Five Questions I Would Ask a New Partner

On one hand I have no business giving advice to a lawyer who has recently made partner: although I practiced for six years, I never made partner (and, truth be told, never really aspired to it). I find the “traditional” law firm business model puzzling at best, and I never worked in a “traditional” law firm.

On the other hand, I am a great person to give advice to a law firm partner, particularly a new one: I have written a bunch and had many conversations with forward-thinking lawyers and others about the law; it’s my job to think about where the industry is going and drive conversations around that; my entire practice experience was at two non-traditional law firms that represent, at least to some extent, how at least some law firms of the future will operate; and I truly care about where our profession is headed and how our profession going to address some significant problems such as access to legal services, a growing supply of lawyers and what appears to be a shrinking (or at least not growing) demand for legal services and many others.

So, while I may not be the ideal person to give advice, I’m probably not the worst. In either case, to new partners everywhere: here are my two cents:

What is your firm’s technology strategy?

Technology is going to change the way lawyers practice over the coming decade or two. We can debate how much it will change the practice but it will have an effect.

If you’re at a big firm, you’re likely to see requests (or demands) from large corporate clients for greater efficiency and, perhaps, even technology adoption. They will no longer pay “bespoke” rates for you to perform highly repeatable routine activities. Further, they’ll expect that, at the very least, you understand technologies like natural language processing and predictive coding, and may even request (or insist) that you apply them on their matters when appropriate. Your large corporate clients are certain to want to negotiate your rates and perhaps even make their sending work to you contingent upon your willingness to accept their flat fees or alternative fee arrangements which will, in turn, require you to figure out how to be more efficient if you want to continue to enjoy the profit margins you’ve seen to date.

If you’re at a small firm you’ll have a different technological competitor. Forms websites and other consumer-facing legal services sites are increasingly common. Legal Zoom is the most obvious, but it’s only the most prominent. Other sites are helping consumers fill out immigration forms, get divorced, settle property tax disputes, and obtain a will and other estate-planning documents, all with some to little to no involvement by a lawyer. Consumers are comfortable using these services—technologies and services like Google, Amazon, Uber and others have conditioned them to smooth transactions at a reasonable cost with minimal friction. Your practice must provide services with comparable ease and affordability to remain competitive.

What is your firm’s social media strategy?

Note: this is a different question than the immediately preceding question about technology. If you don’t know why, then you need to research both of these questions, and quick.

Social media today may seem like it’s just for kids. But today’s kids are tomorrow’s consumers of legal services. If you’re a smart marketer and you want to stay in business, then you need to be where your customers are. And that means you’ll need a social media presence. This is particularly true if you expect your consumers to find you online, because Google and other search engines increasingly take social media into account to determine who gets prime placement on their search results pages.

There’s no shortage of advice or advisors on “social media for lawyers,” so I’ll be brief and let you seek out those folks for more and better information:

  • Facebook: I can’t figure out why you’d be on Facebook as a law firm, unless it’s for sharing your community outreach or philanthropic activities. You probably need a page and it needs some attention but not much.
  • LinkedIn: Your firm needs a page and everyone at the firm including staff needs a decent profile. Everyone needs a nice headshot too, though it need not be professional. Look skeptically upon lawyers, particularly younger ones, who say they are “rainmakers” but do not have 500 connections or more.
  • Twitter: I am a huge Twitter fan, but I’m not sure about it’s value for individual lawyers or law firms. If you do get an account you need to use it relatively regularly. It can be an effective way to share articles that are written by attorneys at a firm, to do some limited engagement with key clients, and to generally enhance your brand.
  • Blogging: Blogging and generally getting articles and pieces placed on third party sites online can enhance your firm’s reputation. It also helps with the search engines as mentioned above. Beyond those benefits, blogging is a great “inbound marketing” technique to attract clients to your website and help demonstrate to them (as opposed to your telling them through more traditional advertising) about your areas expertise and how you can be helpful to them. Blogging isn’t for everyone, and like Twitter, if you have a blog or a broader strategy for getting your articles placed in third-party publications you need to actively execute that strategy in order to make the blogging valuable.

