The Challenges Inherent in Assessing Law Firm Leader Performance

Topics: Key Author, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development


In a recent article I read, 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 leader should receive feedback, from my experience it is critically important to recognize that there are some real-world hurdles to implementation of an evaluation process for firm leaders.

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% of the AmLaw 100 and 200 firm leaders claim to have such a written description and amongst the AmLaw 100, that number doesn’t even reach double digits.

I will never forget how asBob 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. Indeed, 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.

If one cannot clearly define the scope of his or her own work and responsibility, how do you then effectively evaluate that person’s performance?

In our First 100 Days session with new firm leaders we present them with a detailed analysis of more than 50 bullet points that comprise the responsibilities and activities of being a typical leader of a large law firm, in a sense providing them with at least an outline from which to craft their own job descriptions. And that description should get widely circulated throughout the firm so that everybody gets a true sense of the enormity of the leader’s job.

Because after all, if one cannot clearly define the scope of his or her own work and responsibility, how do you then effectively evaluate that person’s performance?

The second challenge is, after formulating the job description, what is it 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 told 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.

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% of large law firms (more than 500 attorneys) already have a written strategic plan. Where the rubber really meets the road is in learning that less than 25% 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 in executing that plan.

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.

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.”