Mandatory pairings – helpful or dangerous?

Some firms mandate that partners can’t go on a client pitch unless they pair with a colleague for the meeting.  So far my research suggests that this approach may do less than expected to spur true, valuable collaboration – and may even be dangerous unless the process is very carefully managed.

On the positive side, mandatory pairings send a strong signal that lone wolf behavior is not tolerated.  When implementing the new policy, one firm leader basically said, “You don’t have to take a colleague with you, but you’ll never get more than 50% credit for originating business.  So if you go alone, you have to split credit with the house.”  Mandatory pairings also ensure that at least two brains are tackling each problem; ideally, the pair includes professionals with complementary expertise so that they really do bring diverse problem solving perspectives, not just greater firepower.  A third benefit of mandatory pairings is that partners build camaraderie, trust, and a mutual respect for each other’s expertise and client development skills. Finally, mandatory pairings help to mitigate the risk associated with a single partner having the only set of eyes on an account.

On the flip side, however, a mandatory pairs policy can be gamed.  In one firm, I’ve observed lots of horse-trading and backroom deals, along the lines of “I’ll list you as the 2IC [second-in-charge] this time, and you list me next time,” often with a bit of a wink that meant “…even if neither 2IC does anything substantive for the client.”  If mandatory pairings is treated like a box-ticking exercise that merely allows partners to move past the initial screen on the client-intake system, then it breeds cynicism and can undermine serious efforts to instill collaboration.

Even worse, mandatory pairings can force a partner to foist an unwanted service onto a client. Rather than inquiring about a client’s most pressing issues and then lining up the right team to deliver it, a mandatory pairings policy makes a partner guess in advance about a client’s needs and then push that angle to matter what issues emerge.  (For a longer rant on this point, see the last post “Collaboration versus cross-selling: ‘No, I don’t want fries!’”).

Careful management of this policy would include clarifying expectations, holding partners accountable for doing it in the spirit of true value-added collaboration, and equipping professionals to have the in-depth, inquisitive business development conversations that reveal collaboration opportunities that clients value.

What are your observations or experiences with mandatory pairings?  What other aspects of management are necessary to give it teeth?  To ensure that it has the intended effects of building trust – amongst partners, and between them and clients?

If you’re a client: how do you view this policy – and do you know which firms have it in place?  Does it help or hinder value-add?  

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

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10 thoughts on “Mandatory pairings – helpful or dangerous?

  1. A mandatory pairing policy is fraught with potential problems, and you noted the biggest shortcoming: It assumes the new business meeting is to pitch work before really knowing what issues, challenges or opportunities the prospective client may be facing.

    The would-be client may be left wondering why the second lawyer is sitting across the table, and what are they trying to sell me.

    At the very minimum, if there is a two lawyer policy then a lot of advance intelligence needs to be collected about the target. If the firm has a marketing department, much of this work can be done there by scouring EDGAR and other regulatory filings, Lexis-Nexis, the archive of the business section of a local newspapers as well as business and industry magazines, and the company’s website. By putting together a dossier, Partner 1 can make a more informed decision about who to select as Lawyer 2.

    Even still, whether there is one lawyer or a baker’s dozen going to the meeting, it cannot be treated as a “here’s how great we are, and everything we do” session. Far too many of this kind of meeting ends up going nowhere because the lawyers do all the talking because they see it as a time to literally “pitch their wares” at the target. Instead, it is much more effective to use it as an opportunity to get the target to talk about their business. Sooner or later, they’ll raise something that the firm can help them with.

    The same process described in an article about how to get a client to “cross buy” additional services from a firm should be employed in approaching a prospective client. The article is at http://www.linkedin.com/pulse/end-dreaded-cross-selling-pitches-get-clients-buy-instead-bliwas?trk=mp-author-card

    In my experience over the past 20+ years of working in law marketing and business development, the less selling that’s done, the more buying results.

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  2. Mandatory pairings have all the risks identified, despite having the laudable objective of increasing collaboration.

    If mandatory pairing is implemented, there needs to be very rigorous selection of which professionals are paired – having regard to not only their practice areas, but also their personalities and approach. This is because the pair need to not only work effectively together, but need to be seen by the clients as being able to work together, and respect and trust each other. I have seen pitches from a client side by firms that have sent a team where the individuals clearly do not get on, and the body language in this regard sends an unbelievably strong signal that this is the case (and the pitch has failed as a consequence).

    I agree with the above comment too that mandatory pairing gives rise to a tendency to “sell” rather than to “listen”.

    The other downside of mandatory pairings is that opportunities that are outside the skill-set of the pair are missed, as neither sees the opportunity as worth the effort in exploring.

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    • Thanks for highlighting the selection angle, which I’d totally missed. Of course you’re right: I’ve also heard horror stories from clients about pairs or teams showing up, and the client had to introduce partners to their own colleagues — disaster!

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  3. I agree with the above comments. I understand the intent behind mandatory pairings however, in my view, it is better to work on the underlying blockers to involving other partners rather than forcing the issue.

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  4. Mandatory pairings are fine without the mandatory part.
    The key aspect mentioned in the overview is that of foisting services on unwitting targets. There is a key middle ground where pairings can be encouraged (and rewarded) but only after the client or target has signalled an interest in the particular area.
    Without this, any pairings initiative is likely to be short-lived, mainly from the supply side where time-poor partners grow tired of endless visits with semi-interested clients that do not convert to sales.
    As always there’s an exception…
    That client who loves the concept of throwing new ideas around with different people. In this case, the pairings approach may be welcomed as a purely intellectual pursuit. Not a bad concept for building long term relationships with the right type of client.

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  5. I fully agree that the word mandatory is the problem. I strongly believe to establish the principle of pairing in the interest of the best possible service for a client. In practice a partner should seek assistance from specialized fellow partners. Seeking help should not be seen as a weakness, but best practice behavior. Team play and collaboration within the partner group should be part of the basic values and culture. Special care should be taken to recognize the behavior. I am convinced that if properly paired in the interest of a client it will result in win-win.

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  6. I completely agree with George. This is about culture and the behaviours that stem from having a collaborative, one-firm mentality. This does however require carefully agreed, measureable, balanced objectives to ensure the right teaming behaviour is appropriately awarded – without reference to “fees against name”.

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