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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Knowing when it is time to step down

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

As some of you may know, my wife and I are avid art collectors. Recently we were able to acquire a work by Graham Sutherland (UK, 1903-1980). Such was Sutherland's standing in post-war Britain that in 1954 he was commissioned to paint a full-length portrait of then Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. That painting (pictured above) was intended to hang in the Houses of Parliament after Churchill's death. The presentation ceremony at Westminster Hall was recorded by the BBC. Churchill profoundly disliked the painting which he deemed too realistic and unflattering and he almost refused to attend the presentation ceremony. Legend has it that he took the painting home and burned it. These events have even been depicted in the 2016 Netflix series The Crown, the ninth episode of the first season, entitled ‘Assassins’.

Winston Churchill is the stuff that legends are made off. There is probably not a single person who doesn’t immediately recognize his picture and doesn’t know about his achievements during the Second World War.

After having been the Leader of the Opposition between 1945 and 1951, he became Prime Minister once again in 1951. He was already nearly 77 when he took office and was not in good health following several minor strokes. On the evening of 23 June 1953, Churchill suffered a serious stroke and became partially paralyzed down one side. At the time Sutherland painted the portrait, Churchill was nothing but a shadow of his former self. The only person failing to recognize this was Churchill himself. Sutherland’s portrait is actually both accurate and merciful.

Founding Partners

These well documented historical events contain some striking similarities to the struggles that some law firm founding partners have to go through. Much like Churchill during the wartime, founding partners have often shown exceptional leadership that brought their firm ‘from rags to riches’. Like Winston Churchill, founding partners are recognized and admired for their great achievements. But also like Churchill, many founding partners find it difficult to recognize when is the time to step back. Unfortunately, like Winston Churchill, many founding partners carry on, when they are actually overdue.

From experience I know too many founding partners who in the end leave their firm with a feeling of frustration, leaving behind a stained legacy of troublesome final years. Departure Planning and Departure Management are two disciplines that are all too often completely overlooked. Do it right and you will be remembered as an admired visionary, do it wrong and you will be remembered as a ‘pain in the but’ that became a barrier to the firm's further growth and development.

Strong leaders, weak partners

It is extremely hard for a tree to grow in the shadow of a big tree. It is extremely hard for a partner to grow in the shadow of a great founding partner. Too often, strong leaders create weak offspring. Many founding partners initially had to go through hell and high water to get their firm off the ground. Often they had to overcome difficulties and take personal risks to get the firm where it is today. Successfully navigating hard times and building a successful law firm often commanded a ‘blind obedience’ and a ‘no discussion’ culture.

Sadly, I have seen from close by, several examples where it happened like this and where the founding partner unintendedly maneuvered himself into the position of ‘supreme leader’, with no-one to fill his shoes. Once the founding partner was no longer there, remained a void that could not adequately be filled, leaving the firm adrift.

The eternal managing partner

Monday 5 April 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a legislation clearing the way for him to remain in power until 2036, when he will be 83 years old. To date Putin has already been running the country for more than two decades. Apparently he is not planning on handing over the reigns any time soon. You don’t want to become the Vladimir Putting of your firm.

November 2019, I published an article ‘There are 4 types of managing partners, where is yours?’ You can find the article here. One of the four archetypes in that article I dubbed ‘The Eternal’. As where typically Managing Partners, serve a maximum of two 3-4 year terms, the eternal managing partner intends to be the managing partner for the rest of his/her career. The eternal managing partner will never return to (full) practice. Typically the eternal managing partner has little or no practice left and technically cannot even return to being an ordinary rank and file partner.

There are situations where experience can actually become a hindrance. Experience will often stand in the way of innovation and transformation. The eternal managing partner over time often develops into a conservative caretaker. It also is that same experience that creates a high threshold for potential successors.

How to not end like Winston Churchill

No law firm leader starts his tenure with the desire to unglamorously end it like Winston Churchill. Whether you are a founding partner, a managing partner or even a practice group leader, it is a mistake to surround yourself with ‘yes men’ and loyal followers. No law firm leader should aspire to lead for more than two terms of 3-4 years each. Founding partners no exception.

Having a limited time window might actually spur to action, rather than being a caretaker. Any effective managing partner should aspire to leave the firm better than it was before. A ticking clock is typically a good reminder and incentive.

Any great law firm leader should have a vision and be decisive, but at the same time avoid becoming that tree that will let no young sprouts flourish and independently grow strong in its shade. Don’t try to extend your term by grooming your crown prince to be your successor (as Putin did with Medvedev). Allow for a pool of talent to grow instead and leave it to the partnership to decide on who should be at the helm after you have left the bridge.

TGO Consulting offers assistance and advise on Law Firm Leadership Development & Transition.

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