Doctors, lawyers and the importance of ownership

Published on: 
Published on 9/7/09

For insight into the legal profession's current troubles, compare the career experience of lawyers with that of doctors.

In the medical profession, interns work with older practitioners, learning both practice and client/patient communication skills. Eventually, the young physician takes over the practice as the old doctor progresses to retirement.

In big law, a young associate works as part of the ranks for as many as ten years, and is then either invited to become one of the partners or is asked to find employment elsewhere.

In a small firm, a young associate works for a few years, then feels entitled to partnership. While the associate may be a good lawyer, he or she has yet to develop rainmaking skills, and still has no personal client following or book of business.

The result is a classic "Catch-22" — the associate wants to become a partner, but has no ownership stake in the firm without a book of clients.

Consider the contrasting perspectives of the people involved in each of these scenarios. In the medical example, there generally is no discussion of money; the young doctor is happy to have a job, likes and respects the older doctor and is eager to learn as much as possible from the experienced doctor.

The older doctor, on the other hand, is happy to have a younger person to help out and to mentor so that his patients will receive both his experience and the new learning coming out of a recent medical graduate.

In the big law scenario, there is no mutual benefit dynamic. If the associate does become a partner, that status likely translates to the lack of a voice in the corporate-style firm governance that rests in the hands of the management committee.

And, of course, the risk exists that the associate could be laid off or asked to leave long before becoming a partner. Either way, the situation does not encourage a sense of ownership and commitment.

In a small firm, the young associate may be thrilled to be considered for the partnership — but having never developed clients, he or she has no real idea of what "ownership" as a partner means.

Often associates believe that their time and effort, working at partner direction, are substantially responsible for creating value in the firm and warrant due credit. Yet everyone in a firm creates value in this way, including staff. One does not hear a staff person asking for a partnership interest.

The difference comes down to ownership versus entitlement. The concept of ownership and the ownership responsibility is the only way to build a meaningful professional service career, getting away from the broken model in which people are chewed up and spit out, whether through layoffs or failing to make partner.

Ownership expectations make the difference between young Dr. Kildare and young Perry Mason. Without having responsibility for business development that contributes to the success of the firm, the associate feels entitlement rather than ownership, and may well end up with neither.

The doctor ends up with patients, a practice and professional satisfaction.

This Coach’s Corner Article is listed under the following categories: