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Planning the Orderly Transition of Firm Management

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The transition of firm management is frequently not given adequate attention until a senior partner who has served as the managing partner announces their plan to retire or reduce their active involvement in the firm.

How law firms approach the transition issue will be influenced, in part, by the firm's historical experience, culture or the partners' attitudes about the firm’s form of governance for determining firm policy, the role of incumbent lawyer managers and the proposed role of successor lawyer managers.

Spotting leadership

Planning for the orderly transition calls for the ability of the incumbent managing partner to spot leadership and management potential among the mid-level and younger partners. Once this potential has been identified the incumbent managing partner must nurture and develop this potential.

Ideally, the successor should:

  • Have the trust, confidence and respect of others (or have the potential for developing these attributes).
  • Be a “natural” leader and manager.
  • Have a “firm” ego, rather than a “personal” ego.
  • Be a team player -- a consensus-builder rather than a dictator.

The successor should be the person who can do the job effectively (rather than be the person who wants the job) and will provide the leadership where there are areas where change or stabilization is needed. However, oftentimes it is difficult to identify one partner who possesses all of these attributes. If no one can be found or no one is acceptable to a majority of partners, a small committee of partners who collectively possess the appropriate skills may be the alternative.

On-the-job-training is the most effective technique for developing and refining the management skills of mid-level and junior partners. Frequently used approaches for teaching management skills include:

  • Being assigned to a committee.
  • Being elected or appointed to a position.
  • Serving as a member of a task force.

The successor may also learn how to manage by attending management seminars, working with law firm management consultants, and skilled law firm administrators.

Role of the former leader

From time to time, partners who served as managing partner for many years, and who are being transitioned out of their managerial role, may serve as an obstacle to allowing the successor to lead. I recently received a telephone call from the newly-elected managing partner of a mid-size firm who said, "As new managing partner, I am supposed to be the new ‘king of the firm,’ but the real ‘king’, who served as managing partner for 17 years, is still alive, and has attempted to retain the leadership role.”

This issue that needs to be dealt with for the continued success of the firm. It will be up to the successor managing partner to determine who should deal with this problem -- the new managing partner, another senior partner whom the former managing partner respects, a management consultant experienced in law firm management or a combination of multi-generational partners.

The former managing partner should facilitate the transition process by mentoring and grooming his or her replacement, allowing the successor to manage and offering recommendations, as requested.

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