The challenges inherent in assessing firm leader performance

  • September 21, 2017
  • Patrick J. McKenna

Performance evaluationNote: This article was previously published online. It is republished with permission from the author.

In a recent article I was reading, Donald Mrozek, the former chair of Hinshaw Culbertson, wrote about How To Evaluate Law Firm Leaders. While I concur with the overall theory of his message that law firm leaders should receive feedback, from my experience it is critically important to recognize that there are some real-world hurdles to implementation.

The first challenge that needs to be addressed is the fact that most leaders of large law firms don’t have a formal written job description, so how can you evaluate someone unless they are clear on what the job is?

I have continually been surprised by the vast number of firm leaders who do NOT have a formal, written job description. My research indicates that less than 23 per cent of the AmLaw 100 and 200 firm leaders claim to have such a written description and amongst the AmLaw 100 firms, that number doesn’t even reach double digits. 

I will never forget how as Bob Dell stepped down from his many years of leading Latham & Watkins one of the things he commented upon was, “My partners apparently had no idea of what I did!” That reaction mirrors the fact that most professionals really do dramatically underestimate the scope and responsibility of managing an entire firm. I often tease new firm leaders by asking them what they could possibly have been thinking when they took on such responsibility. Meanwhile, partners at law firms often bristle at any suggestion that they can or ought to be led. At the opposite extreme, I had one firm leader from an AmLaw 50 firm inform me quite bluntly that he “did not believe in having a job description as that might only serve to limit my authority.”

Most firm leaders will claim that the job description exists “informally” – which means somewhere within the firm’s partnership agreement – in loose, subjective, vague and ill-defined wording. In our First 100 Days session with new firm leaders we present them with a detailed analysis of over 50 bullet points that comprise the responsibilities and activities of being the typical leader of a larger law firm, such that they then at least have an outline from which to craft their own job descriptions. That description should get widely circulated throughout the firm so that everybody gets a true sense of the enormity of the job.

Because after all, if one cannot clearly define the scope of work and responsibility, how do you then effectively evaluate performance? What is it that you think you are evaluating?

The second challenge is after formulating the job description, are you sure of what it is specifically that you want to evaluate?

For example, Mrozek cites seven factors that “for most firms, are the most important factors for success.” He then suggests that a specific weighting be attached to each. Of those factors we are then informed that “formulating a coherent and compelling strategic plan” would be one of the highest rated.

The process here makes perfect sense but the factors chosen – maybe not so much.

I am aware of numerous firms where, for whatever reason, the firm leader chose to turn over the development of the strategic plan to his/her strategic planning committee comprised of partners from throughout the firm; perhaps so that they would not be perceived by the partnership to have an overbearing influence on the outcome.

More importantly, I would respectfully submit that having a formal written strategic plan is not where the “evaluative action” is. According to my research, 89 per cent of larger law firms (more than 500 attorneys) already have a written strategic plan. Where the rubber really hits the road is in learning that less than 25 per cent of those firms claimed success in implementing much of that formal plan. The real measure of success I would want to be assessing, if I were on the law firm’s board, is what have we specifically accomplished with regard to executing that plan.

In an article I wrote some years back (2010) Evaluating Your Performance As A Managing Partner, I wrote “There is an old adage in managing a client’s expectations that states, ‘Whether we like it or not, we are going to be measured. If we take a very passive approach the measuring stick against which we will be measured will be exclusively a creation of our client. Alternatively, we can help create and shape the measurement criteria’.” My message was that as the firm leader you should take the initiative and I provided a quick-and-easy sample of 29 evaluative factors that any firm leader could use to elicit feedback from their colleagues. 

What strikes me about this whole subject of firm leader evaluation is how few firm leaders have actually been proactive in formulating their own performance assessment tool and then asking of ALL of their partners for some critical (and anonymous) feedback on how they have been performing (and my sincere kudos to those that have). 

And news flash: there is an empirical correlation between the strength of a leader and their willingness to ask for candid feedback. By way of just one example, according to Joe Folkman, “Top ranked leaders (those who average a score at the 83rd percentile on leadership effectiveness) are also at the top in asking for feedback, based on research drawn from our database of 360° reviews. Is this a coincidence? I think not.”

Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms. He is the author of eight books, most notably his international best seller, "First Among Equals", and most recently, "Serving at the Pleasure of My Partners". His consulting expertise was acknowledged in 2008 when he was identified through independent research compiled and published by Lawdragon as “one of the most trusted names in legal consulting" and his three decades of experience led to his being the subject of a Harvard Law School Case Study entitled Innovations In Legal Consulting (2011). He can be reached at

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