THE WILL TO MANAGE: FORMULATING A PLAN TO SUCCEED

by Joel A. Rose
 

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

     The point to be emphasized here is that any partnership, no matter the size, needs leadership. Good law firm management cannot be achieved until all the partners agree to subordinate some degree of independence to a managing 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 in order to achieve the overall results that they would not be able to attain on their own. In theory all partners are created equal. By dint of partnership status they are accorded the same rights and privileges. However, as many firms quickly discover, this is simply not the case in practice. Invariably, each of the partners have their own idea about how to perform their jobs and 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. This designated leader -- whether individual or management/executive committee -- will not succeed unless and until all attorneys in the firm recognize that the impetus for successful management is derived from the willingness of all firm members to be governed. 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, than performing client work. In some firms the leadership role is assumed easily and quite naturally either because the individual is a founding partner or controls a significant client base. In firms where the partners are relatively young and inexperienced the process of "natural selection," as it were, may be somewhat more difficult if virtually impossible. In situations where no partner surfaces as a natural leader or where no one wants the job, the firm must take aggressive action if it wishes to grow and satisfy the professional, economic and personal objectives of its members.

     The firm must make some hard and fast decisions about the kind and type of leadership that is required and what the members are willing to live with. Should the general partnership elect a managing partner? Should this individual be appointed by the management committee? Sometimes the size of the firm will preclude this particular dilemma. The smaller firm is in a position to establish a democratic form of governance that includes all the partners in a leadership role. 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 will create great potential for dissension and divisiveness since the camp will inevitably follow its choice of leadership when given the opportunity to make the selection. To avoid this debacle, selection of the managing partner by the management committee is the preferable course of action. Once again the firm is brought to a crossroad and given the chance to chart its own destiny.


     What kind of person makes a good managing partner? Generally, lawyers are not recruited to a law firm on the basis of their interest or skills in management. And more often than not, they are not trained by the firm in these skills. Consequently, a lawyer's skill and interest in management is greatly varied. As a result, the composition of any management committee will consist of attorneys who are good managers and those who are not. 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 equally as important, or perhaps more so, to provide equitable representation on the committee to all the different groups of lawyers that comprise a law firm.

     It would also well serve the firm to sidestep the temptation to resolve the enigma of leadership by merely acknowledging some basics concerning the issue. The requisites for leadership are, in this day and age, well known: the leader must garner respect and support, have clout and wield it when necessary. For practical reasons, a junior partner cannot be a successful managing partner. The managing partner must keep the objectives of the firm in proper perspective. The managing partner must be able to rise above the "self," and understand that the good of the firm must come first. The managing partner must be able to make decisions and have them stick. The managing partner 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/opinions with any sort of recognizable action. This kind of "management by debate" leads many a management committee down the proverbial blind alley of endless discussions and meetings. This is not the way to manage a law firm, and it is not what most lawyers want to do in their professional life.

     It can be generally agreed that both the members of the management committee and the managing partner, as lawyers, want to practice law. The amount of time available for management is limited and must be used wisely. While there are responsibilities that the committee and managing partner should fulfill, their principal role should be to make certain that the important aspects of the firm's operational activities are being managed. It does not mean that the committee or the managing partner should undertake any of these tasks upon themselves unless specifically charged to do so. There are some management functions that should be performed by the management committee or by the managing partner and which normally should not be delegated. There are other tasks which may be performed by either the committee or the partner, but which may also be performed by the individual members of the management committee or other lawyers in the firm. 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. Where the responsibility for these other functions is placed should depend on making certain that the management committee and the managing partner have time to perform the functions that only they can perform before they take on additional responsibilities.

     The following are some selected functions that the management committee should perform:
  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 to the firm. Examples of these decisions are:
     
    1. Lawyer compensation
    2. Billing rates
    3. Decisions with significant economic consequences
    4. Opening additional offices
    5. Entering new areas of specialization

      It is not necessary for the management committee to undertake all the legwork and analysis regarding the above 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.
       
  5. Communicate with the firm so that the management committee has the benefit of the views of other lawyers in making management decisions, and so the other lawyers understand the decisions and programs that the management committee adopts.
     Following are the functions that the managing partner should perform:
  1. Provide leadership, including maintaining morale of lawyers as a group and individually.
  2. Anticipate management needs and make recommendations for fulfilling them.
  3. Supervise the administrator.
  4. Make decisions concerning matters that do not warrant consideration by the management committee (such as implementing personnel policy).
  5. Implement management committee decisions by informing the proper attorneys of those decisions and by following up to see they have been implemented.
  6. Coordinate all management activities.
  7. Make certain that the systems and individuals responsible for the firm's management are functioning properly.
     Responsibility for performing the following functions may overlap in that they can be fulfilled by the managing partner, a member of the management committee or another lawyer:
  1. Overseeing the firm's financial matters and reporting system through the administrator, including preparation and monitoring of budgets, billings, collection, cash flow, analysis of management reporting for time and money, recommending on investment of excess funds, banking relationships.
  2. Overseeing lawyer career development including evaluation, training and general work assignments.
  3. Overseeing legal assistant career development including evaluation, training and work assignments.
  4. Investigating, evaluating and making recommendations to the management committee regarding special projects such as acquiring senior lawyers, opening additional offices, specialization in new areas.
  5. Overseeing firm facilities, particularly expansion or remodeling.
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