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Star quality: keeping talented lawyers motivated — and contained

Star quality: keeping talented lawyers motivated — and contained


Love them or hate them, rainmakers are what makes most firms tick, but in addition to support, they need to be controlled, says Alicia Fortinberry

Many law firms increasingly rely on star power. They are striving to distinguish themselves in the marketplace and often to strengthen their strongest offerings rather than support marginal practices. As one managing partner of a London-based global law firm said to me recently: “Our future depends largely on our outstanding revenue earners and potential rainmakers. They’re the ones we have to keep happy.”

Stars are rare, they account for.0019% of the normal work pool, according to The Oxford Handbook of Talent Management. By definition stars are characterised by outsize talent, performance, remuneration, and big names in the marketplace. In some law rms stars have nearly as much clout as management, although they usually eschew the day-to-day hassle of administration.

In a law context, overseeing rainmakers is a tricky business. Along with rewards, stars can bring drawbacks. These can include poor behaviour with other lawyers and sta, lack of cooperation with colleagues and a tendency to break the rules. Rainmakers often cause conflict. Law is at heart a conservative profession, which is most comfortable looking backwards at precedent rather than forward to opportunities. Stand-outs, particularly those with characteristics such as ruthless ambition, high competitiveness and imagination, tend to make the mainstream highly uncomfortable.

So how do law rms keep their stars motivated yet contained, and identify and nourish star talent?


First, let’s look at what makes a star: some combination of wealth, skill and just plain luck over time. They tend to congregate in high-income areas such as back-end litigation and M&A. Their skills and capabilities include:

  • far higher than normal levels of concentration
  • the ability to focus on and create what’s most in demand
  • a huge drive to excel
  • huge learning capacity
  • enterprising spirit
  • ability to integrate new ideas into existing information and translate these into action
  • grit over an extended period
  • willingness to take large risks
  • high level of knowledge in their practice and business area
  • capacity to gain the trust of high-level clients

Stars are largely formed by context, such as high-profile law firms in which high competitiveness is rewarded. Stars are given more latitude to fail and revise. They and their teams receive greater resources and autonomy.

The best lawyers gravitate to high-profile partners. In one large firm, a very eccentric, forgetful and brilliant star who was deemed to be a nightmare to work with by team members, nonetheless had a dedicated team. “It’s high-status work, although 24/7”, one senior associate told me. “And the stories! Like yesterday the partner looked up from her work at her assistant of five years and said, “Have I met you?” “Yes,” her assistant answered. “But it was a while ago. Now please sign this.”


While many organisations hope and believe that stars will pass on their ability to excel and bypass conventional wisdom to arrive at brilliant solutions, this isn’t always so in law firms. Rainmakers tend to cling to their high-profile clients and deny others access and exposure that would develop them. After all, if being a star is key to retaining your unique high position, why would you risk enabling others to replace you?

Narcissism is not unusual among rainmakers – just as it is a characteristic of some CEOs and great salesmen. One managing partner told me he had found the secret of dealing with a di cult rainmaker who had been at the firm for a long time. “You can have very open conversations and give hard feedback,” he said, “In fact you can say anything you long as it’s about him.” Did he change as a result?” I asked. “Well,” he admitted, “Not yet...”

Stars can come across as extremely self- con dent – that’s how they gain the faith of their clients and win concessions from management.

But many rainmakers display signs of what psychologists call ‘fragile high self-esteem’. They may only really feel worthwhile (and thus supported and safe) when working on high value, high visibility matters and receiving top ratings. They are therefore driven to extreme lengths to achieve. One star I knew avoided firm lifts when he was in between large matters so that he didn’t have to face colleagues’ questions on how he was going. “The answer is always supposed to be ‘busy,’ he told me. “Well, what if I’m not?”

Stars tend to burn out quickly, and most peak in their 30s. Ongoing extreme work plays a role, although many rainmakers seem to be blessed with a genetic hardiness that enables them in their prime to take calls from all parts of the globe at all hours, withstand jetlag and operate on scant sleep. At some point age, exhaustion and low glutamate (blood sugar) take their toll. The human system can no longer call up the reserves needed to regulate mood and behaviour. Burnout and erratic, inappropriate or just plain bad behaviour is almost inevitable. Physical and even emotional illness is not uncommon, especially since some brilliance is entwined with characteristics on the spectrum of personality disorders.

Youth is also another factor in highly competitive, self-centered behaviour. Men under 45 are more likely to put their own welfare rst and to disregard the cost of their actions on others. After 45 they can become more thoughtful and caring, but often by then stars have made enemies or at least competitors who are on the lookout for any chink in their armour.

n my observation, female rainmakers need to be even more bullet-proof to survive. While women are genetically more geared to be a liative and cooperative, these qualities and soft skills are not as fully valued in big business as ruthlessness and competitiveness. I know of women who have been told by male partners to show more ruthlessness against internal competitors. Yet many people expect women to be more emotionally supportive and nurturing than men and are disappointed when this does not seem to be the case.

This can be as true or more so of other women, who may size up another female as either a strong support or a threat.

Law firms must take four steps to continue to gain the benefits of rainmakers without the drawbacks.

1 Enable rainmakers to have functional recognition and relationships within the rm as well as with clients. Rainmakers, like others in professional services firms, often find it easier to bond with clients than colleagues and management. This is because they are most rewarded within the firm for the strength of their client relationships. It is also because the boundaries and exchange with clients seem clearer, which provides psychological safety.

2 Create functional relationships within the firm with both strong non-financial rewards and clear boundaries.

3 Uphold positive cultural norms vigorously and consistently.

4 Create a culture that doesn’t rely so fully on outstanding individuals to drive innovation and draw clients. Focus on the things that do: cooperation, mutual respect, non-financial rewards especially praise and recognition, clear boundaries around behaviour and when it is – and isn’t – safe to fail. Support and promote women who display affiliation and who support others as well as being smart, proactive and commercial. Gender diversity isn’t just about the X chromosome – it’s about creating an environment that truly supports the different viewpoints and often values women can provide. SJ


Alicia Fortinberry PhD is a psychologist and consultant at Fortinberry Murray