Is success earned or inherited? A recent study about pay gaps between female and male partners in the law firm industry pointed out some reasons that go against the conventional wisdom of why they exist. Many firms have spent either lip service or real resources trying to create more diverse work environments with equal opportunities, but few have succeeded in solving the issues at hand. It seems that according to the research of Heidi K. Gardner, Distinguished Scholar, Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, the gap starts with origination credits and their inheritance from senior partners and compounds upon itself.
Origination credits, attribution and quantification of sources of revenue generated for the firm, make up a sizable amount of the compensation formulas for many law firms. There are two main ways to generate them. You can go out and find new clients, or you can inherit big clients from someone that leaves the firm through retirement or another career opportunity (assuming the client stays with the firm). The former is much harder and takes time and investment. The latter, which also takes time and investment to put yourself in the benefactor position, is like your long lost uncle willing you a big bag of money.
Personally, I think the lack of thought and process to succession planning in most firms is fraught with problems. It does not benefit clients for the succession to be based on personal preferences. It does not benefit all of the other lawyers who lose in this all or nothing approach. It does not benefit the firm that is trying to find ways to grow the firm and offer professional development to their key people.
This article deals with gender pay gap issues that must be addressed by the industry. However, it does illustrate another point about success and performance. If we call people “rainmakers” because they won the succession lottery, how can we replicate that process when we have dozens or hundreds of more people to develop? Is the policy of an organization that you should work hard for years and years and hope for the best? This is not strategy or tactics. It is Lord of the Flies. Your people deserve better.
This is the real world, so hand picking successors to a large book of business is going to happen. The question is what are organizations prepared to do for the 95% of other people at the firm who are not so lucky as to be relate to the firm’s equivalent of the Rockefeller family. Saying, “Be more like John! He worked hard for 15 years and look what happened!” because John was the one person who lucked out is not a development program. It is a anecdote. My problem is not with someone taking over the account. My problem is that we look to those people as exclusive examples of how to behave if you want to be successful.
For the rest of your people, they need training, development and coaching. The inheritances will happen, but you can’t point to that as the path to success since it closes immediately behind the last person to walk it. It is your job as leaders to help the rest.