I was talking to the senior partner of a respected and well known international law firm before Christmas. We talked about the work we’re doing in the financial sector to establish a day-to-day culture of accountability. He said something that sounded at first a little incongruous:“accountability is a big problem for me …. amongst the partners.”   In theory, of course, partnerships are constructed on foundations of accountability: to each other, to every one of your partners. That’s what a partnership is all about: liability for each others’ debts, negligence and various peccadilloes. Limited liability partnerships may have lessened the financial burdens and the increasing number of fixed share or salaried partners (partners in name only) diluted feelings of accountability. However, the very word ‘partner’ implies the sharing of profits and risks and it implies … answerability (which is basically what accountability means: “in ethics and governance accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, the expectation of account giving.”)

Certainly when you ask a partner in a law firm ‘who are you accountable to?’ there is a consistent answer: “to my partners.” My follow up question is ‘what exactly are you accountable for?’ Again there is a generally consistent response: “my performance”. On closer questioning, it is clear that for some their ‘performance’ principally amounts to their financial contribution. I have written previously about law firms being managed by the spreadsheet, and the consequent culture of ‘more being better’. Other partners will insist that their performance involves consideration of a wider, non-financial contribution to the firm, its wellbeing and its people’s wellbeing. Indeed how a partner answers this sort of follow up question is for me a prime indicator of the firm’s culture. Because it’s the individual partners who create that culture. What they think is expected of them absolutely indicates the culture of the firm and firms that are seeking to capture this sort of non-financial contribution (in a metric) are, I think, on the right track.

The last in depth conversation I had in a law firm before the seasonal break was with an unusually thoughtful lawyer who had retired from his partnership but is keen to play a role in culture change. I’ll call him Dirk (although it’s not his real name!) We started talking about people in the firm understanding what the firm is for – its purpose. Increasingly this is what we need to focus on before we can do anything meaningful on culture. Having previously been involved in the firm’s management, Dirk talked with inside knowledge: “We could be [running a law firm] because we genuinely love the law and enjoy taking points. Or we could be really client focussed – which would drive a certain attitude. Or we could take our duty towards our employees very seriously (and not just in terms of remuneration). Or we could just be in it to make money; let’s face it many of us just drifted into [law] and we could be doing anything else.” Having established these of alternatives he said “Over the last 25 years we [the firm] have vacillated between client focus, employees and making money. For long periods it has been about making money and that has led to laterals and promotes who are attuned simply to that.” We went on to discuss how, having hired or promoted that type of person into the partnership, a culture of focusing on the money will naturally prevail (unless people like Dirk start the conversation we were discussing and talk openly about what the firm’s purpose and what individual partners need to do to achieve that).

Of course partners are accountable for more than their own financial performance and to more people than simply their partners. My own involvement with law firms centres on how individuals behave and treat each other. In this space I haven’t got unalloyed good news to report! As part of an ongoing culture change project at a mid-size international firm we have spoken to every single one of the partners (in a small group or one to one) about their partners’ behaviour. I think what surprised me most of all was not that errant behaviour was accepted as being common amongst a few. Because working as an employment lawyer you learn that there is poor behaviour everywhere: in private homes, in the best run, household name, global charities and workplace consultancies, in schools and hospitals etc. etc.. More striking for me was that many (possibly most) of the individual partners felt comfortable saying that it was not their job to question such behaviour when they encountered it amongst their partners.

My first question to a partner (and owner) expressing this view is ‘if not you, then who’. The answer in this exercise was consistently ‘management’, either at a departmental level or more likely the central management of the firm. Clearly as firms develop more complex management structures, with more elected representatives, there is a tendency for individual owners to feel less responsible for behavioural matters. This makes sense because when I speak to partners in teams about their (individual and collective) failure to address the errant behaviour of another partner in their team, they will first use the fees generated by the errant partner to justify their inaction. And whether someone in the firm should risk upsetting a significant fee generator feels like a question for (departmental or) the firm’s central management.

We may to have arrived at a position where ‘non-management partners’ will only take action that feels ‘safe’. I think that the culture change needed in many firms involves empowering individual partners to enter ‘unsafe’ areas; to re-establish in their own minds their personal importance in setting the tone and creating the atmosphere.   Also to send a clear message to them that if they have been seeking to further the values and ideas that the firm stands for, they will be supported by the firm (which probably in the first instance means the firm’s management).

Without taking the pressure of the ‘non-management partners’ (which is where I think we should be trying to place it) there is clearly an onus on those selected to lead the firm. They should (i) make explicit the firm’s values and the behaviours expected of its people, (ii)inspire, encourage and facilitate ‘self-policing’ by individual partners and (iii) support genuine attempts to promote those values and behaviours. Inevitably this will require difficult, commercial decisions where errant behaviour is practised by significant fee earners who have previously gone unchallenged.

In speaking to ‘non-management partners’ in the real world, I often hear that this sort of clarity and support from the firm’s central management is lacking (and what’s holding them back). If that is how they feel, the firm needs to deal with that perception (whether or not it’s true). And I have to admit that when speaking to the ‘management partners’, I don’t often get the sense that they feel they have done everything they can.

However, my final thought is that it is the individual partners who have to want to change if any culture change exercise is going to work. Without that nothing will happen.