HOW TO DEVELOP STRONG FACTORS OF LEADERSHIP

by Joel A. Rose
 

An old proverb states that “Trees begin to die at the top.” When a firm finds itself in the midst of a management crisis, the place to begin to search for the source of the problem is at the top of the management hierarchy. This may not be a popular notion or an easy task. The purpose is not to find fault. The point is that an organization does not simply evolve. It must be built in an orderly manner. The values that are important to a firm have to be defined and centrally organized. The responsibility for these goals must be keyed to an organizational factor whether this is a committee or an individual. If the attorneys have the necessary energy, talent and drive and there is enough work for the firm, then the structure must be thoroughly examined for the values that have been attributed to each part.

The style and method that differentiates one form of management from another depends upon factors that include the firm’s history, the availability of partners with requisite management skills and desire to become involved in the process. Equally important is the firm’s economic success, size, location of office(s), type of practice, client base and difference in the personal and professional objectives of partners.

Any partnership, no matter the size, needs leadership. Good law firm management cannot be achieved until all the partners agree to subordinate some independence to a management partner or an executive/managing committee. The partners must strike a balance between their rights as owners and their responsibilities as citizens of the firm. They must relinquish some personal prerogatives to achieve results that they would not be able to attain on their own. In theory, partnership status accords all parties the same rights and privileges. However, as many firms quickly discover, this is simply not the case in practice. Invariably, partners have their own idea about how to perform their jobs, and they exercise their authority accordingly.

If the firm is to establish a form of governance that will satisfy all of its members, the attorneys must first acknowledge the need for leadership. The partners must also recognize that managing a firm, either as the managing partner or a member of a committee, is as important and as difficult, if not more so, as performing client work.

In some firms, the leadership role is assumed easily and quite naturally, either because the individual is founding partner or controls a significant client base. Where the partners are relatively young and inexperienced, the process of “natural selection” may be more difficult, if not virtually impossible. Where there is no natural leader or no one wants the job, the firm must take aggressive action if it wishes to grow and satisfy its objectives.

The smaller firm can establish a democratic form of governance that includes all the partners in leadership. Where this is not practical, the partners face a difficult choice and risk setting up two power centers if the general partnership elects both the management committee and the managing partner. This creates great potential for dissension and divisiveness since the camp will inevitably follow its choice of leadership when given the opportunity. To avoid this, it is preferable to select the managing partner by the management committee.

Generally, lawyers are not recruited to a law firm on the basis of their interest or skills in management. And usually they are not trained for it by the firm. Consequently, skill and interest in management varies greatly. As a result, any management committee will consist of both good and bad managers. This should not be viewed as an obstacle. For as relevant as these skills are when selecting an attorney to serve on the management committee, they are not necessarily the only factors that should be considered. It may be as important, or more so, to provide equitable representation on the committee to the different groups of lawyers in the firm.

Managers Qualities

The leader must garner respect and support, have clout and wield it when necessary. The leader must possess a rich mixture of judgment, timing and vision. For practical reasons, a junior partner cannot be a successful managing partner. The managing partner must keep the objectives of the firm perspective and understand that the good of the firm must come first. The managing partner must be able to make decisions and have them stick and must want to manage the firm. Many partners want to have a great deal of “say” in firm operations, however, they stop short of following up on their advice or opinions with recognizable action. Such “management by debate” leads many management committees down the proverbial blind alley. It is not the way most lawyers want to do in their professional lives.

The amount of time available for management is limited and must be used wisely. The principal role of the committee and management partner should be to make certain that the important aspects of the firm’s operational activities are being managed. Leaders must encourage collaboration, since this produces team effectiveness, assures improved firm performance and generates the best ideas and options for managing the firm. In the most successful firms, much gets done by teams of partners pulling together.

Assigning the responsibility for various functions should depend on making certain that the managing partner and the committee are charged with those functions that require their specific talent, energy and interest. Among other things, the management committee should:

  1. Monitor the firm’s economic performance;
  2. Provide overall long-range planning policy and direction;
  3. Make certain that systems are established and individuals are responsible for all the areas of the firm’s management;
  4. Make major decisions and recommendations in such areas as: Lawyer compensation; Billing rates; Decisions with significant economics consequences; Opening additional offices; and Entering new areas of specialization.
  5. Communicate with the firm so that the management committee has the benefit of the view of other lawyers and so the other lawyers understand the decisions and programs adopted.

It is not necessary for the management committee to undertake all the legwork and analysis regarding these issues. It should, however, evaluate the pros and cons, the effect of the decision on the firm’s economics and individual lawyers and how the decision fits into the firm’s other policies and programs.

The managing partner should provide leadership, including maintaining morale; anticipate management needs and recommend ways to fulfill them; supervise the administrator; make decisions on matters that do not warrant consideration by the committee, such as implementing personnel policy; implement committee decisions by informing the proper attorneys of them and by following up on them; coordinate all management activities; and make certain that the systems and individuals responsible for the firm’s management are functioning properly.

Responsibility for the following functions can be fulfilled by the managing partner, a member of the management committee or another lawyer: Overseeing the firm’s financial matters and reporting system through the administrator, including preparation and monitoring of budgets, billings, collections, cash flow, analysis of management reporting for time and money, recommending on investment of excess funds, banking relationships; Overseeing lawyer career development, including evaluation, training and general work assignments; Overseeing legal assistant career development including evaluation, training and work assignments; Investigating, evaluating and making recommendations to the management committee regarding special projects such as acquiring senior lawyers, opening offices, specialization in new areas; and overseeing firm facilities, particularly expansion or remodeling.

The prudent managing partner will recognize the need to chart a course between the requirements of the practice of law and the needs of those who perform the work.

©1999-2015 Joel A. Rose & Associates