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November/December 2019


Managing Partners Need Group Support Too

Robert Young

Practicing law is hard, but managing a law firm can sometimes be even tougher work. Almost 10 years ago, I took over as the managing partner for my firm. Having almost no experience in running a law firm, there were very few places to turn for information or advice. However, I had been a member of the ABA since I first began my practice in 1990. I discovered an interest in the business of running a law firm early on, so I decided to join the ABA’s Law Practice Division (LP). The four core areas of LP include technology, finance, marketing and that one vital area, law firm management.

LP Helped Guide the Way

The same year that I began as managing partner, I started attending LP meetings and I quickly discovered that it had some great resources. The greatest resource, however, were the very knowledgeable people who were attending the meetings. These folks included many managing partners who were not only having the same issues that I was encountering, but they had also tried many ideas that were paying off for their firms. I discovered that there existed a managing partner community made up of many of us who had never been educated or trained on how to run a law firm. However, all of us were eager to learn and share ideas. Looking back, this was one of my first experiences with collaborative leadership as I found myself part of a small community relying heavily on each other to help lead our firms.

As attorneys we are called on every day to solve problems for our clients. As managing partners our instincts are that we should be able to do the same for our firm without any assistance. That is complete nonsense. Why go at it alone?

Two years ago LP asked the same question. Are we truly maximizing our resources to educate and train managing partners? As leaders in LP, we thought we could do more. We decided to take collaboration to the next level by forming a partnership with the Managing Partner Forum (MPF).

The Managing Partner Forum

What started as a one-day conference in Florida for managing partners of firms with 10 or more lawyers has grown into an annual conference with regional and national conferences in cities throughout the United States and global attendees. And throughout its 17 years, the MPF, which started with more than 80 law firm leaders in attendance, has attracted more than 1,200 law firm leaders from 950 law firms throughout 43 states. Many of these leaders return to MPF every year because of the faculty and participants involved and its interactive format. The MPF’s main conference now takes place annually in Atlanta in May. This year, the CLE-approved conference sold out with only managing partners and senior firm leaders invited to attend. What a way to collaborate!

Day One, 2019

The 2019 conference kicked off with two half-day afternoon workshops. Terry Isner, CEO of Jaffe, led a practical, interactive, hands-on workshop on trends and today’s best practices in law firm marketing and business development, including case studies showcasing innovation, gamification and social media.

At the same time, in a separate session, Dr. Larry Richard discussed the traits that make one a great lawyer and how they can also make it more challenging to be an effective leader. He had each participant complete the Caliper profile, a widely used, scientifically constructed and highly valid personality assessment tool. The results served as a clear reminder that each of us is different, especially those from different generations, which poses additional challenges for managing partners.

Day Two, 2019

The second day of the conference began with an overview of the results of the MPF 2019 Leadership Survey, which revealed how smaller and midsized law firms are responding to the rapidly changing legal landscape. Many of the attendees had completed the survey before the conference. Following the conference, a copy of the survey results was published. As managing partners, this is great benchmarking data to take back to our firms, giving instant credibility to ideas that are driving business and success at other firms.

Next industry experts were brought on stage to share their insights on “The Leadership Imperative.” Using audience-polling technology,  attendees were asked what their firm was doing to adapt to unprecedented change in the legal industry. Once again, participants left with great benchmarking information to share with their firms.

The conference also provided cutting-edge ideas and solutions related to law firm technology. Technology has been—and will continue to be—a game-changer in the legal industry. It affects just about every aspect of the practice of law, including document management, time and billing, customer relations management, process improvement, artificial intelligence, cloud-based storage, cybersecurity and social media. Many predict that technology will soon surpass rent as the No. 2 expense item, behind only salaries. Two managing partners and two industry experts shared ideas about how much a firm should be investing in technology and what responsible managing partners needed to know to keep their firm ahead of the game.

Collaboration is Key

Have I mentioned how important collaboration is to becoming an effective leader and managing partner? The MPF figured that out years ago. The most popular part of the conference is what the MPF calls “MPIEs,” which is defined as “managing partner idea exchanges.” About 15 to 20 managing partners are assigned to a room along with a facilitator. The managing partners are grouped by firm size. Topics include firm culture, core values, policies, procedures, profitability, accountability, infrastructure, budgets, office space, technology, partnership agreements, governance models, compensation models and strategic planning. They also include succession planning, growth strategies, mergers and acquisitions, lateral hires, recruiting and retention, generational issues, diversity, support staff, chief operating officers, mentoring, training and development, and criteria for partnership.

This format allows managing partners to talk about their tough issues. The collaboration with managing partners from firms of similar size keeps everyone abreast of relevant emerging ideas. You quickly learn that firm leaders are not afraid to spill their guts and ask about and address the questions that keep them up at night. From the perspective of a managing partner, it becomes quite obvious that you need to know your limitations and remind yourself that you were not taught this stuff in law school nor during your years of practice.

The MPF also recognized this year that technology has clearly changed our ability to learn. Many lawyers spend their day participating in listservs relevant to their practice areas. Now the MPF offers each attendee a listserv consisting of managing partners. In the three months of participating, I have seen managing partners get advice from other managing partners on issues ranging from partnership criteria, terminating a partner, diversity initiatives and tracking the profitability of each timekeeper in the office. As lawyers who most of the time think they always know, or should know, the right answer, the listserv gives us the ability to focus on asking the right questions. In return, we find out almost immediately what has worked for others and, maybe most importantly, what hasn’t.

Although collaborative leadership has several definitions, at its core is the ability to value the ideas and opinions of others, especially those who are members of your organization or community. While law firms by nature compete against each other for business, managing partners, as part of a collaborative community, do not. And, finally, as a law firm leader, accept that you don’t have all the answers, but recognize there are those out there who do and are willing to help. Collaboration with those people makes you a more effective leader.

Robert Young

Robert Young is managing partner of English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He is a former chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. His 30-year career in law has primarily focused on personal injury litigation. [email protected]