Legal Business Blogs

Comment: The golden age of law firm leadership has passed… what now?

I used to say three things when asked for a view on the quality of leadership in the profession. Firstly, that it was pretty good (certainly better than commonly supposed). Secondly, the standard has generally improved (since the early 2000s). And, thirdly, the notion that law lags far behind most industries in management is nonsense (poor leadership being rife).

It was only when recently asked this by a new reporter – an experienced business correspondent but new to the profession – I realised that I could only now stand by the latter contention. After all, there is still much to be said for the disciplines of the owner-manager structure, even amid New Law disruption (and perhaps more than ever in an age that has revived the fashion for the cash-burn phase). But as someone who has met hundreds of managing and senior partners, my view is that this is a long way from the golden age of law firm leadership. Standards of operational polish have continued to improve – there is a reason that major law firms so rarely fail in the UK. That matters, but it is only part of the equation in an industry facing structural issues.

There are exceptions. Rich Trobman reminds you why no-one ever bets against Latham & Watkins. Befitting its Magic Circle-yet-challenger status, Allen & Overy has consistently been well led. After a troubled period in the c-suite, Linklaters looks far more confidently run, even if you question whether its strategic dilemmas can be entirely overcome by Gideon Moore’s managerial grip and Charlie Jacobs’ star power. Herbert Smith Freehills’ chief executive Mark Rigotti is, likewise, a thoughtful and fluent communicator who has often played a middling hand well.

But the general standing of leaders at large London-born firms has waned.

It was until recently an industry wisdom that true partnerships were doomed, as more power was progressively handed to central management – in reality the rising influence of US-bred law firms over the last decade has reasserted the primacy of the partners. And who can blame the troops for doubting their executives? Leaders have proven continually unable to deliver on promised transformations and destinations.

These days when you think of strong captains, you turn to mid-pack firms, such as Osborne Clarke, which has had figures like Simon Beswick and Ray Berg, Mishcon de Reya’s Kevin Gold and, as you’ll see during this month’s interview, Pinsents’ Richard Foley stands up pretty well to robust questioning.

But is there enough juice to see leading law firms through a period when they are facing high-stakes decisions on business models, compensation regimes and long-term investment? The right stuff in this context being strong communication skills, a genius for low-key manipulation and solid tactical instincts. If, as I strongly suspect, the answer is no, the consequences for the commercial profession will be considerable.