Bench Strength Benefits Everyone
During a mediation I did a few weeks ago, I witnessed firsthand some leadership in action by one of the attorneys involved. The attorney for one side, a partner in her firm, was there with her young associate. It was clear that the partner was the “lead” attorney, in that she was ultimately responsible for the case. Her associate, however, was the one who had been handling the case. So far, pretty standard fare for most law firms: associate preps the case (i.e. does the grunt work); partner drops in for settlement and court appearances.
What struck me about this particular duo was that the partner let the associate do all the talking. The associate’s assessment of the case differed from the partner’s. Yet the partner deferred to the associate in allowing her to take the lead in handling the settlement negotiations. It was refreshing, to say the least.
By taking this approach, not only did the partner empower the associate, which benefitted the associate; but it also served to build the foundation of her own succession planning. Myriad studies show the drain upon resources that turnover has upon a business. By investing her time and resources in the associate, the partner has time to build her own practice, handle the affairs of the firm, and garner loyalty from the associate.
When I asked her how long she had been at the firm and how she liked working for this particular partner, the associate replied that she had been able to handle cases with supervision and input, had direct client contact and said, as a result, she was loyal to both the partner and the firm. Because she’s treated as a valued contributor, rather than a fungible billing unit, the associate’s loyalty will keep her at the firm for the long haul.
Partners seem to have a common complaint these days: associates just want to get paid, and don’t seem to have an investment in the firm. Seems that the partners have the ability to develop that commitment; if they’re not succeeding, perhaps they need to re-evaluate their own leadership efforts rather than write it off as the associate’s problem. After all, management is not the same as leadership.
The partner is a professional friend of mine, so I pulled her aside after the mediation. When I pointed out what I was observing in the dynamic, the partner expressed her own dismay that more partners wouldn’t want to invest in their associates, at the very least, for their own benefit. And, to her credit, the partner was not billing the client for both her and the associate’s time at the table. Again, more investment in reputation building: you can bet the client recognized he was getting the benefit of two lawyers for the price of one.
From my perspective as the mediator, the approach added value to the mediation process overall. With both the associate and partner at the table to represent the client, the brainstorming was that much more stirring. One person’s perspective is just that: one person’s opinion. The client in this particular situation got to hear the rationale behind both the partner’s and associate’s perspectives and better understood the risks involved and basis for crafting a particular settlement offer. The dynamic also illustrated to the client the unpredictability of trial. Three different lawyers (his two lawyers and me as the neutral mediator) had three different opinions about his case. That sure came in handy when explaining the value of having certainty in an outcome via settlement, versus the risk of outcome at trial.
What do you think? Have you been empowered by a partner or relegated to handling discover only? I’d like to hear your thoughts.