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How partners can make happier senior associates

Posted by Gene Turner on 23-Oct-2016 11:40:24

My earlier post (Senior associates: 10 ideas for taking more control of your career) struck a chord with a number of people, with the number of shares and comments I received confirming that there definitely is an issue with Senior Associates (and senior in-house lawyers too), and a desire to do something about it. Interestingly, a number of Senior Associates also told me they would have liked to have shared it, but were concerned about how their Partners would have reacted. Food for thought on how those relationships are going... 

While my core message for Senior Associates was to take control of their own lives, they can’t do it alone and depending on where their mind is at, how confident they are, and their history with the firm, they might not make a start by themselves. However, they might if their supervisor or someone else who is looking out for them gives them a nudge and a few tips on where to start.

So I wanted to provide some tips for Partners and Directors of law firms who know a Senior Associate who has more potential than they have been using and who they would like to help kick on. You don’t have to be a direct supervisor – in fact, it might work even better if you are not, or if two or more people are involved as mentors. This framework can also work for less senior team members too, but I think it should work really well for Senior Associates, who have greater ability to take individual action.

I really like the framework outlined below, even more because it's come from someone who really knows his stuff, and is being used in real life at ASB Bank.

1   10 ways to help

When I was a Partner I regularly looked for ways to help with each of the 10 areas I identified in my earlier blog. Point 4 was “look after number 1, and don’t assume anyone else is looking out for you”. Imagine how powerful it would be if – regardless of what’s gone on before – you set up a meeting to talk through where they are at, what they’d like to achieve, what you think they could do, and how you can help. That kind of proactivity – which I’ll touch on again below – is really powerful.

Some of the points raised in the article may not seem to be in the firm’s interests, as they are designed to equip the Senior Associate with more options – and leverage – to get what they want from their career and life. While it is possible the firm may lose some good people as a result, the firm has more visibility of the issues and the chance to address them. It is more likely that the firm will keep the people it really values and will be better off. The alternative of status quo doesn’t look that appealing.

A further tip though – don’t drop it on them without notice, and make sure you have the chat somewhere away from the office. If you come into their office and shut the door for a chat without notice and when that is not usual, it will freak them out. Doing it in your office is unlikely to be comfortable for them. Going out for a coffee will allow you both to relax.



A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have been invited by Lindsey Haagh of AllProcure (a purchasing network for law firms) to a session on “Motivating Your People” with Laurie Sharp who is Head of Coaching and Development for ASB. I had just written the earlier Senior Associate post, and was already thinking about other practical steps that Partners could take to help them. Perfect timing! Laurie is awesome and if you get the chance, you should go to one of his sessions.

Laurie ran us through a framework that ASB is using itself, and I thought it would work great for Senior Associates. Fortunately he also wants to see others benefiting from ASB’s approach, and is happy for some of his materials to be shared.

Before we get onto CHORAC though, here’s some important background.

1   Understand what has been stopping them from taking action – is it a lack of WHY?

Before we get into the details of the CHORAC model, you need to overcome the inertia that may already exist to prevent the affected people from doing anything to fix such an unhappy situation. Part of this is understanding what has led to it.

While there may be a number of specific contextual factors, in many cases, the problem may stem from too much focus on telling your team WHAT to do and HOW to do it, with too little emphasis on WHY things need to be done. As noted in my earlier post, even at Senior Associate level many good people chafe under the tight supervision of a Partner who insists on keeping a tight grip on every matter. These earlier posts (What is your purpose? and Meaningful work a key to recruiting and retaining talent) expand on the importance of having a clear purpose.

If more time and effort is spent in discussing and agreeing WHY action is needed, and the required outcomes, and people believe in it and are confident they can do it, everyone can get on with working out what to do, and how to do it, without needing such tight management.

For a good discussion on this, watch this video from Simon Sinek (Start with Why).

2   Understand what people really want

 What do people really want2.jpg

This is really interesting, and Laurie spent quite a bit of time going through different theories of motivation, in particular Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Hertzberg’s Two Factor Theory.

A lot of focus is often applied to “Needs” and “Reward/Recognition”. These are often more “rational” or “analytical” considerations, which may be why lawyers in particular tend to focus so much on them.

You need to consider these factors in the context of the individual. Each person’s needs will be different and should not be assumed. For example, some people will be really ambitious and will be looking for opportunities to advance and earn more as soon as possible. Others may have more complex lives outside work and could have a strong need for flexible working arrangements.

In my experience, there tends to still be an assumption by many Partners that Senior Associates want to be Partners, and sooner rather than later. When the Partner thinks that is not likely to be possible, that can be one key reason why they are reluctant to start any career discussion in case the issue comes up. However, in many cases the Senior Associate will not want to be a Partner at all, or at least in the near term until they feel they are ready. They may already know that partnership is not possible or something they want, and need to know what other options there are for reward and recognition.

