The Managing Partner's Role in Establishing a Firm's Culture

by Joel A. Rose

It's a difficult job, and more important than many people think

The demographics of law firms are changing as baby boomers reduce, or intend to reduce, active involvement in their firms. This change of status of senior partners has highlighted the need for managing partners to assess their firms' current culture to ensure it conforms to the professional and personal objectives of a significant majority of the midlevel and younger partners, who are the future of their firms.

A law firm's culture can be one of its major strengths, when it is consistent with the current and longer term objectives and values of a majority of the partners. But a culture that prevents individual attorneys from satisfying their professional, personal and financial objectives, and that inhibits a firm from meeting its competitive threats, or adapting to changing economic environments, can lead to the firm's stagnation and decline, unless its partners make a conscious effort to change.

Firm culture implies values, such as: aggressive, collegial, sensitive to quality of life, competitive, democratic, etc., that set a pattern for a firm's activities and the roles of its partners. This pattern is instilled in newer attorneys by the example set by the partners through their actions and transparent communications.

A principal role of a managing partner is to assess the needs and priorities of the firm and the partners, and to cultivate the type of culture that encourages partners to use their skills and abilities toward achieving their firm's desired objectives.

Absent the willingness of managing partners to be sensitive to the changing needs of a firm, and the desires and expectations of its partners, a firm will have problems functioning in its practice environment, and may have difficulty surviving. The managing partner must be sensitive to the firm's core values, including its methods for determining and implementing policies, compensating its lawyers and engaging in strategic and marketing planning, and competing effectively with other law firms in its geographic area.

Warning Signs

Based upon my experience, below is a list of warning signs that will serve as the bellwether for managing partners to reassess their firms' culture and core values:

  • Partner complaints or suggestions that they are not being kept informed of firm matters that involve staffing, termination of attorneys, issues that may affect particular partners or their areas of practice, etc.;
  • Feelings that some partners are being "manipulated" by a group of dominating partners;
  • Senior (or more influential) partners consider the firm as their private domain, and take others for granted;
  • The sense that decisions are being made by a select few, and partner meetings are eyewash, as major decisions are made prior to the meeting, and partners are being "played with"; and
  • Lack of open communications between the more influential partners and the rest of the attorneys.

Dealing With the Warning Signs

Below are suggested action plans that should be implemented if any of the above warning signs appear. The managing partner should:

  • Position himself or herself as a leader who is eager to listen to the opinions of other partners;
  • Create a constructive dialogue to assess the needs and expectations of all of the other partners;
  • Reach a consensus of a significant majority of the partners about the desired culture and develop a plan on how to implement it;
  • Encourage partners to participate in governance issues and be kept informed about those activities that will influence the firm's future;
  • Schedule partner meetings on a regular basis, and announce dates and times of these meetings far enough in advance to clear schedules;
  • Prepare agendas for these meetings, encourage partners to contribute agenda items prior to the meeting, provide information to partners about issues to be discussed in advance of the meeting, whenever possible;
  • Distribute summaries of these meeting to partners within 48 hours of the meeting so there will be a written record of the decisions reached, etc.;
  • Encourage midlevel and junior partners to participate in the succession of firm management and client retention;
  • Follow up on the progress of the firm and its components to insure that the desired culture is being implemented, maintained and reinforced by all lawyers, as required; and
  • "Tweak" elements of the firm's culture, in accordance with the priorities and needs of the partners, as required, to avoid problems down the road.

How effective a firm's managing partner will be in creating the type of environment needed to encourage partners to develop and implement strategies to foster the desired culture will depend, to a great extent, upon his or her willingness and ability to develop and articulate shared values.

Unless the managing partner has a vision for the firm, there may be as many visions as there are partners. A firm in which there is no agreed-upon vision frequently experiences irresolvable tensions, and can become less than collegial.

I have attended partners' meetings in firms having cultures that have atrophied and were in need of revitalization. Recently, I was invited to attend a partners' meeting of a midsize law firm. After listening to the managing partner's presentation, I was less than impressed by the lack of partner participation and the paucity of partners' enthusiasm with respect to the managing partner's initiatives. As an observer, I did not feel that the partners had "bought in" to the managing partner's initiatives, nor did I think their communications to the managing partner were "real" in terms of their commitment to implement his initiatives.

Following this meeting, the managing partner told me how pleased he was that the partners had reached a consensus about important issues. However, after leaving the managing partner's office, I found it curious that a small group of partners was standing in the hallway, having an informal discussion about certain issues discussed during the meeting. It seemed to me as though a few of these partners had "put the parking brake" on some of the decisions affecting the initiatives recommended by the managing partner, and the managing partner did not know that the partners were doing this.

Changing a Firm's Culture

Because a firm's culture is so pervasive, changing it becomes one of the most difficult tasks that any law firm can undertake. What stands in the way is not only the "comfort that many partners may have with the prevailing culture," but also the fact that few partners consciously recognize how their firm's culture manifests itself. Most often, the issue surrounding the development and implementation of strategies affecting the firm's culture is what the managing partner has done to assess the partners' attitudes about the current culture, and the extent to which it represents the values and the professional and personal objectives that a significant majority of the partners would like the firm's guiding principles to be.

I am a proponent of the school of law-firm management that encourages the managing partner to "walk the hall" and take the time to encourage the partners and associates to speak, i.e., "from the bottom up, as well as from the top down," to foster strong relationships and to begin to mold the most appropriate firm culture.

I have recommended to managing partners in numerous law firms that to reinforce their firm's culture, they start a free weekly lunch to bring all of the attorneys together to share a meal, i.e., sandwiches, pizza, salads, etc., and encourage conversations. It is curious that several managing partners told me that immediately after implementing the weekly lunches in their firms, virtually all of the junior partners and associates attended. However, some of the senior and midlevel partners got their food and went back to their offices. In these firms, a few managing partners decided to "break the ice" and initiate communications by talking for a few minutes about the firm's initiatives, new client assignments, successful business development activities, and the extent to which the firm had surpassed its revenue budget for the month or quarter, etc., then responded to questions. These managing partners told me that as the result of his brief presentations more partners attended these free lunches and communicated with other partners and associates about recent developments in case law, client files they were working on, the standing of professional and college sports teams, upcoming vacations, their children's soccer games, etc.

Those managing partners who succeeded in reinforcing or changing their firms' cultures have been willing to invest partner time to assess its needs and requirements to define the kind of firm the partners want the firm to be (or become) and to make that entity as palatable as possible to a significant majority of its members. To achieve this objective, much work needs to be done from within by the managing partner and the partners to create, promote and reinforce the desired culture. Recently, one managing partner asked me how long he had to continue to promote the firm's culture at meetings and in informal settings. I answered: forever.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates