The Hopelessness of Lockstep Progression Tracks

I recently had a wonderful conversation with Fiona Craig in an episode of the Beyond Billables Podcast that touched on the subject of the lockstep system and progression tracks in the traditional law firm model. This is particularly so in big and medium law firms, where competition for upward positions is intense. One of the issues we touched on was the inflexibility of this model and the perverse outcomes that arise from pigeon-holing all your talent onto the same progression track, work arrangements and review criteria.

The reality is that most law firms have an “up or out” culture. At the same time, partnership prospects have never looked worse. Increasingly long time-frames and strong competition exacerbate this problem. Firms are struggling to keep their best mid to senior-level people, especially star female lawyers, thanks to the aforementioned inflexibility. Where there is a gap, it’s always at the mid-level. It seems to only be getting worse when this inflexible framework is applied, especially at the junior levels. I have never understood how firms can afford this merry-go-round of losing talent, hiring laterally to replace it and so on.

There are two key factors that drive this:

  1. Attachment to the billable hour.
  2. Lack of flexibility in the progression track. The system is applied uniformly when, in reality, not all associates are equal — nor do they necessarily want to be.

For example, there are many senior lawyers who aren’t interested in becoming a partner but are forced to stay on the track and pretend that they are, until they are either pushed out or leave. The star performers and future partners also find this framework less than ideal because there is no real incentive to do extra work, except the long-term, uncertain promise of partnership. They might also be disenchanted with the lack of recognition for going above and beyond. This is especially the case in Australia and New Zealand where there are no real bonus structures in place, with the odd exception. The bonuses are certainly not as lucrative as the US or the UK, for example.

Those who don’t want partnership are often afraid of saying so, for fear of being excluded from the best work or having their position compromised. Firms are generally terrible at having these conversations until it’s too late. For many lawyers, the option of having more flexibility is the priority and this is increasingly becoming the case with newer generations of lawyers.

On the other side is the career lawyer who is passionate about what they do. The one who wants to get ahead and make partner as soon as possible and will do whatever it takes to get there (and is happy to burn themselves out to achieve this goal). So, why apply the same framework to both categories? Should firms not develop better systems and processes to distinguish between their associates? Should they not offer different progression tracks, incentives, flexible workplace arrangements, rewards and recognition depending on preference and what works best for the individual? Of course, keeping in mind the business imperatives of the firm and profitability.

The profitability factor might be why firms are hesitant to move away from the traditional models. But, the reality is that the amount of money, time, energy and resources it takes to fit square pegs into round holes can be staggering. The amount of money it costs for a firm to hire a summer clerk, put them through the graduate programs, get them trained up in a practice area — only to see them leave 3–4 years later. Then, they need to be replaced, which costs money in the form of advertising, HR time and recruitment fees. Then, you bring in a lateral replacement who has not been brought up in the culture of the firm, so again there will be more training costs. This happens again and again; over and over.

It’s costly, no doubt, to change the framework. But, in the long-term, it’s all about retention, promoting your stars, succession planning and giving your other associates a different option with flexibility around remuneration, working arrangements and progression opportunities, as not all roads should lead to partnership only. When associates see an alternative path that may have a different billing model, or a reduced work day, or extended paternity leave, or a more incentivised remuneration structure, or more scope to build and develop business, retention will be less problematic. Why? Because employees will actually enjoy what they do more. They’ll have more freedom, be more energised and therefore be more likely to stay, especially if most alternatives would mean going back to the old model. What works for one associate might not work for another and firms need to get their heads around this.

As a start, if firms actually took the time to have in-depth conversations with their associates, this would be a far easier process to manage and would open the door to more honest conversations. This can only do good for both the firm (in terms of managing each individual and their expectations) and for the associate, who won’t feel as constrained as they often do in a one size fits all framework.

Food for thought.

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