It is also important to understand the differences between reward and recognition. Some Partners are already familiar with this, and with Hertzberg’s theory to the extent that it proposes that pay is a hygiene factor, not a motivator. It’s used as an excuse not to worry about pay rises or bonuses when recognition (some movie vouchers, perhaps) will be more appreciated. I do find this ironic. Not only does this view not match with the behaviour those same Partners exhibit themselves when talking about their own remuneration, but at a time of unprecedented house prices and general acknowledgement of how hard it is for young families to get ahead, financial rewards may well be considered closer to needs than they have in the past and have strong motivating effect. It is true though, in my experience at least, that once you start to earn well above what you need to get by, rewards become less important as a motivator relative to factors such as achievement, responsibility, recognition, advancement and personal growth.

3   Focus more on feelings and relationships

Where Laurie’s discussion got more interesting for me was in looking at the top three factors in the chart above – proactivity, accessibility/responsiveness, and relationships. These are not so rational or measurable, but he noted that people forget what you write and say, but will remember how you made them feel.


This reinforces the point made earlier above. If you can anticipate your team member’s needs, and offer them what they want and need before they have asked for it, you will be well on the way to loyalty.

However, to do this well you obviously need to really understand what those needs are. Don’t just assume – actually ask them! This could open up whole new discussions – not just about money, but about additional time off, flexible hours, responsibility or training.

Accessibility and Responsiveness

This is a hard one to manage in practice. I had an open door policy, and it was used frequently throughout the day for all sorts of issues. I think I could have structured this better to work better for me too, but I preferred to be aware of any issues as soon as they were arising and to deal with them then, than to find out later when it’s a bigger problem.

Responsiveness is such a big thing now. In an age of instant communication, people want immediate gratification. It’s not always possible to give an immediate answer, particularly for complex personal or career issues, but you can help yourself a lot if you give them an immediate response – even if it is just to note that you are working on it, and when you will give them updates.

This is also relevant to hiring too – if you stuff around with a good candidate, they’ll quickly lose interest and move on. Move fast!


Relationships are important. Work, and life, is so much easier when people like each other.

As Laurie noted, having a good personal relationship can also help when you drop the ball on some of the other factors – people are more forgiving. If they don’t like you, they’ll have far less tolerance and will tend to favour the conspiracy theory over the simple mistake. However, being a good person won’t get you that far unless you’re also doing the other things needed to be a good boss.

Back to ASB’s CHORAC Framework…

In the context of the theories noted above, Laurie explained that ASB focus on ensuring that their employees:

  • are Confident
  • have Hope
  • Are Optimistic (very important in disruptive times, as optimistic workforces seek change)
  • are Resilient
  • have a great Attitude
  • know you Care

They can then look at each of these key attributes, and work out if there are any “sandbags” which are dragging the attribute down, or if there are any “balloons” they can use to give it a boost.

They don’t try and work on all the attributes at once – it is better to focus on one or two key factors that can be put into an action plan and make the biggest difference rather than a long list which will never go anywhere. In general, it is better to focus on areas of strength (and how to make the person really strong) rather than weakness. People are more likely to do and become really great at things they enjoy – practice is fun - and are less likely to become really good at things they aren’t strong in and don’t enjoy (and are less likely to continue to try). It’s just hard work.

Bring it all together with this model that ASB use

3 keys for success2.jpg

You can then bring it all together in accordance with the 3 key success factors in the image above, making sure that each person understands WHAT, WHY and HOW.

When looking at where each individual employee is at, you and they can now work out where to focus. Having a common framework to refer to can help you avoid miscommunication and talking past each other. For example, if someone is struggling you might see that there is no problem with “How” and “What” – they have all the skills and know what they are supposed to do, but they don’t have the motivation. You can focus on “Why” factors and get to their personal drivers. Maybe they aren’t aware of how important they are in the firm’s plans, or they need some additional form of reward and recognition. Maybe they have issues at home that you weren’t aware of.

Alternatively, you may have a really motivated Senior Associate who knows what is needed, and why, but feels like they lack some capability. I recently talked with a Senior Associate who felt this way. His Partners thought extremely highly of him, and were talking about making him a Partner if he could develop his practice into some new areas. He felt like he didn’t have the underlying technical knowledge and track-record to win and successfully do work in those areas, and needed more support and training if he was going to achieve what both he and the firm wanted.

You can use this framework to work out the key areas where action needs to be taken.

Then Take Action!

The final step is to take action. To do this, you need to get really specific. It can’t just be “get more motivated”, “do some training”, “exceed budget” or “win new clients” (or even “win client X”). Intention has to translate to measurable actions.  These actions need to be specific and you need accountability. Was it done? What was the result? You can use a table like this:


How much/how many

By whom

By when


Write blog

1 per week


Complete by Sunday, post on Monday

2 October: Done

9 October: Done

16 October: Missed







Pay careful attention to the “By whom” column. While I am a big fan of personal responsibility and accountability, I think it is too hard for Senior Associates to do all of this themselves. For example, if the aim is to win new work, there will be much greater chances of success if the Partner and the Senior Associate appear to the client to be a team – even if the Senior Associate is responsible for most of the planning and organisation. It should be a joint plan and each party should be accountable for their actions.

If you are interested in attending one of Laurie’s sessions with AllProcure or finding out more about AllProcure, contact Lindsey Haagh.

If some of the issues your Senior Associates are facing include lack of tools, time or skills to work as fast as they need to and to the required standards, and you would like to know if document automation could help, please get in touch with LawHawk.

Topics: Practise of Law

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