Law firms often debate the advantages and disadvantages of professional managers as opposed to traditional lawyer managing partners. Each comes with different attributes and experience. The professional manager is sometimes viewed as just a hired hand and needs time to learn the business of law, but has management knowhow. The managing partner has credibility and a deep-rooted ownership stake in the firm but often very little by way of management experience.
The matrix illustrates the need for both legal industry knowhow and managerial expertise and, depending on the size and context of the firm, will in many cases indicate that the firm’s leaders (supported by appropriate specialised management support) should still be lawyers.
However, would-be managing partners must take time to learn or acquire the leadership, strategic and management skills to do their job. It follows from all this that incoming managing partners should develop, and be encouraged by their firm to develop, sophisticated and well worked career plans which encompass management and leadership training and development, specific job descriptions and rules of engagement, and a management style which is aligned both to the needs and profile of the firm and the characteristics of the managing partner.
In my view, two provisions should be made from the very start.
First, and in order to maximise the benefits of medium to long-term equilibrium, the firm needs to ensure that the managing partner has ongoing job satisfaction and job security whilst he or she is doing the job. Interference must be low and support must remain high. The judgment of the managing partner must be capable of being challenged but must essentially be trusted. The high investment, which the firm has made in an internal appointment, must be nurtured and protected. There also must be an acknowledgment that the job of managing partner is above all else a lonely one, and the managing partner should be given and should take every opportunity to engage an external mentor or coach and to seek external consultancy advice on an ongoing basis. External mentoring and advice allows managing partners not only to remain objective, but above all to have the regular discipline of raising their eyes above the parapet and to plan strategically.
The second step is to arrange (in advance, as part of the incoming managing partner’s deal) for the managing partner’s eventual re-integration into the firm at the end of the term of office. This will involve re-training and the rebuilding of a client base, and the ex-managing partner’s remuneration arrangements should be protected for a reasonable period whilst this takes place. The ultimate cost of this should be taken into account from the outset of the appointment. Many firms are allowing at least a two-year period for this protected re-integration, and when I stood down fifteen years ago my own firm was generously no exception in my case. The exit package should also recognise the possibility that the ex-managing partner may no longer wish to return to full time fee-earning at the end of his or her term of office, and provision should be made for the possibility of an alternative career plan.