October 23, 2012

Are You Prepared to Lead? Advice on Accepting the Top Spot in Your Firm

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September 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 6 | Page 50

Law Practice Case Study

Are You Prepared to Lead? Advice on Accepting the Top Spot in Your Firm

In the latest installment of the Law Practice Case Study series, a partner wonders whether she’s the right person to lead her troubled firm.

THE SCENARIO Terri held the letter asking her to become the next managing partner. She felt honored, but she also knew the job came with tough challenges. For one, there was the latest controversy in the partner ranks concerning the compensation formula. The litigators were unhappy with sharing the fruits of their labors, particularly after that last big win. However, it took all of the firm to finance that piece of litigation over the long time that it took to be completed. The next managing partner would need to bring both sides together to see each other’s points of view.

Are You Prepared to Lead?

Advice on Accepting the Top Spot in Your Firm

Also there was the matter of the retirement due to the firm’s senior members and the younger partners threatening to flee at the thought of their profits being used to fund the founders’ retirement plans… And then there was the issue of strategic direction. They had talked with a management consultant who had suggested that the firm adopt a narrower direction. But several partners disagreed with not being a “general service” firm and the strategic plan was shelved. Plus, the firm’s younger members were agitating for a marketing director and for more humane billable-hours requirements. But some of the senior partners didn’t like advertising and felt the younger members were not willing to pay their dues. She had her own objectives as well. As one of the firm’s few female partners, she wanted to introduce new opportunities for young female lawyers, as well as ones from more diverse backgrounds.

How, she wondered, could she address so many challenges? She also wondered about her own management style. Being more of a conciliator, she wasn’t accustomed to taking the lead on issues, preferring to encourage dialogue around different views until a consensus appeared. But people were accustomed to the style of the outgoing managing partner, who’d been in the position for many years and was rather authoritarian, preferring to issue edicts rather than obtain others’ opinions.

It was a lot to bite off. She thought about who she could talk to before accepting the position….


Our Experts Respond

Win Over the Old Guard and Embody Change - Simon Chester

Congratulations, Terri. This moment is a fabulous one. Cherish it. You’ll never have more power and potential than you do standing there with that letter in your hand. Don’t blow the moment. The letter shows that the firm wants you—and more, it needs you. Your partners recognize that change is necessary, and that you’re not merely the handmaiden of that change—they need you to be the leader. 

So…. Don’t be too quick to accept. First look at what you want—and what the firm wants from you. Why do you want this job? Think back over your time at this firm. about what you value among all your colleagues. About what the firm means to you, and what it could mean in the future.

The fact that your peers are offering you the position of managing partner means they’ve recognized that old authoritarian models of leadership don’t cut it today. And they also realize that your firm is at a crossroad—a crossroad of business models, but more importantly a generational crossroad. You embody change—your age, your gender, your style. Don’t let them forget that.

Of course, if you accept this position, you can’t just be the leader of the Young Turks. You need to be the leader of the entire firm. That suits your style well. You can clearly listen more than your predecessor, and you see more, too. The firm can be stronger and better because of that. Together you and the firm can be extraordinary.

The people in your firm, though, will need to share your vision and your passion. That will mean winning over some of the disaffected old guard. It will also mean convincing your younger colleagues that the firm is moving forward together—and that they should mute their impatience.

So presuming that you do accept the managing partner mantel, what should your initial steps be? Don’t go out and try to solve all the issues immediately. Pick a couple of issues where you can signal a difference from your predecessor, in style, process and outcome. If it were me, I would move forward on two issues immediately: building a strong consensus around change and embracing marketing. This doesn’t mean that other issues (such as gender, diversity and specialization) aren’t important, but they’re issues that will require a longer process to work through. And the really tough issues—like the long-term financial ones—are going to require a sophisticated process to build consensus. It’s best to build a small group with representation from all the interested sectors, but with processes and a mandate to mediate solutions. This should include a commitment to bring those solutions back before the entire partnership a year from now.

Why the priority on building a consensus? Because the firm has been through tense times and needs to recognize that what unites it is much larger than the differences. You’re well positioned to do that. Plan on having lunch with every partner over the next little while. Meet with the associates collectively and in smaller groups. Let the support staff know that you want to meet with them. Listen carefully to what you’re hearing and not hearing. Talk to all of them about your vision for the firm. Walk around the floor. That alone will signal change.

Meet with key clients too, along with the primary partners. Introducing yourself is a great way to introduce the entire firm. Communicate that the firm is in motion. Ask them what they need from the firm. Use that feedback to drive the marketing shift. 

The marketing shift is the way of signaling internally and externally that change is afoot. It is a priority because (1) your competitors won’t be so bashful, and (2) stating what clients need, what the firm represents, how it’s different and how you’ll serve clients will require an internal dialogue on what the firm is about. And that information will be needed as you chart solutions to the other issues that your firm faces.

