16 easy steps to making you a great managing partner

Published: 06 Aug 2018 By Alex Novarese

Recently a surprisingly popular column in Legal Business took a jaded view of the state of leadership in major law firms. The nub of our argument was that the law firm c-suite had descended into technocratic managerialism over genuine leadership, leaving once bold institutions to put off crucial decisions.

That piece drew on years of hanging around with managing and senior partners, which at times means feeling more like a leadership therapist/their mother than a reporter. But in the spirit of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, here are my tips to successful law firm leadership. And ignore the flip tone because I mean it all.

Have an easy act to follow. It is so important in any endeavour to pick your moment. And there is never a better moment to emerge than taking over from an awful predecessor. You look great by comparison. The ideal scenario is taking over from a bad leader at the head of a basically sound institution. If you fancy a crack at the top job, consider how the position looks on this benchmark.

  • Conservative or wannabe? No matter what tier, geography or niche your firm operates in, consider whether your shop is a conservative or wannabe. A conservative firm wants to preserve what it has, which still means evolving enough to not become obsolete. A wannabe aims to transform into a fundamentally different entity. DLA Piper, Allen & Overy, Clyde & Co, DWF – all totally different, all wannabes. Slaughters, Simpson Thacher, Burges Salmon and Travers Smith – all conservatives. Totally different playbooks and leadership styles needed for the two breeds. And Freshfields, you ask? Can’t make up its mind.
  • Pick a good team. Behind most successful leaders is a group of able people getting paid less doing most of the work. Pick a good team and take care of them because you will achieve nothing without them. You also have to get the practice heads onside – yes, it is distasteful, but that is life in the big leagues.
  • Pick your battles. Running a partnership means rubbing shoulders with the shareholders and even the most corporatised law firm will severely limit your ability to make key decisions. You will get very little of consequence past the partnership/board so make a list of the top 20 things you want to achieve in your first term. Then throw away the bottom 15. Then ask yourself if you were a top-decile business generator for the preceding five years. If yes, you can keep those five and get to work. If not, ditch the bottom three and off you go.
  • Making friends. You need allies as a new managing partner and your partners are no longer reliable. So cultivate partners shamelessly but do not on any account trust them.

Oddly coming from a journalist with little patience for PRs, I would still say that for leaders, good ones are useful. Extra eyes and ears and a link to outside parties. And, no, do not hire them from a bank. The governance structure is totally different – they will flounder as they try to work law out – and finance is so heavily regulated that most of the comms talent has been squeezed out of the securities industry. And, if they were any good, why join a law firm that is tiny compared to their old employer? Rookie mistake.

