BALANCING COMPETENCE, CLIENT DEVELOPMENT, AND CULTURE IN SELECTING
PARTNERS AT PROFESSIONAL SERVICE FIRMS
In the post-industrial economy, much of the current and future growth is
with the professional service sector. Examples include consulting, law,
accounting, advertising, entertainment, etc. Even software can be said to
be more a service sector industry than a manufactured product.
From time to time, such firms find it useful to bring in senior level
people in a partnership role. An inappropriate lateral hiring decision for
a firm can be awkward and expensive.
When hiring laterally, there are three general expectations: (1)
professional competence (2) ability to develop new clients or bring in an
existing book of clients and (3) good fit with the existing or proposed
firm culture. The ideal is to optimize all three variables. The worst case
is to force yourself into thinking you have to make trade-offs. A middle
ground is to work with all parties in achieving a reasonable balance
The typical situation within professional service firms is the following
Mullin Smith & Dale is a Worcester law firm that is seeking to hire
Jane. She is a partner at another firm. Her area of expertise is
intellectual property and she has an outstanding track record in servicing
some of the most important biotechnology companies in Worcester County.
Managing Partner David Mullin believes she can bring in a substantial book
of business and increase the firm's visibility within the biotechnology
Mr. Mullin is concerned, however, that there is a clear lack of cultural
fit. He has worked hard to create a warm, friendly, and cooperative
atmosphere within the firm. She has a reputation of being anything but
warm, friendly, and cooperative!
The partners are into a trade-off mind set where they begin to think
that EITHER they get a rainmaker OR they get someone who would fit in with
the firm culture.
The enclosed document is called the "Working Together Letter"
because it is an attempt to clearly set forth expectations in all three
areas so important to firms----competence, client development, and
culture. It invites the person to respond and to focus on these critical
Our client was the person seeking to be hired by the firm. Her initial
response was one of anger. "How dare they write this to me!" We
explained that this "Working Together Letter" was a tremendous
gift. It put on the table all the key issues of concern. It gave her a
forum for confronting these issues before she took the job. Finally, the
letter allowed her to clearly see the firm's cultural values.
She responded to the Letter with a "Working Together Letter"
of her own and the deal was consummated. She joined the firm as a partner
two years ago and both parties are still pleased.
"Working Together Letters" work. We hope they work for your
123 Main Street
Boston, MA 12345
SUBJECT: Working Together
All of us at Mullin Smith & Dale are
enthusiastic about the possibility of you joining us. At this advanced
stage of our discussions, I think it is important that both sides put on
the table all issues--both positive and negative. My purpose in writing is
to frame these issues under the categories of competence, client
development, and culture.
I would appreciate your responding in writing
or over the phone. In return, I hope that you put together a "Working
Together" document for me, outlining where we stand on these three
We have the greatest respect for your
reputation within the Boston legal community. At some point, we would like
to be able to speak with two or three of your clients. I view this request
as appropriate "due diligence" on our part.
For the sake of the record, I want to be
explicit about client development issues. You mentioned that you are
looking for a compensation of $X. It is our hope and expectation that
under our compensation system you could make that and more! If you do not
have reasonable expectations of generating 3.5 times $X in billable work
and referral credits within eighteen months, both you and I will be
I also want to be clear about our expectation
in referral work. We think that you will be in a good position to refer
work to us. We want to refer work to you as well. One of the first things
we would do upon your arrival is to work out how together we can
accomplish this mission. We want to make sure our client development plans
Jane, this is the area where I have the most
concern. Most of our great strengths are also great weaknesses. I don't
believe you are an exception to this general rule. Your great strength is
your outstanding reputation as a tough, take-no-prisoners litigator. Your
reputation also is that you bring that tough quality in your dealings
within the firm.
We would like to think that our reputation is
that of being collegial, caring, and sensitive to the needs of attorneys
and non-attorneys who work with us and for us. We are excited about having
you with us. But we are not going to change a professional environment we
have spent years developing. Many of us left large Boston firms for the
purposes of finding exactly the kind of culture we have at Mullin Smith &
Is this type of firm you want? If so, we can
offer it to you. If it is not, you will find yourself frustrated with us.
And we will be frustrated with you.
As I said at the beginning of this letter, I
wanted to put on the table all the issues that both sides need to look at.
Competence, Clients, and Culture is a useful framework to discuss these
issues. I welcome your response and how we measure on these three
David Mullin Mullin, Smith & Dale
Dr. Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are co-founders of
Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, Boston's oldest consulting firm focusing on
career effectiveness for senior executives and senior professionals. The
readers of MASSACHUSETTS LAWYERS WEEKLY voted it the "Best
retained search Firm" in 1996 and again in 1997. Clients include
virtually every major high technology firm on Route 128, five of the six
largest universities in New England, most of Eastern Massachusetts major
health care systems, 49% of Boston's largest twenty five law firms, and
17% of New England's thrift institutions. They are also sponsors of the
Board of Directors Resource Center at www.stybelpeabody.com. You can phone
them at 617/371-2990.