Diplomacy and the Partner Pay Conversation

Monday, July 8, 2013

Herewith the next installment in our series of articles on the always charged issue of compensation, from Richard Rapp.




Like the heads of most law firms, I had no training in management when I became president of a professional service partnership and I did a lot of on-the-job learning during my early years. Things went well and the business grew to the point that a governance overhaul was needed. Decision-making responsibility had to be distributed more widely, we needed to elect a larger, more effective management committee and the mechanism for partner pay decisions needed to become (I confess) less capricious.

I had to be told all this but I was happy to go along and even engineer the process as it was a natural progression for an enterprise that had grown too large to be managed single-handedly. It was at that moment I did a very smart thing – I had lunch with a friend who had experience in this sort of change management. Here, approximately, is the transcript of that conversation:

Me: I’m all for this. It’s a healthy development for a growing enterprise. So I’m going to hold a big partners meeting and give everyone a chance to state their views about what needs to be fixed and about how to do it. Then we’ll get down to business.

Friend: What you are proposing is a recipe for a contentious, disastrous mess.

Me: How come? Prior managerial behavior notwithstanding, I’m a big believer in democracy.

Friend: Then perhaps you’ve noticed that democracy happens in voting booths with curtains. Just because you’ve got a vocal, articulate bunch of partners doesn’t mean that everyone will get to have their say. What you are planning to stage is a field-day for the strident and disaffected. It’s an opportunity to shout. The thoughtful, the uncommitted will be drowned out and what you rightly say is a healthy development will start off with people saying, “Well, I never realized things were this bad.”

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