Does Your Firm Need a Consensus Builder or an Autocrat?
Defining a managing partner's management style

by Joel A. Rose

Countless law firms, large and small, are questioning longstanding views about firm management and structure.  Yet, the sources of their concern are not new.  After years of analyzing the personal and professional styles of lawyer managers in successful (and not so successful) law firms, three inescapable conclusions are readily apparent:

  • The authority of lawyer management is derived from the willingness of partners to be managed;
  • Partners in most law firms perceive themselves as being owners of the firm, having certain prerogatives and independence, not as employees to be “managed”; and
  • Law firms have their own personalities and cultures; management techniques that may be effective in one firm may be only marginally effective, or even unsuccessful, in another.

Why a Management Philosophy is Needed

One of the most basic tenets of law firm practice is that joining together will achieve benefits for each partner, which would be less possible if he or she were to practice individually, i.e., income, work-load, coverage, ultimate withdrawal benefits, and similar considerations.  To obtain the benefits of an organized practice, law firm leaders need to know that individual lawyers will subordinate their individual judgment to a select few, however chosen, in order to allow for a comprehensive and more holistic oversight approach to firm management.  Absent that mindset, management will have a difficult if not impossible struggle to succeed.

Since philosophical cohesion is a prerequisite to effectuating a structure by which partners will agree to be bound, great care must be taken to: (1) determine what the partners want lawyer management to be/not to be, i.e., strong leadership, consensus builders, visionaries, functional managers, etc.; and (2) engage in extensive discussion about the partners’ respective expectations for individual involvement in decision-making in defined areas, paying particular attention to those areas likely to challenge the natural independence of lawyers who have already successfully achieved partnership.

Given partners’ natural predilection for debate, the areas of firm decision-making in which partners expect to be involved must be defined and fairly identified.  Some common areas of collective input and decision-making are:  admission to and termination from partnership; establishment and implementation of firm policies, which, as to partners, must include compensation; strategic initiatives; and professional liability issues affecting partners and/or the firm.

When defining the partners’ expectations about their involvement in decision-making, firm leaders need to discourage partners’ desire to expand the number of items requiring partner approval before action is taken, because this has a tendency to render impotent the firm’s management.  Partners should make every effort to achieve unanimity or at least consensus on issues that affect the firm’s ability to make management decisions quickly and efficiently.  Although certain issues deserve to be carefully deliberated, not every management decision needs to be considered by all partners before implementation.

A majority, or a defined super-majority, of the partners will undoubtedly be sufficient to implement most management objectives.  Yet, the firm’s philosophy is key in establishing a firm’s culture, and all hands should be on the table.  Partners must clearly feel that decision-making will be in firm but fair hands, and that each partner will be treated with courtesy and respect.
During the formative process, if one or more partners strongly resist or refuse the call for individual subordination, the other partners must give serious thought to how the dissenting partners should be treated before a structure is finally determined.  For example, they may require participation in management in order to ensure their “buy-in” or, failing acceptance after significant effort, they may best be subject to separation.  Isolation is an unacceptable alternative, since it leads to noncooperation, exclusion and simply delays dealing with a problem partner.

Selecting the Management Structure

Once a management philosophy has been identified and agreed upon, it is incumbent upon the firm to determine the form that management will take.   Good practice and experience dictate that it will not work to allow partners (or members/shareholders) to exercise autonomy on all matters affecting the firm.  Traditionally, many firms name a single managing partner/ shareholder and a management committee, i.e., an executive committee.

Decisions of consequence relating to structure, which must be made, include:  (1) What exactly are the role and responsibilities of the partners, managing partner, executive committee and department chairs? (2) How do they interact, and what is the reporting responsibility of each to the other(s)?

In some firms, one partner assumes the leadership role naturally, either because the individual is a founding partner or controls a significant client base.  In firms where the partners are relatively young and inexperienced, however this process of natural selection may be more difficult (if not impossible).  In firms’ where no partner surfaces as a natural leader or no one wants the job, the firm must take aggressive action if it wishes to grow and satisfy its members’ professional, economic and personal objectives.

The firm must make some hard-and-fast decisions about the kind of leadership required and what the members are willing to accept.  Should a managing partner be elected by the general partnership?  Or should this individual be appointed by the management committee?

Sometimes the firm’s size will preclude this particular dilemma.  The smaller firm is in a position to establish a democratic form of governance that includes all the partners in a leadership role.  But, when this is not practical, the partners face a difficult choice and risk setting up two power centers – and consequent divisiveness – if the general partnership elects both the management committee and the managing partner.  To avoid this debacle, in some firms, the management committee selects the managing partner.

Qualities of an Effective Leader

What kind of person makes a good managing partner?  Generally, lawyers are not recruited to a law firm on the basis of their interest or skills in management.  They are rarely trained by the firm in management skills.  Consequently, lawyers’ skills and levels of interest in management frequently leave something to be desired.  Regardless of training or experience, however, some important characteristics of successful managing partners include the following:

  • The leader must inspire respect and support from others, and have the clout and the willingness to wield authority when necessary.
  • The leader’s skills must combine judgment, commitment and vision.
  • He or she must possess a sense of humor, be reasonably “thick-skinned” and be a “people person.”
  • He or she should have a vision about what the firm should be, and a good sense of timing for when and how to discuss and implement initiatives.

The most successful managing partner is not necessarily:

  • The best lawyer;
  • The biggest rainmaker;
  • The “workaholic” partner;
  • The senior partner;
  • The “idea” partner; or
  • The “willing” partner.

What partners expect of managing partners:

  • Leadership… but not dictatorship.
  • Financial knowledge.
  • Address the problem…but pick your battles.
  • Be a visionary… but a realist.
  • Be decisive… but build consensus.
  • Be an example… but admit your mistakes.
  • Delegate… but be in the know.
  • Treat everyone fairly… but know the “buttons.”
  • Know key clients/be visible in the community.
  • Be a risk taker… but be accountable.
  • Listen to all points of view… but make the call.
  • Expect the best… but tolerate mistakes.
  • Be accessible… but you must get away.
  • Communicate.
  • Communicate.
  • Did we mention communicate?

In the final analysis, individual needs of attorneys have to be balanced with individual partner independence to be responsive to the firm’s organizational patterns and policies.  Applying management techniques to practice areas may introduce to the firm a new take on methods for enhancing profitability.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates