Helping make ascending to partner all it's cracked up to be

How two legal industry veterans are helping the next generation reach, maintain, and find meaning in their professional goals

Helping make ascending to partner all it's cracked up to be

In a legal career that has spanned more than four decades, Ron Nathans has reached the top.

Admitted to practice in 1970, he was from 1978 until the turn of the millennium a partner, and for a period, managing partner, at Middletons Moore & Bevins. Part of the firm would later become what is now K&L Gates in Australia. In 2000, he joined Deacons, which later evolved into Norton Rose Fulbright. Until 2010, when he retired from private practice, he was a partner, executive committee member, and practice group leader at the global firm.

He then established a legal compliance and law practice risk management consultancy within the general counsel group at NRF. The consultancy focused on audits and investigation of partner work practices and conduct, with particular emphasis on quality control, best practices, risk management, and adherence to partnership values and culture. He has also been a mentor in the Law Society of New South Wales’ Women’s Mentoring Program.

Now he wants to help lawyers achieve the same heights, by sharing his unique insights so that the next generation can reach, maintain, and find meaning in their professional goals.

Making a difference in ‘retirement’

“Those experiences and my work with the Law Society’s women’s mentoring scheme gave me the idea that in my ‘retirement,’ I could make a difference and perhaps a dollar or two by doing something that might assist in making the stressful practice of law a not unenjoyable experience and a stronger contributor to one’s overall life satisfaction,” he says.

Earlier this year, he teamed up with fellow seasoned lawyer John Oakes, establishing Nathans & Oakes Mentors to Lawyers.

“John, with his more than 27 years’ experience in some of Australia’s leading firms and with a focus on human resources and employment law, brings great familiarity with all aspects of partner and employee benefits, remuneration, and incentive programs,” Nathans says. “He too has supported and encouraged many lawyers in their careers and assisted them with their professional career changes, whether into partnership and eventually retirement.”

A fulfilling career

The duo have based their business and their mission on numerous realisations that can only come with considerable experience in the legal profession, particularly in the industry’s bigger firms.

“Having been in partnership in large commercial firms for most of my professional life and having been involved in leadership and management at both firm and practice group level, I became very aware of the many factors that contributed to a happy, successful professional life, and those that made one reflect as to whether partnership, particularly in the larger firms, was all it was cracked up to be,” he says.

For one, the pressures inside the best-performing legal outfits in the country, which are also becoming increasingly global, can bring about various problems and pressures in a partner’s professional life and within a firm’s culture, Nathans says.

“I observed that both the race for partnership status and the striving for and maintaining the substantial remuneration that was on offer, contributed to enormous pressures and did not always bring out the best behaviours,” he says.

Ron Nathans and John Oakes

Supporting rising stars and firm leaders

Partners may often focus on individual achievement at the expense of collaboration and teamwork, which in turn directly impacts partner behaviour – and consequently, the culture of the firm.

When he was in partnership leadership roles, Nathans says that much of his time was directed to dealing with the consequences of these less-than-desirable attitudes, behaviours, and cultures (or lack thereof ) at both an individual and at a firm level.

Nathans also believes that whilst lawyers might be at the higher end of the intellectual scale, they still need support – particularly in interpersonal matters. The same he says, can be said when it comes to enhancing their business development activities.

“The fact is all that whilst lawyers, certainly at the partner level, may have IQs well above the norm, the same does not always go for their emotional intelligence,” Nathans says. “It is equally the case that whilst most can perform the work at the high levels expected of them, not all know how to find that work nor have the wherewithal required for business development and the maintenance of the flow of that work.”

More experienced lawyers, such as those who have ascended to being managing partner, can also unintentionally overlook particular partner needs, because of the feverish pace of their roles.

“The reality is that managing partner and practice group leaders, particularly in the large firms, simply do not have the time to provide the degree of pastoral care that is required from time to time,” he says. “That has, in my view, always been one of the shortcomings of partnership life.”

“In my experience and regrettably, the majority of partners see the often very strong expertise of their firm’s HR departments as resources for the staff and not as support that they themselves can or wish to call on. That need not be the case, but is more often the reality,” he says.

Sounding boards and confidants

“Frankly, there is little in the way of partner behaviour and conduct that either John or I have not seen or had to address in the imperfect world of partner egos and focus on individual input driven by fees and billable hours,” Nathans says. “What we can do is to suggest techniques and strategies to achieve, where it may be required, a more harmonious and collaborative working environment.”

As senior practitioners with decades of experience under their belt, the duo can dispense insight and experience specific to the legal industry that can’t be provided by other executive coaches or mentoring organisations, which have not worked or operated in the legal profession, he says.

“We can assist with interpersonal issues, business development ideas or strategies for improving and climbing up the remuneration scale. We help partners and aspiring partners work through these immediate issues and then work with them on an ongoing basis as sounding boards and confidants to enable them to achieve their individual expectations and career aspirations within the partnership environment,” Nathans says.

Nathans & Oakes can also tailor their services for partners who are returning from or contemplating parental leave, or those who are thinking of scaling down their involvement and roles.

The mentors expect to be retained by partners as they individually seek confidential personal development advice and input from outside the firm environment. They can also help lawyers who may be years away from partnership by helping devise personal development plans and helping them understand the ins and outs of what is required to achieve partner promotion. They can also help identify unique value-adds, capabilities, and strengths.

They also expect to be engaged by managing partners and practice group leaders who want to bring out the best in either inexperienced or otherwise problematic partners, but only to a limited extent.

“In that latter regard, whilst we can try to assist with the development of undernourished talent, we don’t see ourselves able to remedy the problems of underperforming partners,” he says.

The demand for legal industry professional sounding boards and confidants is there, Nathans says.

“The uptake for the idea and the positive reception John and I have received from those we have floated the concept with, has been nothing short of surprising,” he says. “I hadn’t thought that my own perceptions as to the varying levels of happiness in legal partnership life were so widely shared and recognised. The concept of having a non-judgmental confidant outside the partnership sphere who might work with partners on a confidential basis on their personal development and assist with the development of strategies to achieve goals and aspirations was readily accepted as something that should attain universal acceptance.”

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