October 23, 2012

From Partner to Leader: Six Tips for Making a Successful Transition

Law Practice Magazine

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Partner to Leader

Rising to the Top

Tips for a Smooth Transition

 Table of Contents

September 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 6 | Page 32

Transistions: Partner to Leader

From Partner to Leader: Six Tips for Making a Successful Transition

You’ve been named managing partner, and you feel uncertain about how best to make the transition to executive leadership. The president of Briggs and Morgan shares his firsthand pointers to help you make the jump.

You have been named managing partner of a law firm that has received your loyalty and tireless efforts for many years. But during all of those years, you practiced law while tending to your clients. Now you feel uncertain about how best to make the transition to executive leadership. These pointers will help you make the jump.

When a new leader steps in, many firms experience problems during the transition. Among those you will likely face will be partners’ anxiety over potential impacts on the compensation system, practice area focuses and overall firm culture. It may have taken years for them to get comfortable with your predecessor and now they wonder how things will be different with you.

Don’t wait until the honeymoon is over to develop your plan of action. Your partners will count on you for optimism, to lead them into a profitable future. Unfortunately, there is no definitive path to follow. What works for any one firm will depend on culture and appetite for change. When you take office, it will be essential to do so with confidence and a proactive attitude. Here are some important things to do as you take the reins.

  1. Communicate often with the firm’s outgoing leadership. Start the transition well in advance of taking office. It will be important—whenever possible—to engage in regular discussion with your predecessor. You will need this person to be a source of support, both publicly and privately. Discuss overall strategies and how to build effectively on good works already set in motion. Ask for personal insight on what worked (or did not), and encourage honesty—to be trained effectively in this job, it is crucial that your predecessor share candid opinions, not just feed you what you want to hear.
  2. Assess firm culture and appetite for change. Whether your firm has been around for a decade or a century, it already has its roots and a culture that will not change overnight. However, your first year as managing partner poses the greatest opportunity for implementing a new initiative that complements your vision. While partners may be nervous about change, they expect it. Pushing through change can actually help reenergize a firm or move it in necessary directions. At the same time, though, remember that attempting to make too many changes too quickly may lead to adverse consequences.
  3. Select other leaders who are comfortable with your style, ability and vision. You may launch into your new role believing you can do it all on your own, but that is just a recipe for disaster and burnout. Identify a select few to sit with you at the head table, paying attention to each individual’s leadership history, ease with gaining buy-in from others and overall commitment to the firm’s future. But beware of appearing that you are building an elite clique and resist the temptation to select “yes-only” people. Although positive support is welcome, it is equally important that firm management be representative of differing perspectives and opinions. Coach and empower these leaders—your successor may be among their company.
  4. Narrow your focus during the first year. Although you will inherit a list of infinite concerns voiced by your peers, work hard early on to maintain focus on initiatives that you and your leadership team have collectively identified as priority issues. If, for example, your goal is growth, determine whether it is important to grow practice areas, number of lawyers or new offices, and figure out how best to do so strategically. Or perhaps your firm is struggling with retaining lawyers and qualified staff. Then determine the causes and possible solutions. No matter the issue, you are more likely to succeed in your first 12 months if you take on only one or two significant issues, rather than a dozen.
  5. Accept early on that you cannot be all things to all people. Both petty and major issues will be brought to your attention in all manners and formats. Learning when to say “no” is paramount. Patience and good listening skills are also essential. While there will never be enough time to respond to every e-mail or phone message in detail, as time goes on you will tailor your leadership style and adopt an approach that works well and, ideally, achieves a positive response across the firm.
  6. Recognize that your billable time will drop as you make the transition. As you step up to head the firm, the simultaneous decrease in your practice will at first seem steep and sudden. This is part of the natural and necessary progression. Your role will change dramatically—many will come to rely on your leadership in retaining clients and lawyers, developing new business, maintaining profitability and actively managing people. You cannot effectively carry your firm into the future without first coming to terms with the necessity of making room for decision making and day-to-day management. Accept this and your leap to leadership will be a much smoother and successful one.

About the Author

Alan H. Maclin is President in the Twin Cities firm Briggs and Morgan. He took office in February 2007 after serving five years as head of the firm’s litigation department and currently oversees 170 attorneys. He has been an active part of firm management for nearly 10 years, having also served on the firm’s board of directors and executive committee and the Briggs and Morgan Foundation board of directors.