Law Practice Magazine Logo

 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business


Ask Bill

Bill, my firm recently told me I’m on the short list to be the next managing partner. While I know a lot about practicing law, I don’t have real management experience. I feel like I need to get an education in firm leadership if I’m going to take the job. Any suggestions?

To begin, let me note that you’ll be far from alone if you assume your firm’s reins without prior management experience or training. When it comes to selecting a new managing partner, far too many law firms simply find a good lawyer who’s willing to take on the job and, unfortunately, that person finds himself or herself holding the firm’s reins without any training in how to do it right. And often, the reason prior management experience isn’t a prerequisite is because nobody in the pool of available partners has any. So, the firms try to identify candidates who have demonstrated business or people skills. If you are on the short list, it is likely because you are a good lawyer and your partners think you can handle the business and people sides of the practice.

That said, there is so much involved in leading a firm that it’s tough to master it all through “on the job” training. So it is a sign of your good judgment that you are thinking about your lack of management education even before you take on the job. To give you an idea of what you might do, I turned to a friend and colleague, Jeff Eberhard, who’s the managing partner of Smith Freed & Eberhard, a litigation firm in Portland, Oregon. What he did might be instructive for you and other lawyers wanting to move into management—and for those who are already in the job.

Learning a New Kind of Curriculum: A Two-Phase Education

Jeff’s firm was founded in 1987 by partners Bob Smith and Denny Freed, and he came on the next year as the firm’s first associate. By the time he became managing partner in 1999, there were 15 lawyers on board. While 15 lawyers might not seem like a lot, it represented a big change for a firm that had started so small. Add to that the increasing number of support staff, the task of managing the office’s physical requirements, the need to keep up with technology advances and the finances of a growing operation, and the job that Jeff faced must have looked daunting.

As you might guess, he quickly realized that managing a law firm is different from practicing law. And, ultimately, as the firm continued to grow in the next years, he recognized that he needed some additional training if he was going to succeed in meeting all the challenges involved.

So in 2003 he enrolled in a two-week course at Columbia University called “Essentials of Management.” The course was a snapshot of the Columbia MBA program and, Jeff recalls, it was a “life-changing experience.” Interestingly, he says the most important things he learned in those two weeks were about himself—and, specifically, how he worked with his people.

Before the Columbia course, he was “hard charging,” he says, and “unreasonably demanding of myself and the people around me.” But the program “softened him up” through a self-evaluation process. Moreover, during the program, the people who worked with him were asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire in which they were asked what they liked and disliked about his management style. “It was eye-opening,” he recalls.

Jeff implemented a lot of what he learned at Columbia on both the business end and the people side. However, there are always new opportunities to improve, as he realized when the firm went through even more growth—expanding to 30 lawyers—over the next few years. At that point, in his seventh year as managing partner, he decided he needed some new “energy and focus” if he was going to keep up with the expanding tasks of managing the firm.

In 2006, Jeff embarked on what he calls “phase two” of his education, which entailed earning a Master’s Degree in Law Firm Management through a program developed by The George Washington University and Hildebrandt Institute. Particularly attractive to Jeff was that the program combined distance learning with four on-campus sessions over two years. The program was broken into two parts—law firm management and leadership—and was very much, he says, “like going back to school, with assignments and projects and due dates.” He also emphasizes this aspect: “They work you, but the assignments are focused on applying their methods to your firm, so it is very exciting and rewarding.”

Where the Learning Pays Off Most

So, what key differences has Jeff’s targeted training made at Smith Freed & Eberhard? While he learned much that enhanced his understanding of how to run a growing firm, the take-home message he offers is this: “It’s about the people in your firm because they will continue the firm long after you leave.” So, simply put, while you have to keep the firm’s clients satisfied as a matter of course, your number one job as managing partner is “to take care of your people.”

“If you don’t have the soul, the culture, you become a factory,” he adds.

That realization led him to rethink the way he managed his people. It also led him to realize that while too little money can breed dissatisfaction, money alone is not a satisfier. “If you give your folks opportunities to do interesting work and opportunities to move up the ladder,” that’s when they will be happy.

With regards to wages, he points out that the firm intends to be fair and competitive with the market—but with respect to everything else, “we intend to be superior.” This includes a generous benefits package, with several innovative elements, the components of which the firm proudly lists on its Web site. Moreover, Jeff says, “we are now more open to more telecommuting and we’ve improved our maternity leave policy” to appeal to a broader demographic of potential employees.

There is also a distinct emphasis on a culture of teamwork at Smith Freed & Eberhard, with in-house training programs and numerous firm-sponsored events that encourage collegiality. In furtherance of that, Jeff also came to realize that the kind of lawyers they wanted at the firm were “humble, hardworking “ ones, to help maintain a team-oriented and cooperative workplace. As a result, they are constantly looking for and interviewing lawyers who will fit in with the firm’s culture, instead of simply waiting to interview when the firm’s workload demands it.

He has also learned to be much more strategic in hiring new lawyers in other respects. “We don’t hire people right out of law school anymore. We want people who have practiced law and have worked in a law office environment.”

Importantly, the firm’s management model also frees the lawyers to do what they do best—-practice law—because they “don’t have to attend endless meetings to discuss what the firm Web site is going to look like,” he says. “We hold partner meetings, but I am responsible for making the day-to-day decisions.”

Jeff credits his time at both Columbia and George Washington for changing the way that he approaches his job, enabling him to manage such decisions in the best way possible. But he also credits the programs for providing advice and counsel to him on a personal level. He adds that “as managing partner your job is to lead and counsel people” but you need someone to “do that for you,” too, which he obtained through the management programs. They opened his eyes by exposing him “to different schools of thought,” as he puts it—leading to end results that were unquestionably worth the time away from the office. Jeff’s firm now has 61 lawyers and he is beginning his 12th year as managing partner.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is President of the College of Law Practice Management and a Past Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.