Like some of you, when I reviewed this year's short list for the Chambers and Partners Awards for Excellence for Latin America, at first I was a little surprised by some of the very good firms that were not finalists for these prestigious and coveted awards.

This post is not an attempt to debate or explain the short list selection criteria that the awards team at Chambers and Partners uses. Instead, I want to share two observations about the firms that did, and did not, make the list.

This is why this post is really about partner empowerment, rather than the Chambers and Partners awards.

One of the characteristics of many of the good firms in Latin America that are not finalists in the country competitions is that many of them retain traditional patriarchal governance structures, decision-making processes, and professional cultures dominated by a small number of senior partners. Junior partners are usually relegated to performing subordinate roles, both in the firm and in client relations. Change happens, but it is slow and frequently must overcome great skepticism and resistance from senior partners.

By contrast, most of the short-list firms in Latin America have made, or are in the process of making, the transition from being family firms, or from firms dominated by a small number of founding partners, to institutional law firms in which all partners perform significant roles in every aspect of the firm's leadership, management, and professional practice. Senior partners frequently are the most noticeable and energetic champions of change.

These observations are not necessarily true of every firm that is on the short list or that is not. However, they describe a significant difference between the nominees for the country Awards for Excellence in Latin America, as a group, and those who are not on the country short lists, as a group.

Whether your law firm is in Latin America or elsewhere, which of these two general observations more accurately describes your partnership? Here are a few questions to consider.

How would your "one big happy family" answer these questions?

  • Regardless of what your partnership agreement says, to what extent is decision-making power concentrated in a relatively small number of founding or senior partners?
  • What efforts has your firm made to enlarge your partnership from within your firm? Or do you rely primarily on lateral recruiting of partners as your principal tactic for growth?
  • Even if you have promoted a significant number of partners from within your firm, do they perform important functions in the leadership, practice management, and client relations functions of your firm, or are they not much more than "service partners?"
  • To what extent has your firm transferred real authority and important responsibilities from your most senior partners to your junior partners?
  • To what extent do your senior partners expect and actively encourage junior partners to speak freely in partnership meetings? Or are junior partners reluctant to speak because they are afraid of having their concerns and ideas dismissed or devalued by the senior partners?
  • To what extent do junior partners feel comfortable in supporting each other in partnership meetings promoting changes or raising sensitive issues?
  • To what extent has your firm made significant investments in the development of leadership, practice management, and marketing skills for your junior partners? Or are these something that you expect every partner to learn on the job?

All of these issues have strong cultural components; and professional cultures often are difficult and slow to change, even in progressive law firms. However, by making a serious investment in empowering your younger partners, and in communicating higher expectations for them, you will obtain positive results that will be noticed, not only inside the firm, but outside as well.

Even by Chambers and Partners.

Norman Clark