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How firms can give their managing partners proper support, upfront

Posted in Leadership, Legal Profession, Management, Partners, Uncategorized

I know that a managing partner is appointed to lead and run a law firm and should do just that – get on with the job. However, there are many things that a firm must in turn do, ideally up-front, to assist their newly appointed managing partner and to give him or her a fair shot at making a go of a very challenging and sometimes trying role. Leaders, particularly new ones, are real people and need real help and support. Wise firms put this in place.

A new managing partner and no doubt his or her partners will be raring for him or her to take up the role and ‘make a difference’. It is worth spending some time however  thinking about how to make it easier for him or her and to provide proper support – upfront.

The problem is that due to the strange animal that is the law firm partnership or equivalent, most firms don’t really get involved to implement just a few basic steps that can serve to make or break a managing partner, or at least increase the chances of success and his or her maintaining some semblance of normal life. The right steps taken up-front, and a few carefully thought-through foundation-stones laid, can make his or her life so much easier and get a much better outcome for all concerned.

Partnerships have this strange view that because they have chosen someone from their ranks who they believe has the credentials to lead (and usually does) that this is the end of the matter – the new incumbent can and will sort out any teething snags or issues arising in relation to the role and will simply work out work and time pressures and so on. The problem is that most new incumbents believe this as well. They don’t want to undermine the partners’ confidence in them or give any indication that they are struggling and need help.

It is not a good combination and can quite unnecessarily lead to a bad outcome, and be tough on the managing partner. It is fair to say that the root causes of many managing partner roles not panning out can be traced back to what is or is not done in these early stages.

What are some of the challenges faced when a new managing partner is appointed?

  1. a fear by the managing partner he or she will, over time, lose a highly successful practice;
  2. a fear (by the incumbent and the firm) that the managing partner may never re-build a practice after the role and may be left high and dry. This can cause all manner of defensive behaviours which can work counter to making a success of a leadership role;
  3. even in a small or mid-sized firm a new incumbent can easily make a full-time job of being a managing partner; there will never be a shortage of things to worry about or do. The problem is usually doing too much managing and not enough leading – many don’t know the difference;
  4. because of trying to retain a busy practice or desperately trying to continue building a slowing practice, not having or devoting enough time to do the leadership role;
  5. either through inexperience or tight-fisted, unrealistic partners, having an inadequate, under-qualified or non-existent management team to delegate to;
  6. lacking basic delegation skills coupled with a dogmatic wish to ‘do it all’;
  7. having no-one to talk to as an independent, strong leadership mentor; and
  8. because of all or some of the above, simply never feeling there is enough time in the day to do the job, run a practice and have some decent time for the family, hobbies and sporting activities.

I am sure some of you have experienced or seen some or all of these examples – they are all based on real examples.

What are some steps to take?

  1. recognise the challenges that the managing partner will face – be realistic – no matter how high the regard is you have for the new incumbent put in place some support mechanisms to ensure his or her success. It is well worth it;
  2. make it easy for him or her by insisting on budget relief. This also sends a strong message to other partners as to the importance of the leadership role. This is a given but it is surprising how often partners are either stingy or don’t insist on this – when this is under consideration partners play down the significance of the role and how time-consuming and tough it is.
  3. make it easy by having a trusted, experienced partner with proven leadership skills and at least one other to act as active ‘advisers’, listeners and mentors in the first year or two. This may or may not include the chair or senior partner incumbent. They should meet formally at least once a month apart from the various informal discussions that will take place almost daily. The right person will provide the right soft-touch (and sometime firm touch) guiding hand and be someone to test things on, but will not allow the new managing partner to abdicate and palm tough decisions off to the de facto ‘leadership committee’ (which in itself can be dangerous and no good for anyone, the managing partner, the leadership team or the firm);
  4. provide some external executive coaching and mentoring from an experienced, trusted leader – this is becoming a more commonly used strategy and can serve the purpose of introducing an objective, independent voice and bring new, challenging ideas into the mix.

Some of these points may seem obvious, and they are. However, few firms really think them through. Fewer still do anything about them. As a result a new managing partner can have unfair pressure heaped on them and find the role more stressful than it has to be. Firms, partnerships and the new managing partners should not let this happen.

Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International – growth strategist, master coach and adviser to legal entities – focused on building strength, confidence and well-being.