Issue No. 2, April 2003

Dear Colleague:

Without superb performance, no professional service firm can survive for long. It is not enough to recruit the best talent. Firms must set high performance standards and ensure that everyone understands and adheres to them. This issue of Management Solutions provides two resources to help you assess and sustain the kind of performance your firm needs to succeed and endure.

This issue also takes a look at mentoring. Most of us would agree that mentoring relationships are important - but we wouldn't necessarily agree on why. "Spotlight on Mentoring" explains why a shared understanding about the purpose of mentoring is essential for a mentor and mentee to have a successful relationship.

I am working on an exciting new study of diversity in mentoring, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Our findings and recommendations will be published in the fall. Please read below about this important project and how your firm can participate.

This issue's case study examines how a litigation team successfully managed a difficult client. The team's initial strategy was avoidance - ignore the problem and hope it resolves itself. When that plan failed, they asked me to help them fashion a different approach. The case study shows how an outside consultant - who brings "fresh eyes" and no emotional baggage to the situation - can help salvage a tough client relationship.

It was wonderful to hear from many of you in response to the first issue of Management Solutions. I hope to continue bringing you information and ideas for more effective management, development, and retention of talented professionals. Are there subjects you would like to see addressed in future issues? Please write and let me know.


  1. Improving Performance
    • Using performance standards to make associate evaluations meaningful
    • Diagnostic Tool: How Effective is Your Firm at Sustaining High Performance?
  2. Spotlight on Mentoring:
    • Clarify the purpose of mentoring
    • Mentoring and Diversity
  3. Solving Management Problems: Using an Outside Consultant to Deal with a Difficult Client - A Case Study
  4. Management Tips and Resources


Your firm depends on consistently outstanding performance by its professionals. High performance requires a work environment that provides clear expectations, effective feedback and evaluations, and systems that value and promote excellence. Here are two resources to help your firm achieve and sustain high performance:

Associate Reviews: Performance Standards Make Them Valued, Not Dreaded is an article that explains how you can make performance evaluations more meaningful and valuable for associates and for the firm. Available for download in PDF format

How Effective Is Your Firm at Sustaining High Performance? is a diagnostic tool that you can use to examine how well your firm is doing in four key areas of performance management: setting and supporting clear work expectations; supporting those expectations with meaningful rewards and consequences; giving effective feedback and evaluations; and fostering and supporting individual goal-setting. Available for download in PDF format

Feel free to download and use these resources to help you assess and strengthen your performance management systems. If they suggest that your firm needs assistance in these areas, contact us to see how we can help you. View all diagnostic tools from Ida Abbott Consulting

PDF files require Acrobat Reader to view and print. Reader can be downloaded free from Adobe.


Clarify the purpose of mentoring. Mentoring continues to be the most critical and cost-effective long-term investment in people that a firm can make. Associates constantly voice their desire for mentoring, and it is clearly in the best interests of the firm to provide it. Through effective mentoring, associates become confident about both their skills as lawyers and their contribution to the firm and its clients. As their proficiency grows, so does their productivity; when they feel professionally satisfied, they are more likely to remain with the firm. Because of its importance and value, many firms are trying to promote mentoring. If yours is one of these firms, be sure that mentors and mentees share the same understanding of the purpose of mentoring.

People perceive the purpose of mentoring in different ways, and these differences can have a significant impact on how mentoring relationships develop and whether they succeed. The traditional approach to mentoring is based on applying the mentor's guidance, power, and influence to advance the mentee's career, while the developmental approach is focused on promoting the mentee's learning and development, and emphasizes mutual responsibilities of mentor and mentee. A traditional approach is more suitable for senior associates, while the developmental approach may be more appropriate for junior associates. However, unless the mentoring purpose is clarified at the outset, mentor and mentee may have contradictory understandings of the purpose of their relationship and conflicting expectations for each other. That is one of the reasons it is important to spell out mentoring goals and participants' roles in program guidelines and initial conversations between each mentor and mentee.

Mentoring and Diversity: I would like to enlist your assistance for a project on diversity in mentoring. I am working with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) on a study of lawyers in cross-gender and cross-race mentoring relationships. Previous research by the MCCA found that highly accomplished lawyers rank mentoring as the #2 factor - higher than revenue generation, marketing, and top-notch credentials - influencing a lawyer's ability to succeed. Our current research will try to identify the barriers that often prevent women and minority lawyers from having valuable mentoring relationships, and find strategies and techniques to overcome them.

