October 23, 2012

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It: First Steps for the New Managing Partner

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December 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 8| Page 26

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It: First Steps for the New Managing Partner

So they've made you managing partner. I won't ask how it happened. Every law firm has its own Rube Goldberg method of choosing who will be in charge. Whether by election, appointment, general acclamation, process of elimination or plain old musical chairs, let me just say this: Congratulations! You are about to have the most interesting, frustrating, energizing, challenging, rewarding and creative period of your career.

From the very first moment, regardless of your firm's size, every single partner will watch with a critical eye while you perform what feels like a high-wire act-for which, chances are, you've received no training and may even get a cut in pay. And while you may be allowed a learning curve of sorts, it won't be long and it will most certainly be steep.

If you're lucky, on the road to this job you had the chance to observe an effective predecessor-someone who might now serve as a role model and a good starting point for your thinking. If you're unlucky and no one has ever really done this job before (at least not in a way you'd like to duplicate), you're going to have to either make it up as you go along or draw on experiences and observations beyond the firm-like your former firm, bar committees, nonprofit board work, church, school or even community groups. But in the end, truth be told, luck is going to have little to do with it. This is going to be work.

So let's get you launched with a short list of savvy first steps for the new managing partner.

Take Stock
Find out where the firm stands at present. How do things look on the financial side? On the people side, is everyone busy and engaged? What went before you that you'll need to make up for now? Whose ox was gored in the last compensation round? Which practice is fading and in need of new blood? Figure out whether there are obvious elephant-in-the-room problems that beg for solutions. If there are, consider how you'll solve them. Nothing will get you full firm support faster than eliminating a long-ignored but chafing issue. Taking stock is the critical first step. Get it out of the way quickly and well. As John McPhee wrote of Senator Bill Bradley, the three-time All-American, when he was playing hoops at Princeton he could shoot nearly blind from anywhere on the court. At all times, he said, you've got to have "a sense of where you are."


  • Spend one-on-one time with the previous managing partner and other prior and current members of firm leadership. Find out what they think needs to happen next . and where the skeletons are buried.
  • Take a listening tour or two through the firm, asking for advice and information from everyone you meet-staff, lawyers and clients. This is the last chance you will have to take the position of knowing nothing, so use it.
  • Get an executive summary from your chief finance person, as well as the complete data that accompanies it. Sit with him or her and open your mind to possibilities that may have been pooh-poohed in the past. Challenging the status quo is at least half of your new job.
  • Examine your biases, and ask others what your biases are perceived to be.
  • Ask staff managers for any information they feel will be helpful, and elicit a promise that they'll feed you helpful info going forward as well.

Get Help
Put others to work and begin to build a support structure for yourself. Now is the time to identify all the players in firm management-formal and informal-and to make it plain that you understand and appreciate the critical role they will continue to play in ensuring the firm's future.

Your most important contact-in fact, your new best friend-will be the firm's administrator or office manager. Do everything in your power to build a trusting and dynamic relationship here. This can't be overstated. Managing partners who find themselves at odds with the administrator, or who lumber along with a poorly performing one, waste months and sometimes years rectifying the situation as well as its fallout.

In addition to the chief administrator and the ubiquitous management committee, many managing partners also enjoy an informal "kitchen cabinet" of experts who help keep them informed and on point. The most valuable members will be those who speak truth to power and bring historical as well as cultural perspective to the table. Yours might include a group as diverse as a semi-retired partner, the last managing partner's secretary, a key outspoken partner ally and an up-and-coming young lawyer. Your choices will be driven by specifics of personality, in-firm dynamics and myriad other things. But if you get the right group around you and trust them to keep you on the beam, you'll sleep better at night.


  • Learn what all your administrative people do-and whether they can propose new and better ways of doing things.
  • Spend as much time as possible building a collaborative relationship with your firm administrator or office manager-and plan to tend it often.
  • Identify and appoint an informal support group inside the firm.
  • Consider an advisory board of clients and others outside the firm who bring real-life business perspectives to the table.
  • Ask for help and promise respect. The best leaders are those who involve and listen to all voices, demonstrate respect for contribution, and take every chance to deflect praise from themselves onto those who help.