With that in mind, as you move through the transition phase, make sure that you develop processes for ensuring that you’re well tuned into what the members of the firm are thinking. Drop in on group meetings. Keep that door open as much as possible. Get individuals who you trust and respect to give you regular, candid feedback. Make sure that there is a regular process within the partnership to assess how you’re doing.

Lastly, your predecessor stayed on too long. You will need to recognize when your time has passed and when to hand on the firm, a firm that will be stronger, more cohesive and a better place to work as a result of your tenure at the top.

Determine Your Support and Use Your Conciliator Skills - Michael Simmons

Terri, you need to think about whether you are being handed a poisoned chalice. Can you do the job and, even more important, do you want to do it? It could turn into a full-time commitment, which is something I advise you to avoid. The reason: You must consider the possibility of failure, and if you give up your active practice and clients, where you are obviously successful, it will be very difficult to start again once your management term ends, whether well or badly. Therefore, you want to be a part-time managing partner only. Will this work at your firm? Only if the requisite support is available, so make certain that it is before you agree to take on the job.

Also, will there be sufficient consensus to let you do the job? You need to sound out all the important decision makers—and, again, before you decide to accept the position—to see if they are with you or against you. There will be an initial honeymoon period, but once it is over, you will have to rely on the continuing goodwill of certain people. If you think it will not be forthcoming, refuse the offer.

You need to consider lifestyle issues as well. Like it or not, you are going to increase your hourly commitments to the firm even as a part-time managing partner. Management is time-consuming, and simultaneously your practice must continue, if only as an insurance against possible failure. You have to ask yourself whether you are prepared to sacrifice other aspects of your life to take on this onerous appointment. You will have a steep learning curve—and I urge you to seek an outside mentor, if only as a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on.

Clearly yours is a firm in crisis, and the partners’ dispute over the compensation formula presents a particular challenge. Money always causes problems, and the differing dynamics of litigation and the other forms of practice are difficult to reconcile. Can you make the selfish become unselfish in order to preserve the firm for the general good?

Unselfishness will also be your theme when confronting the senior partners about their unfunded retirement plans. You can appeal to their sense of reality as well by showing them that, if they are too greedy, they will be the losers because there will be no firm left to pay them out. You will have to convince them that they must not kill the goose and that’s it better to accept a silver egg than seek an illusory golden one. Can you persuade them to reduce their demands for the good of the future firm?

In addition, the firm needs to change direction to become more focused on specialty areas and less of a general practice, and you will need to persuade the opposition. Will you have the support to push through changes to the compensation plan to reward business generation and client retention rather than work done, so as to encourage work sharing and hence specialization? It will not be easy and you may lose some partners as a result of your efforts. Provided that they are not key partners, though, the firm cannot only survive, but can flourish with the changes.

Although don’t try to be too ambitious, at least initially. Your diversity proposals are admirable, but they may be too much for your partners to swallow until they see that your other reforms are working. The same applies to the recruitment of an outside marketing director. Each incremental success, however small, increases your credibility and allows you to move on to the next reform. You will need to prioritize your efforts and create a timetable for your proposed reforms.

You will also need your skills as a conciliator to the full. Actually, they are probably among the main reasons that you have been asked to take on this challenging job. Always remember that as managing partner, you will daily face new problems that at this moment are not even small clouds on the horizon. You will be constantly making decisions—some right and some wrong. Are your partners likely to be sufficiently tolerant of your fallibility? You need to persuade them that they must make short-term concessions for the good of all. The important thing is that you identify your mistakes and correct them speedily.

So, after what I have said, can you do the job? Do you even want to do it? The decision, Terri, is yours. Good luck in whatever you decide. If you accept the job, let me know how you get on.

Recognize Your Concerns Are Natural and Mind the Best Interests of the Firm - Norman Bacal

You are at a career crossroad, Terri, with a big decision to make: Do you want to continue practicing law full-time or are you ready to take on the challenges of leadership?

Apart from the firm-specific problems that my colleagues discussed in their comments, you are no doubt agonizing over many of the same issues that every managing partner confronts before taking on the role. You are facing up to the same insecurities about yourself that all of us in the management role felt at first:

  • Am I capable of managing all the problems my firm is facing?
  • Will partners accept a form of leadership different from my predecessor’s?
  • Will my lack of training for this role cause me to fail?
  • How does being a successful lawyer translate into being a good managing partner?
  • Why take on such personal risk at this stage in my career when up until now I have only known success?

These and many more reasons will cause you to doubt whether you are the right person for the job.

These are all very normal concerns. Just remember that your partners have tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to lead. That in itself is a vote of confidence in your personality and reflects your partners’ perception that they are prepared to follow you. (And probably the little voice in the back of your head is already telling you this.)