  • Being daddy/mummy. Hosting our awards last month, I reluctantly admitted to liking lawyers, citing them as ‘bright, driven, sceptical and funny’ and the good news is I meant that. The bad news is I also mean it when I say they are generally neurotic, arrogant and needy. And as a law firm leader you have just become their parent with all the humiliations and irritations that entails. You will have to spend a lot of time metaphorically cuddling them and making them feel special. You need your partners to be confident to drive the business. And like all children, they will not care about your emotional needs. Suck it up. So treat them like children while pretending to treat them like adults. And pretend well.
  • Speak English, preferably well. The core of the job is getting your message across whether persuading, charming, manipulating or explaining, so strong communication skills are worth their proverbial weight. But apart from learning to speak well – do not fidget, say less, project, talk slower – do not forget the importance of accessible, non-irritating English. If there is a straight-forward, conversational way to say something, do that. Humour does not hurt either. It makes people – especially the partners who now resent you as a non-fee-earning leech – warm to you. And you are most definitely in the making-people-like-you business now. It also makes you look smarter as you need to understand something well to strip out all the jargon. Win/win. Unless, of course, you do not understand it, then lose/lose.
  • Acknowledge problems, within reason. If staff, clients or outside parties ask for your assessment of something that has gone wrong or a field in which your firm can improve – just tell them. A tiny drop of candour goes a long, long way to building trust. If you try to convince via robotic positivity, you are losing your audience and the reserves of goodwill you desperately need. They also will not believe you when you genuinely mean it, which is counter-productive. A bit of positive spin, fine – people expect you to be loyal – the Stepford Husband/Wife of the c-suite, not fine.
  • Know your means from your end. Law firms are prone to confusing the tool and the desired result, and so try to preserve an established order rather than consider if it delivers what is required. The two most obvious manifestations of this metaphorical tail wagging the pooch in law concern remuneration models and partnership cultures. Both are a means to an end, the end being a law firm that is successful over the long term. Is your culture and method of handing out the cake aiding that success or impeding it? Existence in their current form is not a virtue in itself. Avoid this common howler.
  • Have a strategy, if you must. Strategy or, to put it more plainly, making, rather than avoiding, a few big decisions, can deliver in law if you are into that kind of thing. But do it or do not. If you want to play a tactical, opportunist game based on chasing continual competitive advantage and having great people, that is fine too and does not need a mission statement. Just do not waste everyone’s time – and your reputation – with a platitude-strewn document that has nothing to do with what happens on the ground or merely describes the status quo. A bad strategy is worse than none at all. Much worse.
  • Avoid pseudo-work. A huge challenge since you now have no real boss, are judged on vague deliverables and are surrounded by courtiers who want your time. Avoiding internal meetings, endless email chains and all manner of pointless pseudo-work, which people bemoan but indulge in as it is much easier than real work is going to be hard. You only have 45 hours a week of decent work in you at best and, having given up fee-earning, can no longer palm off another 30 hours a week of unproductive faffing on clients. So pace yourself and avoid pretend jobs. Set out some meeting-free times at least. But, make no mistake, this is the hardest thing in this list to achieve. I have no easy answers, probably because I am writing this at home and I have just been distracted by Twitter.
  • Do dumb plans brilliantly. A working thesis that 20 years as a business hack has only confirmed is that an OK – even bleedin’ obvious – plan executed well usually trumps the brilliant plan rolled out indifferently. You can spend as long as you like crafting initiatives but you’ll still have to repeatedly adapt on the fly to make them work. Sooner or later all good ideas devolve into really hard work. So spend some time planning but not too much. Do not sweat the plan. But absolutely sit on top of that execution! Your ability and willingness as a leader to adjust mid-process is vital. Cultivate it!
  • Do not be dogmatic. Building on the previous point, in the broadest sense as a leader, try to keep an open mind. Most people in business make decisions for emotional reasons with spreadsheets trumped up retroactively as justification. Don’t be that guy! Or at least fight it.
  • Step outside the citadel. The job is inward-looking and often should be if you are doing it right. But it is important to find those semi-occasional chances to get an outside perspective. So talk to other managing partners in settings that will not trigger a competition enquiry. Not that regulators need to worry – the ‘note-swapping’ is mainly moaning about how awful partners are to manage, but that steam-venting is vital to your mental health.

Better still, meet up with a major firm client once a month. It may trigger some business generation ideas and, best of all, could give you dirt on your top partners. Because those same big beasts have every intention of undermining you as a threat to their empires. Another win/win.

  • Consultants – just don’t. Within reason you can tolerate specialist advisers working on defined projects with a clear skillset for the matter at hand. This could cover some of the better legal consultants, tech projects or pricing specialists. Just let them in through the tradesmen’s entrance. But if you feel the temptation to bring in a bluechip consultant for any blue sky thinking/justification for what you are too scared to put to the partnership, just don’t! I have never seen it be anything other than a credibility-shredding waste of time and money. Just burn that spare £1m if you are that way inclined.
  • Be lucky. Business book writers avoid this point but the most important secret to your success is to be lucky. Fortune is by far the most important quality in successful leadership in law or anything and anyone telling you different is trying to sell you something. If you absolutely insist on not being lucky then I am afraid you will just have to try working fairly hard and being reasonably intelligent and thoughtful. But I would not advise it. Just be lucky!

And there you go. As you emerge from your chrysalis as a beautiful new managing partner, armed with the wisdom above you can now cut down the traditional stammering and wobblying stage all the rookies go through from two years to maybe 18 months. Good luck.

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