It’s common for law firms to ask their biggest rainmaker to be managing partner. But is that the right move? Wendy Merrill lays out the options and guidelines for choosing your next leader.
Managing a law firm, regardless of size, can feel like a Herculean task. The role requires solid leadership skills, objectivity, a willingness to make difficult decisions, and a deftness at managing strong and challenging personalities. Most of the law firm managing partners I’ve worked with had no formal leadership training or executive experience when they took on the job. Some of them “drew the short straw” and others were voted into the position. As the old adage says, “It’s lonely at the top.” All of them struggle with the stress and strain of being in charge.
What Does It Take to Be a Law Firm Managing Partner?
It’s common for law firms to appoint their biggest rainmaker as the managing partner, and it’s a risky endeavor. Managing the successful administration of a firm and focusing on bringing in clients are two very different jobs with divergent responsibilities. While the roles share a common commitment to achieving success, the paths they take to get there are decidedly different.
Being a managing partner is a full-time job (or at least 75% of the work week) and leaves little time for client work or individual origination. The most successful MPs transfer most of their clients to other attorneys when they accept the position, and in turn, the firm pays them a salary for their administrative efforts. They can still be involved with client relationships, just at a surface level, and more in the spirit of firm ambassadorship. Compensation packages will often include a salary for MP duties, a salary for whatever client work they are still responsible for and, of course, incentive comp in the form of a bonus or distribution for their contributions as a partner and leader of the firm.
The best managing partners understand the importance of their role in steering the ship.
They invest in developing the skill set and mentality of a CEO. They are also willing to take off their lawyer hat and proudly welcome their role as the head of accountability for the firm.
Rainmakers, on the other hand, are rewarded for the hunt.
Bringing in new clients is vital for growing firms, and for seasoned rainmakers, it’s both exciting and lucrative. Their responsibility to the firm is to create revenue opportunities and feed the matter machine. Firms usually support their best originators’ efforts with marketing dollars and healthy compensation packages. They are incentivized to focus on their own efforts, not those of their colleagues, and the firm benefits from their appetite for new opportunities. Top originators are often competitive and fiercely protective of their individual compensation, with less of an interest in sharing credit for the business they bring in. And this has always worked well for law firms as it drives revenue, even if it comes at the expense of some internal territorialism.
So, how can an attorney successfully balance managing partner duties with rainmaking responsibilities?
It’s a Sisyphean task.
In firms that expect the managing partner to own a dual role of running the firm as well as maintaining a large book of business, discord abounds. Jealousy, frustration, distrust and confusion plague the partner group, and the internal tug-of-war between self-interest and the firm’s interests can alienate even the most well-intended MP.
Your Next Managing Partner: Options
How can firms benefit from the undiluted leadership they need and continue to maintain a robust pipeline of new and recurring revenue? Here are options and guidelines for choosing your next managing partner.
Promoting a Partner to Managing Partner
A partner who is diplomatic and pragmatic — and who understands that which is good for the firm is also good for them — must be identified and appointed or voted in.
- This partner must be willing to relinquish control of their clients to others in the firm, trusting that they will nurture them as the originating partner has.
- The firm is responsible for ensuring the newly minted MP is fairly compensated with a CEO-level salary, separate from partner bonuses.
- The other partners should create a job description and set measurable expectations for the MP position.
- Performance should be monitored twice a year, at the minimum.
- The firm should invest in leadership skills development for the new MP in the form of coaching, courses and other educational means.
- The partners must be willing to trust the new MP’s decisions and respect their mutually agreed upon authority.
- The partners should create a succession plan for the position along with a plan for managing conflict.
Hiring a CEO or Managing Director From Outside the Firm
Sometimes, it is not possible to find the right candidate among the current partner group and the firm needs to bring in a qualified professional to lead the firm.
- The partners must agree on the responsibilities that will be assigned to the new CEO or Managing Director position and create a detailed job description.
- The interviewing process should include individual conversations with most, if not all, of the partners, with thoughtful questions designed to reveal opportunities and potential challenges.
- The CEO/Managing Director should go through a formal onboarding program and be partnered with various attorneys and staff to learn the culture and dynamics of the firm.
- The partners should be prepared to manage and measure performance on a regular basis (quarterly initially, then every six months).
- The partners should consider the benefits of hiring a coach to support the new hire through the transition and provide them with the tools and tactics necessary to successfully lead the firm.
- The partners must be willing to empower the new leader to undertake tough decisions (even if they are unpopular among some of the partners), break ties and act autonomously when it comes to managing staff needs.
Growing and managing a successful law firm is rife with challenges, but when roles and expectations of leadership are clearly defined, the firm, its people, and the clients it serves will thrive.
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