Training the Next Generation of Law Firm Managersby Joel A. Rose
There is a plethora of information available about managing law offices in which authors of books, articles and speakers at seminars describe the expanding role of lawyer management.
After years of analyzing the personal and professional styles of lawyer managers, three inescapable conclusions have become readily apparent to me:
By surveying managing partners and members of management committees at 25 larger and mid sized law firms located in the Philadelphia area, we came up with several points on specific roles, training and concerns for being lawyer managers.
All of the partners interviewed agreed that astute lawyer management must achieve the appropriate balance of building consensus among the partners versus managing as an autocrat, and which works best, under what conditions.
Most managing partners agree that in today's highly competitive environment, authority for managing their firm's administrative and substantive activities needs to be centralized in a managing partner and/or a management committee, to some extent.
It is no longer feasible or desirable for attorneys to exercise their independence on virtually every issue. Partners must be willing to subordinate their prerogatives as owners of the firm for the "good" of the firm. This was referred to by one partner as "being a good citizen of the firm."
To achieve this level of acceptance it is incumbent upon lawyer management to determine how the following will apply to their respective firms:
What specifically should be the role and responsibility of the partners, the managing partner and department heads for:
It must also be determined how the quality of communications between and among the partners, associates and staff can be improved for substantive and administrative matters.
The issues include determining the types of matters partners and associates would like to be kept apprised of regularly and how these matters should be brought to the attention of partners and associates, by whom and at what frequency.
Further, firms should determine the roles and authorities of department heads and individual partners when it comes to:
These younger partners have been educated about firm economics in published surveys and have set high economic objectives for themselves and their partners. Hence, many of them are willing to make those difficult and oftentimes unpopular decisions that may be necessary for the well-being of the firm.
Major Management Concerns:
Several lawyer managers are apprehensive about "remaining too long" in their management positions, in light of the "overemphasis placed by many partners on business development and revenue production when setting compensation percentages."
Half the lawyer managers interviewed questioned the extent to which those partners not involved in firm or department management are willing to "pay" those partners who serve as managing partners, members of management committees or managers of substantive department managers, or whether the lawyer managers are expected to manage the firm "on their own time" and also maintain a full client workload during the firm's usual business hours.
Taking Time to Learn:
Several managing partners suggested their power bases within the firm resulted from their work in business development, client maintenance and fee production rather than their management skills. However, each of these partners emphasized the importance of their interpersonal skills combined with their business sense and their ability to "do the right thing" as key elements contributing to their success as lawyer managers.
Several of the managing partners surveyed believe it takes a year or longer for them to learn their job, even if they served previously as a member of the firm's management committee. Virtually all of the managing partners learned their job while doing it.
Several partners learned "what not to do" by observing the mistakes of their predecessors and listening to the comments and criticisms of other partners. Those few partners who obtained their positions by dint of their strong personalities confided to us that they perform certain management functions by decree and others, by consensus, "as long as they agree with the consensus."
All of the partners surveyed subscribe to management publications. Most of them attend management seminars and informal, periodic meetings of managing partners of peer firms in Philadelphia. Others may meet informally and exchange management ideas during bar association meetings and other events.
During these formal and informal meetings, partners discuss various business-related subjects, including developments in automation, compensation programs, budgeting and fixed fee arrangements with insurance companies and other clients, such as the use of consultants for non-sensitive projects, and taking care to avoid the potential problems of collusion or price fixing salaries and fees.
Obviously, no one discusses their firm's "dirty laundry." But the problems of other firms, which may have been reported in the legal press and elsewhere, are usually reviewed — often in terms of how to prevent similar situations from occurring at your firm.
Virtually all of the partners surveyed acknowledged that succession of management on the administrativeand the substantive sides of the practice is a sticky issue. Although all of the partners may benefit personally and professionally by serving in some lawyer management position, the importance of the management function in today's law firm business environment has placed a particular burden on those partners who have a business background and are perceived by other partners as being capable lawyer managers. No longer is it feasible for partners to "take turns" serving on the management committee as though the firm were a service organization. The most able individuals must be chosen to lead and manage their firms.
From the firm's perspective, talented individuals who are chosen to serve as lawyer managers should be encouraged to remain in that position. Incentives suggested by managing partners include reduced obligations for generating or producing revenue, which would provide the partner with more time to manage the firm; providing a stipend for managing the firm in addition to their regular compensation; and delegating sufficient authority to allow the managing partner to function independently on non-policy issues without being challenged at every turn. Two partners suggested that offering a sabbatical to the managing partner would enable that partner to "re-charge his/her batteries," but that the concept would be a difficult sell to most partners.
Most managing partners agreed that changing managing partners every two or three years to share the management burden may, on the surface, appear to be fair.
A few partners asked, "How many of our financially successful client corporations change their CEOs every two or three years?" Further, these partners said, "It may take more than one year for a managing partner to formulate and begin to implement plans and ideas that begin to address the firm's immediate and longer term needs and priorities."
Consequently, a majority of partners valued different factors as being important and necessary for their firm's development. This caused some lawyers who were quite pleased with the former values and objectives to be happy. Unless the managing partner is capable of "taking the partners' pulse" and can keep in touch with the other partners, the firm will experience serious difficulties, regardless of how much money the partners earn. A managing partner of a 35-attorney law firm said, "For each year we continue to exist and partners achieve their personal and professional goals within the broader firm context, those of us on the executive committee feel that we have accomplished some sort of miracle."
©1999-2015 Joel A. Rose & Associates