Leading a Law Firm: A Delicate Dance Between Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas

Leading a Law Firm: A Delicate Dance Between Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas

Leading a law firm is like conducting an orchestra of independent virtuosos, each pursuing their own melody. Yet, despite the challenges, the role continues to attract lawyers who crave new challenges and envision shaping the future of their firms.

From the struggle to maintain influence without direct revenue generation to the delicate juggling act of managing and practicing law simultaneously, the journey of a managing partner is filled with complexities as Reuters recently reported.

Power within a law firm typically lies with the individuals who generate the most revenue, which is not usually the managing partners themselves.

Despite these difficulties, many lawyers are still drawn to the role due to its unique challenges and opportunities for institutional effectiveness and cultural development.

The role of managing partner to some of the most prestigious law firms in the world is one that also raises numerous questions as to just why lawyers want to do the job.

The Role of Managing Partners

Laura Empson, a professor at Bayes Business School and a research fellow at Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, emphasizes that power within a law firm predominantly belongs to those who bring in the most revenue.

As managing partners relinquish their client work to focus on managerial duties, they may start to be perceived more as a “cost” rather than a revenue generator. Consequently, managing partners often find themselves shouldering a significant amount of responsibility but with limited power.

Becoming a managing partner offers a new challenge and an opportunity to think about institutional effectiveness and culture.

Anjan Sahni, the managing partner-elect of WilmerHale, expressed his interest in the role because he enjoys considering such matters alongside his legal practice.

For some, the decision to step forward as a managing partner is influenced by the encouragement of their colleagues. Danny David, the incoming managing partner of Baker Botts, shared that he was interested in the position because his partners asked him to run, the Reuters report said.

In addition, a sense of duty and gratitude towards the firm can be a motivating factor. Robert Grammig, the newly-elected chair and CEO of Holland & Knight, expressed his commitment to the firm that has been good to him for 40 years and his desire to see it succeed.

Managing partners who continue to maintain their legal practices face the challenge of finding the right balance. R. Bruce McLean, former head of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and current consultant at the Zeughauser Group, highlighted the difficulty of returning to legal practice after focusing solely on managerial responsibilities.

The ability to balance management and private practice varies among individuals. Some, like Frank Ryan, co-chair of DLA Piper, successfully manage both by scaling back their legal workload, while others, such as Sahni and David, commit to maintaining an active practice alongside their managerial roles. However, the approaches of the incoming leaders at Skadden and White & Case remain unclear at this time.

Ralph Baxter, former chair of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and current advisor to law firms and law departments, believes that successful management of a law firm requires a shift in focus from being a manager to being a leader.

While managing implies making people do things, leading is about providing vision and inspiration. Lawyers are independent professionals by nature, and effective leadership involves understanding and leveraging their independence. Despite the challenges, leading a law firm can be deeply satisfying if approached with the right mindset.

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