As part of this project, we will be conducting focus groups and interviews in San Francisco, Houston, and New York. We will also conduct telephone interviews. If you have relevant personal experience, know of lawyers who might be interested in participating in the research, or want to bring pertinent questions or issues to my attention, please contact me through my website,, or by email at


The case study presented below involves a deteriorating client relationship that might have led to the loss of a major client if the firm had not sought timely help. As this case study shows, an impartial outside consultant can help firms manage and resolve difficult client problems.

A law firm represented a corporation in a complex litigation matter. The company's General Counsel informed the litigation team leader that the in-house counsel who had been supervising the matter was taking a medical leave, and that another in-house lawyer (let's call him Fred) would be taking over supervision of the case.

The litigation team found Fred to be cranky and difficult to deal with. Fred was extremely critical of the partners handling the case and he behaved abusively toward the associates (e.g., insulting and screaming at them over the phone). When the lead partner tried to talk with Fred about his behavior, Fred scoffed and threatened to take the case to another firm. The partner decided that the best course of action was not to antagonize Fred in the hope that time would take care of the situation. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the problems escalated. Within a short time, the entire litigation team was upset and everyone avoided Fred. The lead partner, realizing the gravity of the situation, asked for my assistance.

I worked with the litigation team to develop a two-part approach to this problem. First, the lead partners and I met with the entire litigation team to assure them that team leaders were aware of the problems with Fred and were addressing them. We advised team members how to handle particular situations (e.g., offensive phone calls) and gave them emotional support. The team viewed this meeting as an important step in restoring confidence and improving morale. To maintain the positive momentum, brief weekly meetings were held to keep the team informed about case developments and to provide a forum for discussing any lingering concerns about the client relationship.

Second, we worked out a strategy to deal with Fred's behavior. The team rejected the idea of going around Fred to the General Counsel because Fred and he had a strong relationship. Our investigation revealed two important points: (1) Fred had no previous experience with litigation as complex or potentially costly as the matter at hand, and (2) avoiding Fred had reduced communication and increased mistrust, misunderstanding, and risk of errors. We concluded that a likely explanation for Fred's belligerent behavior was that it reflected his insecurity. The team leaders agreed to reverse course. Rather than avoiding Fred, they would be as helpful to Fred as possible and increase communications, informing Fred in detail of everything that was going on in the case, explaining every option, and consulting with Fred before making key decisions. This strategy gradually eased the friction between Fred and the team and saved the case for the firm.


Make Your Own Training Videos. Today's technology makes it remarkably easy and inexpensive for firms to create sophisticated and customized training materials. A wonderful example is a DVD on management that Blank Rome LLP produced for new practice group leaders. Designed to supplement training in the business aspects of management, this 20-minute DVD focuses on managing people. It consists of a series of five vignettes that illustrate common management challenges and some suggested approaches to dealing with them. The content is serious but presented with a strong dose of humor.

All the actors are senior administrative personnel in the firm. The Director of Professional Development & Training and the Legal Personnel Officer wrote and directed the script. Without any special training, they filmed the DVD using a plain digital camera and edited the final product with the help of a secretary on a MacG4 computer using iMovie and iDVD software (both standard on the MacG4). It took them one day to film and one day to edit. With a little creativity, your firm can also produce training tools that are both instructive and fun.

Interactive corporate training. Firms that are trying to make transactional law training more interesting and interactive should be aware of materials available from ALI-ABA. The materials, which were developed by ALI-ABA, PLI, California Continuing Education of the Bar, and eight major American and Canadian law firms, consist of two separate packages: Conducting a Due Diligence Review and Negotiating and Drafting the Acquisition Agreement. Both use a "learning-by-doing" approach in the context of a hypothetical corporate acquisition. Each package costs $695 and includes a Discussion Leader's Guide, ten sets of participant materials, and exercises for up to six hours of training. Additional participant materials may be purchased separately. More information about the due diligence materials can be found at

Book Recommendation: Most management books are written with corporations in mind and do not readily apply (or must be adapted in the reader's mind) to the very different setting of professional service firms. Aligning the Stars, by J.W. Lorsch and Thomas J. Tierney (Harvard Business School Press, 2002, $29.95), is one of the few books that address management of professional firms. The book argues that the best professional firms succeed by developing and nurturing their star performers, and by aligning the individual interests of those stars with the strategy and organization of the firm. Not an easy task, to be sure, but the authors' clear insights and advice provide helpful guidance.

©2003 Ida Abbott Consulting

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