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Every managing partner in a firm with 20 or more lawyers should have an office manager or executive director who runs the nonlegal areas of the firm and is directly responsible for the staff. So as managing partner, the staff is not your concern, right? Ah, if only it was that simple.
Let’s begin with pointers on how to support your exec-utive director (ED), and then turn to some important advice about your interactions with staff members.
▪ Working with your executive director. As firm leader, you need to (1) choose the right person for the role, (2) provide clarity regarding the ED’s responsibilities and authority, and (3) let him or her do the job. However, you still need to oversee the development of policies applicable to staff and approve appropriate salary ranges that fit with the firm’s budget, but also align with your competitive positioning. In cases of staff terminations, there will be times when you must support the decision and deal with the lawyers affected, too.
Remember, though you have given your ED a mandate and entrusted him or her with this function. If you override decisions with respect to staff in a visible way, it can seriously impair your relationship with the ED, and repeated instances can lead to the director’s departure. And if the ED doesn’t care, you likely have a bigger problem—you have the wrong person in the role.
Another of your tasks is to provide the ED with performance feedback and to conduct the annual compensation discussion. To do this effectively, you need to learn how he or she is viewed by others in the firm (lawyers, other directors and the staff)—either through a formal 360-degree evaluation process or by gathering the information on your own. You need to have relationships with a few staff members to gather this feedback, but take care—your relationship with your ED must be built on mutual trust.
▪ Interacting with support staff.
You may not directly oversee support staff, but you undoubtedly have contact with them as you go about your daily business in the office. As you do so, be aware that they are usually very aware of you. And, because they know (or at least believe) that you have the power to terminate them at any time, they are searching for any sign of your regard—or lack of the same—for them individually.
Here’s the kind of thing that happens: You are fresh out of a management committee meeting, distressed by the lunacy of some committee members. You walk by a secretary but don’t acknowledge her. The truth is you are so lost in thought that you are unaware of her presence. She, though, may take this as a sign of you regarding her as unimportant or incompetent and be worried for the rest of the week!
Your effect on everyone in the firm is bigger than you may think. So it’s important to acknowledge every staff member that you pass—ideally by name, although this is difficult as the firm gets larger. One former chair, when visiting a regional office, used to spend time on the flight to that office reviewing its staff directory. He would then walk directly to the receptionist and say, “Well, you must be Kevin. I’ve heard so many good things about you, I’m glad to finally meet you.” It’s exactly the kind of thing that delights staff and helps keep morale high.
This can be particularly effective at firm social functions where staff attend with their spouses. If you can approach a staff member and say, “Liz, it’s great to see you again” in the presence of her spouse, she will beam. And if you say to her husband, “Gosh, we really appreciate the great job Liz is doing for the firm,” you will have a friend for life.
As managing partner, you are, in a sense, a public figure within your firm. Staff watches you and is intensely curious about you. In some respects, you personify the culture and values of the firm. Their perception of you will affect their loyalty to the firm. This may feel like a loss of privacy sometimes, but it comes with the territory. .
Edward H. Flitton is former Managing Partner and now Of Counsel to Holland & Hart LLP. He is a member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council.