At the start of 2008, when the Global 100 firm Gowlings needed a new leader for its Hamilton, Ontario, office, Mark Tamminga decided that it was his time to step up. The fact that the Hamilton location, with 16 partners, is one of the firm’s smaller offices allows Tamminga to keep most of his practice responsibilities. As an office managing partner, he also automatically sits on the management and compensation committees of the 700-plus-lawyer firm.
Mark D. Tamminga
Office Managing Partner, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP
What’s your management style?
I like the metaphor of law firm as talent agency. Let the professionals do what they do best. Either get out of the way or do everything you can to remove friction and irritation. That means trusting the lawyers to do what’s best for their individual practices and relying heavily on the expertise of the office manager and personnel director. A key element of making that work is insisting on the highest level of cordiality and respect—whether that is among partners or between partners and associates and staff.
What’s your management philosophy?
The problem with the talent agency model is the risk of everybody dashing madly off in all directions. That’s where strategic planning comes in. It’s a way of harnessing that wonderful entrepreneurial energy to the service of the firm. The gist: As long as the lawyers are pulling in the direction set by the firm’s near-, mid- and long-term strategic goals, then let them have at it. Remove unnecessary impediments and do what you can with limited resources to keep them encouraged.
What skill or attribute have you found most critical to being an effective managing partner?
The ability to listen—and hold your fire. There are multiple constituencies with competing interests in any office. The order of events and who talks to you at what point in time is important. There are always intense efforts to recruit the decision maker to one or the other side of an issue. Reacting too quickly, before a complete picture is available, can be embarrassing at best and poisonous at worst. I’m naturally cautious in these moments and have pretty good instincts for consensus building.
What’s the first thing a new managing partner should do?
Get outside the considerations you’ve become accustomed to in your own practice. Get to know the whole business—fast. For example, my practice is a high-velocity mortgage remedies mill, heavily dependant on staff and technology. I deal with institutional clients and bills are always paid. That’s a far cry from the context faced by a litigator or tax specialist or corporate lawyer. So my first job as an MP was to get to know the strange worlds inhabited by my colleagues, and to make clear that I understood that what was good for my practice may not universally be the case. The month before I officially started, I took each of my partners to lunch and did all I could to dig into the difficulties they face day to day.
I also spent time getting to know our accounting system and the various high-level reports available to management, something I never needed to know much about up to that point. To my surprise, I found it all quite interesting and have set about ensuring that all of the lawyers, and in particular the associates, know about the implications of running their practices as a business. The money has to come from somewhere and go somewhere. If the business machinery of the law firm is seen as an abstraction best left to “accounting,” it becomes very easy for simple business practices, like AR collections and docket discipline, to lapse. It’s critical that lawyers and staff get a sense that they are directly responsible for the firm’s financial success.
What’s the biggest challenge facing law firms in the next 10 years?
For larger firms, the boundary between the firm and the client will continue to blur. The Web and other forms of information exchange will make the process of legal services delivery much more collaborative and transparent. This will entail different ways of organizing the firm operationally. It will be more capital-intensive, and the competition from other professional services providers will continue to increase. There will be downward pressure on fees, which will bring them more in line with clients’ perceptions of value. New billing models will continue to (slowly) surface. The flipside of this, of course, is compensation. We will have to develop models that reflect this new reality and properly reward those who contribute most directly to the firm’s ongoing success.
What’s the most important advice you have for a new managing partner?
Spend time exploring and don’t tip your hand too readily. Seek out the opinion of staff—they make the place run and generally know more about the firm’s background functioning than the lawyers do. Also, see if there are long-standing irritations that can be resolved positively early on in your tenure.
What’s the best thing about being managing partner?
After 20 years my practice had, in many ways, become routine and predictable. The opportunity to learn about the intricacies and challenges of all the different businesses that are conducted in a law firm has been fascinating and energizing in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve developed a greater respect for and pride in the capabilities of those with whom I work. It’s actually quite invigorating.