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Best Practice Tips: Lawyer Performance and Setting Expectations

Asked and Answered 

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am the owner of a real estate practice in Rockford. I have two offices – one in Rockford and the other in Chicago. I started my practice 20 years ago and have had my associate for the past five years. He works in the Chicago office and I work in the Rockford office. Prior to this associate I had two other associates that did not work out. My present associate has 14 years’ experience and worked in three other law firms. I am not happy with his performance. The legal assistant that works with him has advised me that he often does not come into the office until 10 a.m. and often leaves in the middle of the day. Clients have complained that he does not return phone calls or emails. His production is low – his annual billable hours have never been above 1,200 hours. I am paying him a salary of $98,000. I have had numerous conversations with him about these issues to no avail. Frankly, I am sick of it – I don’t trust him and things need to change. What should be my next step?

A. I find that owners of law firms and partners in multi-partner firms often fail to really lay their cards on the table when counselling associates. They beat around the bush and do not communicate their expectations and consequences for non-compliance.

As the owner of a firm, you can’t be sheepish about your expectations. Confront the performance or behavioral problem immediately. Manage such problems in real time. Don’t wait for the annual performance review, and don’t treat a serious problem as a “self-improvement” effort. Tell him how you feel about the performance or behavioral issue, the consequences for failure to resolve the issue, your timeline for resolving the issue, and the follow-up schedule that you will be using to monitor the issue. If he must resolve the performance or behavioral issue in order to keep his job, then tell him so. He may need this level of confrontation to give him the strength to be able to deal with his issues.

Have a heart-to-heart discussion with him. You will be glad you did.

I would set a timeline for his performance improvement – say 60 or 90 days with weekly coaching follow-up meetings. Document these meetings. If he does not meet your expectations by the deadline, you should terminate his employment and look for a replacement.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, ( is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and author of The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning published by the ABA. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at

Posted on July 6, 2018 by Rhys Saunders
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Member Comments (3)

I think you should hire me. 

 I wanted to share a radical idea I came up with when I was transitioning out of my practice. I hired an associate for a very low wage, i.e. $27,000 per year. However, I paid her a monthly bonus based on her bulled and collected. She got 10% of the first $5000, 20% of the second $5000, 30% of everything over $10,000. For three or four years I worked a lot less and made a lot more money using the system.   I think the mistake the most firms make is paying a year end bonus based on a very high billed and collected to their associates. That is such a high number and the bonus is so far off that they are not as incentivized to produce as much as if they were getting something every month. Just my thought.   

I have suggestions, good ones actually, but do not wish to blare it to the public.  Please feel free to message me offline.