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Leadership and management need to exist in every financially and professionally successful law firm. The terms “leadership” and “management” are not synonyms. In simplistic terms, the leadership role is the ability of an individual or group of partners to influence other partners and associates to follow in the achievement of common goals. Management, on the other hand, is the coordination by the managing partner and/or management committee of the cooperative activities of all or most of the attorneys by executing the functions of planning, control, organizing, staffing direction and taking corrective actions, as required.
Good law firm management cannot be achieved until all the partners agree to subordinate some of their independence to a managing partner or a management committee. The partners must strike a balance between their rights as owners and their responsibilities as members of the firm. They must relinquish some personal prerogatives to achieve the overall results that they would not be able to attain on their own.
Some law firms are financially successful despite the managerial abilities of their partners. These firms have attracted highly skilled attorneys who are able to perform high-quality work for financially successful clients. However, in today’s highly competitive environment in which most firms practice, the fact that partners may be high-quality lawyers is not enough. Leadership and sound management practices are required to manage the firm’s resources, ensure adequate cash flow and develop and implement the marketing and planning processes. 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, that is simply not the case in practice. Invariably, each of the partners has his or her own idea about how to perform their job and exercise their authority accordingly.

If a firm is to continue to be professionally and financially successful, a designated leader, whether a managing partner or management 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 complex as performing client work.
In some firms, the leadership role is assumed easily and quite naturally either because the individual is a founding partner or because he or she 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. In situations in which no partner surfaces as a natural leader, or 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 small firm is in a position to establish a democratic form of governance that includes all the partners in a leadership role. Where that is not practical, the partners face a difficult choice and risk setting up two formal or informal power centers. 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.
What kind of individual makes a good leader? Generally, lawyers are not recruited to a law firm on the basis of their interest or skills in leadership. And more often than not, they are not trained by the firm in those skills. Consequently, lawyers’ skill and interest in leadership vary greatly. As a result, the composition of any management committee will consist of attorneys who are good leaders and those who are not.
For as relevant as leadership skills are when an attorney is being selected to serve as managing partner or as a member of a 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 make up a law firm.

The requisites for leadership are, in this day and age, well known:

  • The leader must garner respect and support, be an excellent communicator and have clout and wield it when necessary. For practical reasons, it may be difficult for a junior partner to be a successful managing partner. The managing partner must keep the objectives of the firm in proper perspective. He or she must be able to rise above 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 or opinions with any sort of recognizable action. This kind of management by debate leads many a management committee down the blind alley of endless discussions and meetings. That is not the way to manage a law firm and it is not what most lawyers want to do in their professional lives.
  • It generally can be agreed that both the managing partner and members of the management committee, 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 sure the important aspects of the firm’s operational activities are being managed.
  • There are some management functions that need to be performed by the managing partner or the management committee that normally should not be delegated. There are other tasks that may be performed by either of these lawyer managers, but that may also be performed by other lawyers or a qualified law firm administrator.
  • 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 those other functions is placed should depend on the firm making certain that the managing partner or the management committee have time to perform the functions that only they can perform before they take on additional responsibilities.

In assessing his or her role, the managing partner needs to realize that attorneys’ expectations regarding the practice of law may well be different from the expectations that attorneys held a decade ago. These expectations may have changed in regard to hours of work, specialization, income, risk, independence and ethics. Today’s attorneys have a greater desire to know the reasons behind decisions and to participate in decision-making.
The managing partner has to consider how the generational backgrounds and financial expectations of the new crop of attorneys have changed, and how these changes may be reflected in their attitudes, needs and financial goals. Ultimately, these changes will be reflected in the firm’s culture, how it will be managed and partners’ expectations of other partners and associates.
One of the significant problems in today’s law firms is the paucity of leadership. There are plenty of partners who may be capable of managing the firm, but their leadership component is lacking.
I have consulted with many law firms in which current midlevel and younger partners referred to certain senior partners as being the “heart and soul” of their respective firms. The former partners do not believe most of the other active partners have the leadership skills that are possessed by the senior partners.
It has been my experience that those managing partners who position themselves as firm leaders and who are eager to listen to the opinions, advice and feedback from other partners, key thought leaders and by meeting “one on one” with every partner in each of the firm’s offices at least quarterly, or more frequently, as required or the opportunity warrants, have been very successful establishing and reinforcing their personal, enhanced working relationships and leadership role with the partners, especially since the development and reinforcement of personal relationships facilitate the level and quality of communications. As such, many of the more enlightened managing partners and members of management committees make it a priority to communicate with other members of the firm. Many of these successful managing partners who are perceived by their partners as leaders manage the firm by “walking the halls” and visiting their firm’s other offices and speaking with partners and associates as a major component contributing to successfully enhancing communications between themselves and the attorneys.

In the final analysis, it is the work that binds and unifies the partners and associates. The leadership skills possessed by the prudent managing partner or members of the firm’s management committee will recognize the need to chart a course that mediates between the requirements of the practice of law and professional, personal and financial objectives of those attorneys who will perform the work.

Joel A. Rose

Joel A. Rose is a certified management consultant and president of Joel A. Rose & Associates Inc., management consultants to law firms based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He has extensive experience consulting with private law firms, and performs and directs consulting assignments in law firm management and organization, strategic and financial planning, lawyer compensation, the feasibility of mergers and acquisitions, and the marketing of legal services. He may be contacted at; Telephone: (856) 427-0050 or (800) 381-1645, Fax: (856) 429-0073.

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Filed Under: Business ManagementFeatured Stories

About the Author: Joel A. Rose is a certified management consultant and president of Joel A. Rose & Associates Inc., management consultants to law firms based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He has extensive experience consulting with private law firms, and performs and directs consulting assignments in law firm management and organization, strategic and financial planning, lawyer compensation, the feasibility of mergers and acquisitions, and the marketing of legal services. He may be contacted at; Telephone: (856) 427-0050 or (800) 381-1645, Fax: (856) 429-0073.

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