Partners in time?

Considerable research has been conducted into identifying and assessing the personal qualities and competencies of effective managers in industry, particularly those characteristics required of business leaders. There has been more limited study, however, of the make-up of those who get to the top in the professions, particularly in law firms.

It all used to be so simple in the days of ‘Buggins’ Turn’. Mr Buggins (never Ms) would join a firm as a fresh-faced youth and, provided he kept his nose clean and had not been totally indolent over the intervening 30 years or so, he could expect his ultimate reward in the form of an equity partnership. Whether he genuinely deserved the position was not the issue – he had served his time.

Surely everything is different in the meritocratic 21st century? Well, up to point. True, there is no longer room for passengers, but the identification of a candidate’s suitability for partnership is still something of an inexact science. To this end, psychological profiling can be used to study the respective attributes of equity partners and more junior staff in law firms.

Before looking at what constitutes the ‘right stuff’, it is worth considering the key attributes expected of the modern equity partner. Obviously they need technical ability, but that is just the start. Today’s highly competitive advisory services market is placing a range of new demands on partners. Commercial awareness and commitment to client care are now essential: law firms are no different from any other business. Whereas firms and individual partners used to be largely reactive to clients’ demands, today partners are obliged to take an active role in developing business and marketing the firm. Moreover, the modern equity partner must also possess more intangible ‘people skills’. Where they once worked independently, they are now expected to be team players, as well as leaders and inspirers of people.

Attitudes to work and manager-staff relationships have changed markedly in recent years. The plethora of employment laws designed to protect workers’ rights, the introduction of flatter reporting structures and the emphasis on group working have all encouraged staff to be far more assertive. This is particularly relevant for law
firms. Highly intelligent and ambitious individuals demand high-quality management. They expect their superiors to take an interest in their career development and to respond effectively to their concerns. It is no longer a question of delegating people problems to the HR department – the buck stops at the equity partner’s desk.

As business psychologists, we have worked with a number of law firms to help them gain a better understanding of the characteristics of a typical equity partner, and through that exercise have helped them identify suitable candidates for promotion. To this end, we have used a range of measures to analyse the different dimensions of an individual’s psychological make-up: ingrained personality traits (emotional stability, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness); personal preferences (working and decision-making styles); interpersonal needs (working relationships with colleagues at all levels).

We also assess the breadth of an individual’s business understanding in seven key areas: client awareness (identifying and responding to client needs); commercial astuteness; strategic insight (defining the firm’s future direction); management know-how (ie how to get things done); influencing skills; ‘political’ understanding (knowing how to exploit the system to achieve objectives); and risk awareness.

Lastly, we ask candidates to complete a 360° feedback survey to see how they are perceived by colleagues and clients in a number of areas, including commitment, openness (flexibility and willingness to change), business development, interpersonal sensitivity and, of course, technical ability and breadth of knowledge.

Our projects on behalf of specific firms have been complemented by our study of the differences on all of these measures between those who make it to equity partnership and those who do not. The study revealed distinct psychological differences between equity partners and non-partners. Some of the findings were unsurprising: equity partners were more extrovert, more achievement-orientated, more active, more assertive, more self-confident and more concerned about being independent from the control of others.

The less obvious differences were that an equity partner appears to have a stronger sense of ethics; there was also greater evidence of practical ability rather than imaginative traits; and they appear to be more trusting and optimistic about others’ abilities. In short (and I am sure some of you will be raising an eyebrow or two at this) equity partners appear to be more grounded and more emotionally intelligent than their junior colleagues. In addition, although lawyers in general tend to be more neurotic than their counterparts in other business environments, the equity partner is less susceptible to stress.

Our findings also indicated that, in itself, pure intellectual capability is not a strong predictor of success in terms of making equity.

However, the performance of the equity partner group in tests covering commercial astuteness and client awareness was stronger than their non-equity colleagues. The equity partner group was rated by their colleagues as having greater technical knowledge than non-partners. They also scored more highly at marketing and selling the firm, managing client relationships, understanding client needs and managing people.

Overall, our study confirms that there are certainly characteristics that distinguish equity partners from other lawyers. Some of these abilities, such as a higher level of technical knowhow and conscientiousness, might be expected. However, they also demonstrate other personal qualities such as greater self-belief, resilience to stress, assertiveness, trust, commercial astuteness and client orientation.

Equally, the findings reveal that equity partners need to develop greater sensitivity to clients’ feelings and the ability to create mutually productive relationships. They also have to possess genuine leadership qualities, an ability to ‘tune in’ to their colleagues’ concerns and to coach and motivate their subordinates, either in a team context or individually. These are the critical psychological factors that will enable some to make the successful transition to equity partnership.

Marjorie Knight is a business psychologist at Kaisen Consulting