It’s true that your firm faces many challenges, and you won’t be able to solve them all initially. Keep in mind that you will need to set short-term goals and long-term objectives and reasonable timelines for yourself. Expect that for the first 18 months you will be learning much about yourself and more than you can imagine about your partners, including their strengths and weaknesses. This learning will mean showing your partners a willingness to listen. Your conciliatory nature makes you a natural in this regard. The most significant asset you have is an ability to engage in open communication.

That being said, do not mislead yourself into believing that complete consensus is necessary or even a good thing. On many issues your partners will be doing what they do best … expressing concerns and reserves. Listen carefully and then direct your partners to the decisions you believe to be in the best interest of the firm. Even the dissenters will respect your leadership.

Accept the Challenge and Plan for Yourself as Well as the Firm - Marci M. Krufka

Terri, congratulations on being invited to become your firm’s managing partner! The position is one of tremendous responsibility, but also one of great opportunity, and clearly your firm thinks you are the person best suited for the challenge.

You are also in a somewhat unique position. Although women now represent almost half of all law firm associates and 16 percent of law firm partners, only 5 percent of managing partners are women.

I suggest you accept the invitation and offer you the following tips to prepare you for your new role.

  • First, enroll in leadership and management training courses, especially those specific to law firms. Although your firm clearly feels you are qualified for the job, you, like most lawyers, have probably not had much in the way of formal training in leadership and management issues. Let’s face it—they didn’t teach us this stuff in law school. Unlike your counterparts in large consulting and accounting firms, and those in corporate America who would have had hundreds of hours of such training before becoming a high-level executive, lawyers have typically had very little training in this area. Also consider hiring an executive coach with law firm experience who can help you prioritize, develop goals for your new role and plan for your own work-life balance, which will be very important to your success.
  • Second, being the successor to a “benevolent dictator” can be a challenge. Understand what worked and what didn’t work for your predecessor based on his style and use the tools and training you receive in your leadership courses to develop a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your own style. Your tendency to be a conciliator will help you to build consensus, but I agree with my colleague that striving for 100 percent consensus will not be the best use of your time. When you have buy-in from the firm’s thought leaders (and perhaps at certain times when you don’t), as an executive you must be willing to make decisions and stick to them.
  • Third, consider what the position will mean to you in terms of time commitment and your own practice. In smaller firms, managing partner responsibilities can require more than 500 hours per year; in midsize firms, 1,000 or more hours; and in large firms, the position is a full-time job. Have a frank discussion with current firm leaders about your roles and responsibilities as managing partner, the time commitment required and how you will transition your practice during your tenure. Even if your firm is large, I strongly suggest you not give up your practice completely. Transition client relationships to your partners as necessary to get the work done, but maintain those relationships wherever possible and position yourself to resume your practice when your term is over. Confirm that your firm will support you compensation-wise when it is time for you to rebuild your personal book of business.
  • Fourth, generate some small wins before tackling the large, complicated issues like the partner compensation system and the firm’s unfunded retirement obligations. For example, hire a qualified chief marketing officer and develop and implement a few successful marketing strategies with measurable results.
  • Next, assemble a team to develop the firm’s strategic plan. The team should include senior firm leaders as well as “stars” from the firm’s next generation. The strategic planning process, done right, will help you to make crucial decisions such as your firm’s focus and practice mix going forward. It will allow you to use your skills as a conciliator to create “one firm,” versus a firm where litigators (or any group for that matter) think of themselves instead of the good of the firm as a whole. It will also help you begin the process of developing a long-term plan to create greater diversity within the firm.
  • Finally, communication is critical to the success of any leader. Even in large, global firms, “management by walking around” is still an essential part of the managing partner’s responsibilities. Visit your firm’s offices, and engage in a dialogue with as many lawyers as possible. Provide regular, formal communication to the firm about the firm’s strategies, successes and challenges. It will create a greater sense of trust throughout the firm, particularly during the leadership transition, which can be tricky in any organization.

About the Experts

Simon Chester is a partner at the law firm Heenan Blaikie and a member of its Toronto Litigation and Business Law groups. He has held multiple leadership positions in professional organizations and serves as a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management.

Michael Simmons specializes in partnership matters and acts as a consultant on professional practice problems under the auspices of Finers Stephens Innocent in London.

Norman Bacal is Co-Managing Partner of Heenan Blaikie and the founding partner of the firm’s Toronto office. He is also actively involved in leadership roles in charitable and nonprofit organizations.

Marci M. Krufka is a Senior Consultant with Altman Weil, Inc., in Newtown Square, PA. She previously practiced law with a Philadelphia firm and worked in the legal department of a Fortune 500 company.