While Ronald Reagan wasn’t one of my favorite Presidents, he produced one of my favorite quotes about leadership:

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

The decision-making process most firms seem to use for selection of their managing partner is to seek out those who qualify for the first sentence and are ill-prepared for the second.   In my experience, firms choose managing partners for any (or a combination) of the following reasons:

  • The candidate is the strongest biller in the firm;
  • The candidate is seen as the most reputable and respected lawyer in the firm;
  • The candidate was a strong biller in their day, and continues to be respected, but is heading toward or is in their declining practice years;
  • The candidate is experiencing a lull in their productivity and this posting will keep them busy for now;
  • The candidate is amenable to taking on the role and no one else wants it.

While any of these reasons might make sense from a productivity and logistics perspective, I believe these are all the wrong reasons to move someone into the managing partner role.  Here’s why: the leader sets the tone and ambitions of the firm.  A leader defines the business culture of a firm and demonstrates the attitudes that will be expected of everyone in the firm.  Ideally, a leader creates a vision for the future of the firm, oversees the development of business goals, and ensures that actions and behaviours support that vision and those goals.  Leadership of a firm is a critical component of its sustainability and legacy.  Lawyers who sense weak leadership will often opt to go to a firm with stronger leadership.   Lawyers will think twice about moving into partnership in a firm seen to have weak leadership. Laterals will similarly be hesitant to go to such a firm.

This is not to suggest that managing partners are expected to know all and make all decisions.  But they should be seen as a pocket of wisdom, experience, consideration, logic and courage for the firm.  And they should know how to lead.

I’ve often said that the skills needed to be a great lawyer are the opposite to those needed to be a great leader.   Sometimes, the best lawyer in the firm would be the worst leader in the firm.   Great lawyers might be terrible collaborators, have little patience for consultation, and demand to be followed rather than seeking to lead by inspiration.  This isn’t to say that lawyers can’t be great leaders; but they usually need to learn the skills required.   And too often, the more senior lawyers we would most consider for the role simply don’t have the time or inclination to go back to school on leadership training in advance of taking on a managing partner role.  The alternative is to identify protentional leaders earlier in their career, and to train them into the role.  Luckily, law firms are a wonderful environment for such education, provided it’s pursued with consideration and strategy.  Here’s how:

  • Be respected as a lawyer first: Lawyers wishing to lead must position themselves to be respected first, so that they will be followed. For this reason, a future managing partner must first and foremost be seen as a “leader” within their chosen legal area.   Take the time to become (and be seen as) an expert.  Take on work that is complex and be known as someone who does it well.  Demonstrate your client service skills by ensuring your clients love you so much, they brag about you to your partners.  Write articles, speak at conferences, get interviewed and become known within the community as someone who really knows your stuff.
  • Learn about the firm’s administrative areas: Managing partners are not expected to be experts in all administrative areas of the firm.  Most firms hire managers hired with those specialities. But managing partners are expected to know enough about each of those areas that they can credibly lead those managers and understand the challenges and opportunities within those areas.  To do this, it helps for a managing partner in training to take on a leadership role within each discipline.  Over time, serve as responsible partner for each of finance, marketing, HR and any other administrative groups the firm operates.  Get to know each area and observe how the manager thinks about and acts within that area.   Incidentally, it doesn’t hurt for managing partners in training to have also done a stint on certain committees at some point, including recruiting, associate, and compensation.
  • Practice launching change: Leadership is ultimately about managing around change. Lawyers are typically not very good at change, so whomever is leading them through it needs to be skilled at doing so.  A managing partner in training should be given an opportunity to shepherd the partnership and firm through some kind of change: an office move, development of a new practice group, implementation of a new computer system; oversight of developing and implementation of a new brand, launch of a new website, etc.
  • Gain exposure: While the managing partner in training builds the experience and skills they need to eventually take on the role, the partnership needs to get comfortable with that individual in a leadership role. It can help to have the current managing partner serve as a mentor, and to use the managing partner in training as their alternate.  Let the trainee take the lead on a few issues within executive meetings; or let them facilitate one of the meetings.  These trial balloons will help the trainee, but even more importantly, they will get the partnership used to this person in a leadership role.
  • Establish a personal brand: Regardless of the degree of mentorship between the existing managing partner and the next one, no one wants to see a carbon copy take over. It’s disingenuous to think that someone brand new to the role will have the same wisdom and tone of the one leaving the role after several years.  The trainee should consider what they want to stand for, and how they would like to shape the firm during their tenure. Once this is clear to them, they can begin to “live” that brand in the way they prepare for the role.  Is it a focus on valuing people?  Is if a focus on efficiency?  See what rings most true and consider how that emphasis can be placed on everything you do.

Managing Partner in Training?

If your firm realizes there’s a gap in leadership as the prior managing partner walks out the door (or as their agreement completes and they advise they don’t wish to take on the role again), swear an oath that you will never allow the firm to be so exposed ever again.  At any given time, a firm’s executive should be examining all lawyers in the firm to identify any potential future leaders and providing them with opportunities to develop their leadership skills.  Younger lawyers should be placed on committees; mid-level and older lawyers should lead those committees.  At least one year prior to the end of a managing partner’s term, the firm should already have a plan B in place by identifying the probable next leader and positioning them within key leadership roles as outlined above.   Ideally, a firm will start to identify potential firm leaders years in advance and encourage them to serve on committees and in roles along the way that will more gently prepare them for the ultimate role.

In other words, managing partners should be cultivated for years leading up to their term.  While your firm might not have practised this method of managing before, it’s never too late to start.  Not all of your candidates may make it to the finish line, which is why we generally select and train several candidates at a time.  The worst that can happen is that you have a firm of remarkable leaders who rotate through the managing partner role.

For those firms on the cusp of replacing their managing partner and fearing that they may be about to hand the role to the very type of lawyer that I described in the beginning of this article, you can mitigate this challenge in several ways;

  1. Get the incoming managing partner some leadership coaching;
  2. Establish a leadership team around this position that can take a more active role in assisting with management of the firm as a whole (such as a strong executive team, or including your administrative managers on your executive team);
  3. Work on firm values and a strategic plan as part of the on-boarding process with the new managing partner. That will clarify key management components and give them clear direction and expectations for the new term.

I’ll conclude with another great quote about leadership, this one from Jack Welch:

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

(This article first appeared in SLAW)

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com