Given the amount of time I spend hanging out with managing partners it’s not unusual to be asked by law firms how they could tweak their governance or how they stack up against peers.
In one such recent conversation, I got to thinking about how best to prepare the new managing partner for the culture shock of moving from the clear purpose of a revenue-generating role to the ambiguous job spec of running a law firm.
Not that running a law firm is fundamentally different to any institution or team, it’s just that the owner-manager structure makes the challenge of attaining authority that bit more acute. So the plan is simple. Work out everything that you want to achieve. Take that list and divide it into things you can do without a big debate with the rest of the business and stuff you can do under your own steam. Then take the list of things that need a bigger mandate, throw it in the bin, forget it and concentrate on goals you can just get on with.
You won’t have time to get bogged down in endless debates with annoying partners, you have to learn the rhythm of senior management and secure some actual results. Given that you likely won an election or were formally sounded out, you should have some kind of mandate – so use it.
The stuff you have to hold a wider debate to execute can wait for year two because the reality is that a leader’s capital has to be earned and can never be expended lightly. Even when you get to the point where you have to talk to the wider partnership – a managing partner has to be incredibly picky about what to take to the troops.
The typical response? Partners own the business and want to feel they’ve got a say. Well, tough. They’ve got a job to do as fee-earners and practice leaders and so does senior management and they’re not the same. As a new managing partner, you’re the one taking the risk of tanking your career if you are a one-term wonder, you’ve earned the right to make some decisions.
Most problems with poor governance can be traced to a lack of clear accountability – when everyone is responsible, no-one is. That’s true of any organisation but partnerships are particularly prone to it. This is one of many reasons why law firms are generally poor at deploying non-legal or commercial staff effectively – partners can’t let go, or properly take responsibility. It’s the worst of both worlds.
Law firms – with a handful of exceptions – aren’t distinguished by their governance structures, so success or failure in leadership usually comes down to individuals who can effectively assume authority and encourage clear lines of responsibility.
The rider to this approach is that it requires a law firm leader to develop sound judgement about how far they can responsibly push their authority without breaching the social contract of partnership or their actual mandate. Hard and fast rules are difficult to find, especially since effective leadership is about maintaining an accord between management and firm while prodding the partnership beyond its comfort zone. But that’s the job you have taken on. Good luck.