Think Big Perspective-But Implement Structure, Too
If you have any kind of personal agenda, check it at the door. Effective today, you must view everything from a new vantage point. Bad behavior among partners is no longer someone else's problem. Business strategy for the future of the firm is now your responsibility. Conversely, your personal compensation does now lay in someone else's bailiwick. In that respect, your only job is to make the decision about your remuneration easy by excelling in your role. From now on, you're thinking big, not small.

At the same time, you need to remember that very few people thrive on change. In fact, change in any form unsettles most. So stay clear of turning the firm upside down in your very first days. Instead, to keep everyone calm, working hard, focused on the good of the firm and feeling reassured as you take the reins, establish some rules of the game up front. And tell everyone what those rules are so people know what to expect.

For example, how, where and by whom will decisions be made-by consensus, by majority vote, by default . by you? How often will management meetings be held? What will their purpose be, and who sets the agenda? Who is expected to be there? Are the meetings open to others in the firm?

Answer as many of the easy questions as quickly as possible. If things will simply continue as they did before, then by all means say so. Leave little room for idle speculation. Once your people feel reassured, they'll be far more likely to support your bigger plans.


  • Send a memo "to all" about who is in charge of what, when meetings will be held and how to communicate with firm leadership.
  • Organize in whatever way necessary to ensure timely and accurate communication with all stakeholders about new decisions, issues, developments and the like. Your watchwords here: two-way communication!
  • Seek out the inspiration and perspective of other managing partners on how to forge ahead. Identify a national or regional roundtable of MPs from firms of your size in other locations, then sign up and participate regularly. This network will be your lifeline as you proceed in your new role.
  • Steel yourself to make the really tough decisions.

Develop Your Plan
Whether you see your job as taking the firm to the next great level or just keeping revenues up and expenses down, you're going to need a solid plan. Without a plan, every discussion will be based on opinion rather than fact and every decision will be a zerobased one. So figure out how you're going to set a plan, and then do it.

Smart leaders involve those who will be led, so your plan could result from a two-day partner retreat, a series of conference calls, an online collaboration or any combination of those things. Bringing in a facilitator instead of trying to lead the discussion yourself is almost always a good idea. You will be perceived as having a personal agenda-even if you don't-and that is guaranteed to block progress. But the critical part is to co-opt potential naysayers through inclusion in the planning process. And frankly, it is almost always true that a better work product results from the involvement of many minds.

Remember, you don't always have to know the answers, but you do have to know how to get them.


  • Figure out how you'll go about creating a plan, and then put the process in motion. Be realistic about what can be accomplished in a certain amount of time.
  • For guidance on the hows and whys of law firm planning, broaden your reading habits. What do other managing partners read? Seek out periodicals, books and blogs.
  • Complete the plan and then communicate it to all stakeholders. Be careful not to set the bar too high in the beginning. Look for some early wins to establish credibility.
  • Accomplish the plan. Critical in this will be referencing the plan in all decision discussions-for example, "Remember, we said we would limit geographic expansion until we get the new computer system up and running."

Lead with Grace
It is your job to set the tone for the rest of the firm. If you dole out favors to longtime friends and hold grudges against others, pettiness will quickly become the norm. If you routinely delegate decision making and share the power, however, teamwork and collaboration will invariably seep into the other work of the firm.

Set some standards for your own behavior-if you haven't already- and try like crazy to stick to them: Say thank you. Listen. Recognize contribution. Admit your own errors. Keep confidences. Expect the best. Forgive mistakes. Be generous. Honor others' differences. Start on time. Be modest.

While it may not seem a perfect fit in the beginning, the number one job of a managing partner is to lead. And the role of a leader, above all else, is to give meaning to the work to be done. Practically anyone with a law degree can run a meeting, write up an agenda, manage a project or the like. It is the leaders among us who create a vision of something new, who share that vision in a way that inspires, and who speak to the emotional as well as intellectual needs of the team.

Or, you could just mind the store, avoid bothering anyone and wait for the next guy to come along and take it over.

What's it going to be?

About the Author

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton , is principal in Astin Tarlton. She helps law firms think and act differently about managing the practice of law. A Past President of the College of Law Practice Management, she blogs on innovation at www.astintarlton.typepad.com.