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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

The challenges of being the managing partner.

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

As the year draws to an end we see a change in leadership at many law firms. At TGO Consulting we have extensive experience in supporting managing partners in their role. Therefore we thought it might be a good idea to dedicate this week’s blog to the challenges of being a managing partner. This might help the newly elected managing partners to get a good start to their term of serving and managing their law firm.

The first question when nominated to be the next managing partner is why you would want to do it. Surprisingly this question is rarely asked. The truth is that becoming managing partner for one or two terms of four years has a high probability of ruining your practice and possibly even your career as a lawyer. At TGO Consulting we have done some research and it turns out that 32% of managing partners leaves their firm within 2 - 3 years after their term has ended. Part of this is due to (early) retirement, but also a surprising number of young managing partners leave the legal profession soon after their term has ended.

32% of managing partners leaves their firm within 2 - 3 years after their term has ended.

Becoming managing partner might ruin your career Given the fact that one-in-three managing partners will leave the firm, it is indeed wise to take one step back before accepting the nomination. After university you decided to become a lawyer and you have invested by now way more than a decade to become a partner and build your own practice. Being a partner comes with the constant pressure to perform. Building and growing your practice requires uncompromised dedication. Before accepting to be the next managing partner you should realize that you will most likely lose your practice. Meaning that once your term has ended you will pretty much have to start all over again. The question is are you prepared for this at the age of 50/55? One of the reasons managing partners leave after the end of their term is that they cannot find the energy to start from scratch. Some that do try to rebuild their practice simply do not succeed and find themselves ousted after the leniency period has ended.

Getting addicted to status No denying that being a lawyer can be an interesting life, but it remains mostly between your desk and the courtroom or your desk and your client. It is not unlike the professional life of a medical doctor who has to spend his time in the hospital with his patients. For managing partners things are much different. As the official representative of a prominent business in your community you get invited to important events and you will share tables with other leaders. It is key to remember that you are treated this way because you are the representative of your firm. It is not about you as a person. In reality however this aspect is all to often soon forgotten as the managing partner starts to enjoy the social life that comes with the job. It can be quite addictive to attend important events domestically and abroad. Our research showed that some former managing partners found their life empty after their term had ended. This would in part also include the life of their spouse or husband who enjoyed accompanying them to these events. Aspiring managing partners have to take a deep look in the mirror and ask themselves if they will get addicted to being ‘important’.

From microscope to helicopter Being a lawyer requires a great attention to detail. Every lawyer knows that a small mistake could have serious consequences. Lawyers are trained to focus on potential risks and try to avoid them. Lawyers are risk averse control freaks and micro managers. The attributes that make a great lawyer become a huge hindrance when managing the firm. Being a manager you need to develop a helicopter view. Getting lost in details and losing sight of the big picture will not get the firm anywhere. Based on experience we know that it typically takes around 6 months before the new managing partners starts to see – part of – the bigger picture. It takes time to learn accept a certain amount of risk and it takes time to trust others and not to micromanage. Some managing partners even become excellent managers over the years. The difficulty is scaling back. If developing an helicopter view is hard, getting back behind the microscope is even harder. I personally know a very successful managing partner who after his term had ended decided to leave the profession because he simply could not have conversations with clients on where to put a comma in a sentence anymore.

Make your investment worthwhile Hopefully all new managing partners are fully aware of the personal investment they are making in the firm. Not only is there a one-in-three chance that it will kill their career, the new life outside the law firm will in general also offer a lower financial reward. Becoming a managing partner could potentially cost you money. So if all this is true then you better make it worth the investment and leave the firm in a substantially better position than before you were elected. Don’t be that person that simply looks after the firm and keeps it afloat. Be the one that made a difference. The one that will be remembered for elevating the firm to the next level.

Be realistic, be ambitious. Focus on the destination rather than on the way to get there.

So here are some pointers that might help to get started:

  • Decide on your strategy within the first 100 days of being a managing partner. You potentially only have four years to make necessary changes and implementation will at least take three years. So analyze the present state of the firm and where the market is going and develop a clear vision on where you want the firm to be in three years. Be realistic, be ambitious. Focus on the destination rather than on the way to get there.

  • Don’t get bogged down in internal meetings just because your predecessors used to do this. In the first four weeks get an overview of all meetings you are supposed to attend and skip at least 50%. Internal meetings are for the larger part just time consuming rituals. Only have internal meetings that have a clear well defined measurable purpose and do not last longer than 2 hours.

  • Do not get trapped in details. Leave day to day management of staff and operations to the professionals. Give them a clear framework and clear goals and objectives. Managing partner should focus on the business and the future of the firm. Talk regularly with individual partners about their practice.

  • Spend time on associates as they are the future of your firm. Also spend time talking with clients. It is important to understand what keeps them awake at night and what they want from their lawyers.

  • Don’t assume responsibility for everything. In order as a firm to make progress it is important that each individual partner takes ownership. Outlining the strategy for the future an keeping the firm on course is the responsibility of the managing partner. Day to day execution is the responsibility of every partner. Do not take that burden, the managing partner alone can do little or nothing as it comes to execution.

  • If unpleasant decisions are needed take them early on in your term so you can focus on the future and the positive as soon as possible.

  • Don’t be afraid of conflict and confrontation if required. Managing partners need to be an iron fist in a velvet glove. Be result driven and put the interest of the firm above anything else. Be not afraid to lose your position or be voted down.

  • Keep as much of your practice as is possible to avoid getting out of touch with the pressure of being a partner. As a rule of thumb spend 20% of your time on your practice, 30% of your time on helping your partners develop in the right direction, 30% on clients, markets and strategy and not more than 20% on internal issues and day to day management.

Obviously there is a lot more to say on the topic. We have done so in our book and in previous blog posts. We will continue to write on this topic in future articles. TGO Consulting offers assistance to managing partners in many jurisdictions, committed to helping them to make the most of their investment in the firm.


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