The Managing Partner's Duties on the Practice's Administrative Side

by Joel A. Rose

Law firm managing partners have a broad scope of responsibility, handling a variety of duties that affect everyone at the firm. The managing partner must focus on the overall direction of the firm; the organizational skills and leadership qualities integral to the partner's success; and the partner's role in organizing legal specialty areas. This article looks at the managing partner's role in the administrative organization of the firm.

In an administrative role, the managing partner must be a planner, policy developer, organization and systems supervisor, and appraiser of results.

If the managing partner is supported by an able professional nonlawyer manager/director of administration, his or her responsibilities stay mainly at the planning and policy level and the administrative role requires a minimum commitment of time.

However, if the firm undertakes a reorganization, a relocation, or a major system change, the managing partner must commit more effort to satisfy administrative needs. The major problem in this area is allocating scarce administrative time to the best advantage. If this is done correctly, managing partners can effectively define their roles in particular situations and use legal and nonlegal personnel to recommend and effect solutions. Nonetheless, continuous concentration is essential to track large-scale or firmwide projects and evaluate progress, and results, in light of the firm's overall plans and goals.

Through it all, the managing partner must be responsive to the executive or management committee, other partners, administrative personnel and other committees of the firm. Therefore, each communication emanating from the managing partner's operations must consider the possible involvement of any or all of these groups.

Similarly, these organizational groupings must be geared to think in like terms. In order for this to happen, everyone involved in firm management should understand their own and others' administrative responsibilities.

Should the law firm then define in writing the responsibilities of its managing partner, committees, administrative staff and other key personnel? It would appear to be well worth the effort, particularly for evaluating costs, income, salary plans, personnel functions, hiring requirements and even esprit de corps. It certainly helps when relating these strategic elements to the firm's current and future needs. To ensure understanding with others in the firm, written descriptions for important new positions seem essential.

This is not to imply that writing and rewriting descriptions should become a major, time-consuming task for any management personnel. However, when an important new job is created or an organization or compensation appraisal is instituted, describing the chain of authority, individual responsibilities, organizational relationships, compensation programs and other specifics can be very beneficial.

Once written descriptions are developed for key management positions, it is the managing partner's task to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the persons who hold these positions. Some may have serious gaps in their knowledge, background or skills. Some may grow in their positions, while others will need reinforcement. Before new hiring commitments are made, the managing partner has the opportunity to determine if the individual being considered for the job will represent the quality of the firm. If not, the partner may reassess the position description as well as the salary and recruiting methods, and then continue until the right person is found.

Each law firm develops its own culture and society. Those who work for the firm must discover the quality of the firm that produces this culture. One must operate within the whole society of the firm to discover what makes it move the way it does.

Managing partners often have great difficulty with this task. They must come to grips with this culture, accurately read the "fever chart" of the firm, and understand the underlying causes to be reckoned with to gain the support necessary to make ideas work. Certainly, the managing partner should never promulgate new ideas before they are commented on by those in authority in the areas that may be affected.

The managing partner must also be responsive to professional management personnel. The door must be open to their advice and their disciplines recognized as assets to the firm. As the firm's representative, however, the managing partner must be convinced of the merit of each new proposal or concept.

One of the most difficult aspects of law firm administration is the provision of services to the specialized departments. Departments, practice groups and branch offices have logical standardization, specialization, fee setting, legal education and work assignment functions that must be preserved. Yet the broader departmental autonomy that traditionally existed in many firms has become impractical because of new modes of organization and advances in technology.

For example, when a firm goes through the cost of retaining top-flight administrators, the executive committee must seek full use of their talents, including efforts that will aid beyond the general firm system and hiring of clerical personnel. The professional administrator's role now reaches into all areas of the firm.

Expensive equipment purchases are also a firmwide decision. While purchasing typewriters and dictating equipment was largely a matter of individual acceptance, computer networks and advanced technology in communications, research, reproduction and retrieval systems have altered that. Persons and information have become locked into firmwide systems.

The high cost of space and heavy needs of renovation or relocation present additional problems for managing partners. New approaches to organization and systems, and associated space and layout problems, call for full cooperation between the managing partner and specialized departments.

Other firmwide concerns are the need to ensure adequate cash flow and an appropriate volume of profitable client work. An effective managing partner must develop the capability of the organization to detect, interpret and report on exceptional trends, changes in income or expense, billing and collection problems, and declines in case loads. Each monthly information report, such as those for time, caseload, unbilled costs or time, cash flow, individual client activity and income and disbursements, provides an opportunity for analysis against concepts of performance agreed on by the firm.

The managing partner must be aware of committee assignments and be ready to assist by assigning extra staff to expedite special projects or continuing functions. In addition, those affected by or aware of unexpected happenings must know to inform the managing partner about changes that may affect recruitment, space and equipment, and the like. When department heads experience difficulties with the volume of client work, an imbalance in the level of their lawyers' expertise, or problems with systems or organizational arrangements, it is crucial that the managing partner be informed.

In today's highly competitive market, the failure of new and well-established firms alike is not uncommon. Some older firms decay, some are absorbed by others, or some split up when partner groups secede. In a broad sense, the managing partner must be alert to these possibilities. In the firm's internal compensation system, the managing partner is in a position to measure the firm and its individuals against similar organizations. The managing partner must look more objectively at how human beings are working as a team and as creative persons in a professional firm.

Long-range planning, whether in the hands of a separate committee, the executive committee or a general business-planning committee — is not a new concept to law firms. The committee in charge of such planning should address the development of the firm as an entity, the development of branch offices, long-range projections relating to the size and nature of the firm, potential mergers with smaller firms, and trend analyses of activity by client and field of law.

The managing partner needs to be involved in these tasks to a great degree. The firm's basic financial data and management information required for decision making can be determined and systematically provided to the committees and managing partner by the office administrator.

The forward movement of the law firm will come from leadership. The managing partner must be the champion of leadership as well as an agent for financial management, administration and change.

Leadership calls for the ability to spot the unusual and consider new viewpoints. It recognizes that all information gathered by the system represents past activities, and any projections from the data must be responsive to tomorrow as well as today.

Leadership in a law firm must support personnel on the value of management assignments, in legal and administrative areas. The managing partner's performance may determine how well the lawyers are convinced of the soundness of the management and economic policies of the firm.