The other day I was having dinner with the managing partner of a well known leading law firm. At some point he confessed to me: “You know what Jaap, I have been a partner with my firm for more than 20 years now. I have been the managing partner for the last four years and I have just been reelected for a second term. For the last few years I’m feeling more lonely than ever…”
To tell you the truth, for me his confession did not come as a surprise. As I have been working with law firm leaders for many years, I know that being managing partner can be a lonely job. Most partners who get elected are not prepared for this. Let’s examine what transformations take place.
As an MP you are no longer ‘one of the boys’
As an ordinary partner you have probably developed professional friendships with some other partners. Perhaps you go out for lunch together, probably some regular banter, complaining and office gossip. Maybe you travel together to visit referral firms. What most newly appointed MP’s are not prepared for is that all this will stop once you are the managing partner. As a managing partner it is difficult to have a closer friendship with some of the partners as it may look like a favorable position of unfair advantage to others. As a managing partner you cannot engage in office gossip or even share your private opinions.
As a managing partner you may have to get used to eating alone in the ‘canteen’ as there will be a threshold for joining you at the table. As a managing partner you have a responsibility to lead the firm, but that same responsibility will also make you an outsider.
MP’s make enemies
As a law firm leader you have to make decisions all the time. Some of those decisions will affect individual partners. Sometimes the MP has to make some tough decisions and some of the partners may get angry as a result. In a worst case scenario it might be required to take unpleasant measures against your closer friends.
Many managing partners struggle with this kind of confrontations. It is so much easier to be ‘Mr Nice Guy’ and make everyone happy all the time. Unfortunately this is not how the world works. Sometimes you have to break some eggs to make the omelet. As an MP you will make enemies and there will be scores to settle.
Having the unfortunate task to do the dirty work can be emotionally challenging. Most humans prefer harmony over conflict. Also don’t count on support from the other partners as you act in their interest or even on their request. The majority of the partners may pressure you to take measures against an individual partner, but once you act they will most likely remain silent and turn their back in order not to get emotionally involved. Perhaps only after everything is settled and put behind, the MP might get some applause, but probably not even.
No praise only criticism
This is another element that can make law firm leaders feel lonely. Law firm partners have a strong tendency to focus on what is wrong rather than what goes well. As a managing partner you could be working 24/7 and dedicate all your talent and energy to the firm, still you will likely be criticized for those few things that are still on your to-do-list.
It is my experience that for managing partners this can be frustrating and exhausting. The absence of positive feedback and the ever continuing criticism can really get under your skin after a while. Becoming the managing partner, you should prepare for this. Constant focus on the negative and little or no recognition for the success.
A vulnerable position
When an experienced partner, trained as a lawyer, becomes the managing partner, he/she is entering in a whole new territory. It takes some time to get the hang of it and figure out what it is you are actually supposed to do. One way or the other the investment in time in managing the firm will go at the cost of your practice. Effectively a fulltime managing partner will be a part-time practicing lawyer at the best.
We all know that being a practicing partner at a leading high-end law firm is extremely demanding. Combining it with managing the firm is near impossible, I only know very few examples of managing partners who pull that off successfully. Most managing partners over time get fully absorbed by their management responsibilities and lose their clients and practice as a consequence. Not having a meaningful practice of their own, will make a managing partner vulnerable.
Secondly managing the firm requires a totally different skillset than being a practicing partner. From micro to helicopter view one could say, or from risk to opportunity. After a period of learning and unlearning, some managing partners develop an interest and talent for management. The prospect of at some point having to return to practice might over time become a threatening one: some do not want to go back to being a practicing lawyer. They become locked into the MP position and cling on to it with all their might. The fear of being demoted makes them vulnerable. This further adds to the emotional burdens mentioned.
All this might seem to be a bit overwhelming and could put partners off from accepting the managing partner role. It should not. Managing your firm can be hugely satisfying and rewarding. The important message is that one should start with the right expectations. The more realistic and aware the new managing partner is, the better prepared for what is thrown at him/her. At TGO Consulting it is our business to prepare newly elected law firm leaders for what is coming their way. We also coach managing partners on the job. If you accept the position, you’d better make it a success. We got your back covered.