Strategies for Grooming Young Lawyers For Law Firm Management

by Joel A. Rose

Failure to train younger lawyers as managers in both the business and the practice of law can have disastrous results.

The worst-case scenario is a “palace revolt” because the firm is unwilling to address the question and provide the opportunity. Equally troubling is that firms can suffer from a decline in earnings and the exodus of key partners because they wait too long and end-up using untrained lawyers to undertake key management positions.

Law schools, of course, do not train or develop managing partners or lawyer/managers, nor does doing excellent and complicated work for demanding clients help train for law firm management. Also know that highly competent attorneys do not necessarily make good managing partners or lawyer/managers; some of the best lawyers are the worst managers. It has been my experience that partners who are “loners” have traditionally been poor managers.

The best lawyer/managers have a sixth sense for people and management, in addition to being good lawyers and possible outstanding rainmakers. A retiring senior and former managing partner of a large New York City law firm told me that one of the elements in his “quick test” for assessing candidates to be his successor was how well that lawyer relates to and “gets along with” his or her secretary, younger lawyers and the other partners.

How Firms Develop Successors to Management

Many do this by delegating to select midlevel and junior partners short-term management assignments, and by rotating these partners through various management areas, rather than by developing particular lawyers as specialists in specific management areas.

These firms begin to train midlevel and junior partners by assigning short-term, low-risk management activities before entrusting them with key management jobs.

The following are recommended areas in which the management skills of midlevel and junior partners can and should be developed:

  • Client relations, including origination, development and retention.
  • Acceptance of new clients and matters and the management of performance of legal work on substantive practice areas and subspecialties.
  • Associate recruitment, training and development of a personal and professional nature, promotion, evaluation, compensation and termination.
  • Administrative staff organization, relationships and utilization.
  • Budgeting for revenue, expenses and capital expenditures, billing and collections, financial and variance reporting and utilization of resultant financial data and management information.
  • Technology, including computers, software, other equipment and technical support from nonlawyers specialists.
  • Leases, space utilization, negotiations and construction.

On-the-job training is the most effective technique for developing and refining the management skills of midlevel and junior partners.

Three of the most frequently used approaches for teaching management skills include being assigned to a committee, being elected or appointed to a position, and serving as a member of a task force. Consider:

  • Committee Membership: Midlevel and junior partners may be appointed to elected to serve on the management committee or another committee. Depending upon the form of firm governance, partners may be appointed or elected to represent various age groups or regional offices in multi-office firms. They may be chosen to serve on other committees such as marketing, associates, recruiting, lateral hires, administrative staff, financial, ethics or management.
  • Appointed position: Partners may be appointed to manage functional areas of administrative or substantive firm activity. For example, a partner may be appointed to chair a practice area or one of its subspecialties. Another one may chair the marketing committee. A third may serve as the firm’s ethics partner, etc.
  • Task Force: A partner may lead a task force to address a specific issue or function. For example, a partner may be requested to recommend new or emerging practice areas. Another may explore the feasibility of establishing a new regional office. A third partner who has an interest or background in technology may direct the firm’s automation effort, etc.

The midlevel or junior partner selected for training should receive additional assignments, and his or her performance should be evaluated accordingly. In addition, request that each lawyer/manager develop a plan for the year, including goals and proposed actions for accomplishing their objectives. They should be required to review these plans with the head of the committee or the partner to whom they are accountable.

Partners who are appointed or elected to specific positions should be accountable to a partner or committee responsible for their actions and should be evaluated on their performance.

Many law firms consider the success or failure of partners in planning and implementing administrative assignments when recommending or setting their compensation levels. This encourages the firm’s “best and brightest” partners to accept administrative assignments and not feel uncomfortable because they may record fewer billable hours.

Also, it would be wise for the managing partner or executive committee to identify and provide other nonmonetary forms of recognition to successful lawyer managers, such as a “pat on the back” in public.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates