

Some firms fail to give partners (especially rainmaking partners) any structure or requirements, and then they can’t understand why the partner doesn’t comply.

Each partner within the firm should have a partnership plan which includes goals that partner has set for the year and milestones the partner is expected to reach. Compensation should be based, at least in part, on compliance with the partnership plan.

Set clear expectations for everyone in the firm, including the basic requirements to be followed by everyone in the firm, regardless of their position.

Sometimes, partners don't follow procedure because they don't like being dictated to, but other times, partners don't comply because they just don’t see the value in the procedure or policy. Talk to partners one on one to be sure that they understand the purpose of the policy, why the policy is important, and how their failure to comply hurts the firm (and the bottom line). Obtain the partner’s agreement about the importance of the policy or procedure. If it's important to your clients or to the smooth operation of your firm, compliance should not be an issue. If you can't obtain this agreement, you may have other problems on your hands. Ascertain the ‘currency’ of each individual partner. Your partners have different personalities, likes, dislikes and motivations. If compliance is important, tie it to the ‘currency’ that speaks most clearly to that partner.

Create accountability agreements and stick to them. Get a specific commitment from the partner - most people don't like to break promises they’ve made to others.

Do a reality check. Are you being realistic – is this a new trick the old dog really must learn? No partner is perfect. Make sure that your expectations are reasonable in light of the work the partner is being asked to perform.

Seek feedback and input from those who complain or are not in compliance– perhaps the policy or procedure needs to be improved. Ask them what the obstacles to compliance are. Listen to their point of view. You might find a valid objection that needs to be addressed. Find out how you can help and support them.

Brainstorm together about how to overcome the obstacle. A partner who is involved in setting policy or ‘buys in’ to the importance of that policy will have a much more difficult time justifying non-compliance – even to themselves. When the idea comes from them and they have ownership of it, they will be much more likely to follow through.

Enlist the help of others, including staff that works closely with each partner. Sometimes a partner's trusted assistant can be more effective in obtaining compliance than another partner or the management team.

Be consistent. If the firm allows inconsistencies in its policies and procedures, management will be seen as weak and it will be difficult to convince partners, associates or staff that these policies and procedures are important to follow. Publicize your expectations and the requirements to be followed by all members of the firm.

Allison C. Shields, president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., helps lawyers make their practices more productive, profitable, and enjoyable. Contact her at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. This article first appeared on Allison's Legal Ease Blog and is reprinted here with permission.