The perfect partner part two: a trusted evaluation process

Tougher operating conditions means law firm leaders may need to rethink their partner performance evaluation process, writes Moray McLaren

Evaluating partner performance on non-financial metrics can be trickier Shutterstock

The results of my recent survey for the LawAhead Centre at IE Law School and the IBA Law Firm Management Committee (LFMC) underscores the need to clearly define partner contribution and associated behaviours while establishing a trusted system for evaluating partners and distributing profits equitably.

In part one we heard how the buoyancy that characterised firms in 2022, with robust profits adding a glimmer of positivity, has given way to the sobering reality of escalating costs in 2023. With a current squeeze on profits, we saw that firms are revisiting partner accountabilities, updating KPIs and introducing performance bands with guardrails. In this concluding article, we will explore how that is requiring firms to look closely at the evaluation process.

The case for reinforcing governance

The challenges of a pure EWK (Eat What you Kill) or lockstep approach are clear. But we should not underestimate their huge advantage – objective simplicity. The inclusion of non-financial KPIs introduces its own challenges. Firms are investing in robust systems to help make informed decisions, but an element of judgement is always required.

Reviewing a partner’s financial success is straightforward but evaluating fellow partners on non-financials (e.g. motivating their team or building the firm reputation) is more nuanced. And in some firms there is still reluctance to move to a system requiring judgement over fellow partners. Almost half of respondents (46%) said they have a remuneration committee, while 16% leave this role to current leadership and the remainder say they are decided “purely on financial metrics only”.

The partner paradox is clear – firms in which partners enjoy a high-level of independence, light-touch management and a ‘first among equals’ approach to leadership have some significant barriers to overcome.

Our respondents listed the following in order of importance*:

  1. lack of partner accountability (44%)
  2. lack of shared partner goals (29%) 
  3. fear of conflict (16%)
  4. absence of trust (11%)

(*they could score multiple options)

Moving from evaluation to development

With partners now expected to be more than ‘just’ an excellent technical lawyer, many firms are failing to prepare lawyers for partnership. New partners are frustrated because they have not been given the skills to build their practice and firm leaders are irritated by a lack of progression from good technical lawyer to fully contributing partners.

Another unforeseen consequence of Covid was the group of unprepared seniors who were sucked into partnership (for all the right reasons, such as busy workloads, and so on). On the positive side, firms have invested financially in making-up the next generation, but they need to now help them develop the skills necessary to increase firm profitability. 

Proper partner KPIs are key to achieving this, as they define both the development competencies of the potential partner group and a firm’s partner selection criteria.


As we conclude this two-part series, it becomes evident that the evolving landscape necessitates more flexible approaches. Striking a balance between professional autonomy and the collaborative responsibilities of co-owners is the key to forging a sustainable and prosperous future for law firm partnerships. The shift from partner evaluation to development underscores the importance of nurturing the next generation of partners.

So, will what brought us here, get us there?  My results show that a lot of firms believe the answer is “no”. The move away from financial metrics continues with today’s requirement for performance management striking at the heart of the partnership model – finding an acceptable balance between professional autonomy and the rights and duties of co-owners in a business.

Do we want to go back to where we were? The answer to this for some and by no means all partners appears to be “no” – hence the need to develop more flexible owner and career approaches. Better perhaps to reframe the question like this: as partners, do we all need to run at the same speed?

Globally it would appear that traditional approaches to ownership and profit sharing is an impediment for many firms – the key to a sustainable partnership is offering “real” ownership with “fair” profit-sharing.

Moray McLaren is co-founder of Lexington Consultants and a professor at the LawAhead Centre for the Legal Profession at IE Law School.

Lexington’s research Defining the Perfect Partner: Articulating performance metrics for a new era has been published by Harvard Law School and is available here. Law firms participated from around the world. For further information contact or 

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