What is your firm’s training and development strategy?

While technology will disrupt the traditional delivery of legal services, hiring good people and providing them meaningful opportunities for development and growth is, and at least in the short-to-medium-term, will remain, a competitive advantage for law firms. First, humans will continue to play a central role in the delivery of legal services for the foreseeable future. You need high-quality, smart, articulate people to do that well. Second, the technology companies that will increasingly participate in the legal services market are hiring smart, creative people and giving them a place to grow and develop. You’ll need the same kind of people to compete with them, and you’ll need to give them real opportunities to take ownership of what they’re doing and to grow in their job and responsibilities.

Note that I didn’t mention the words nor limit my assertions to “associate development.” This is because the law firm of the future will be a cross-functional, cross-disciplinary team. If you’re running your firm correctly, the website marketing manager will be as important a part of your firm as your document automation specialist, your chief technology officer and/or your managing partner. And developing those people will be extremely important too. Law firms treat non-lawyers as second-class citizens at their peril, and that fact will be increasingly true into the future. (Besides, as I’ve heard Jordan Furlong say, the term “non-lawyer” is a bit insulting in and of itself: no one likes to be defined by something that they are not.)

What is your firm’s most effective marketing channel?

When I’ve seen this question asked to lawyers it’s usually met with blank stares or vague “Uh, word of mouth?” types of response. In the coming years, lawyers and law firms will compete for clients with both technological solutions and increasingly nimble innovative law firms. As a partner, you need to know who your firm’s clients are, where they are, and how you’re bringing them in the door. Stepping back, you should also understand your firm’s place in the market from a competitive standpoint and understand where you’re strong and weak vis-à-vis your competition.

More broadly still, this question symbolizes the type of inquiry that dominates business today. Smart business leaders realize the value of data: marketing data, throughput data, cost structure data, etc. This same data will prove valuable for law firms in the future. Law firms are businesses. They may be a different kind of business, just like grocery stores are different than software companies, but they are businesses. And, as a result, a law firm will benefit from data-driven decision-making just as much as any other type of business will. If you’re not doing it already, I’d suggest you make a habit of asking these types of questions and answering them and, most importantly, of applying the answers to your practice.

For whom is your firm being managed?

At the core of many of these questions are the issues of management and strategy. As Dan Katz at Michigan State University School of Law has said:

A lot of [law]firms are run by people who [10 years from now] will not even be [affiliated with the firm].  They will be on a beach somewhere—perhaps in Florida. That raises questions about for whom these organizations are actually being managed. Is it being managed for the 44-year-old who is about to have a first chance to be an equity partner? Or is it being managed for the 57-year-old who in ten years is going to be getting a gold watch? I would say that almost exclusively, it’s being managed for the 57-year-old.

This is indicative of a larger problem in many firms, termed “the underinvestment problem.” More experienced partners have little incentive to invest in the future of the firm. Things like technology acquisition and adoption, marketing activities and brand development, associate hiring, training and development, and other similar questions because, as Katz’s point implies here and as he’s stated explicitly elsewhere, it’s not in their economic self interest to do so. Partners can invest in the future of the firm or they can pay themselves more now. Unfortunately, most opt for the latter.

However it is in your self-interest, new partner, to think longer-term. If you want your firm to survive (1) past your tenure, and grow and thrive into the future (and if you want to try to undo some of today’s overreliance upon short-term thinking) and (2) the more immediate competition it will face from technology and other nimble competitors, you must take a longer-term strategic approach to your firm than the current partnership is likely taking today.

So, new partners, there you have it. Five ideas from someone who’s never been there but who does know a thing or two and who cares deeply not only about seeing you do well but about the profession. Partnership is a big deal. It’s the “Holy Grail” of law practice. As a partner you now have much greater latitude but also greater responsibility. Hopefully these five questions can guide some of what you do as you embrace this new opportunity.

Good luck!

About the Author

Dan Lear is the Director of Industry Relations at Avvo, Inc.  He can be reached at 206. 508.3012,, or on Twitter at @rightbrainlaw.

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