• Jaap Bosman

The legacy of a managing partner



I am sure that none of you have failed to notice that Germany has held its general elections last Sunday. With that, there has come an end to the era of Frau Merkel. She has been Chancellor for so long that Sunday’s first time voters have never experienced another leader. Almost like the Brits have never experienced another monarch except Elizabeth II.


Angela Merkel has no doubt earned her place in the leadership hall of fame. She has largely contributed to Europe’s growth and stability and led Germany to remain a global economic super power. And yet, whoever will be her successor will introduce significant policy changes.


This in fact is the fate of most leaders. No matter how successful they have been, their successors will break with their strategies and policies and start with a clean slate. In business, as you know, every new CEO will reorganize and take a loss in their first year. In part to symbolize a break with their predecessor and in part to create a quick win after the first year. The king is dead, long live the king.


For the outgoing leader this can be a brutal experience. Not only have they lost the power, the status and the amenities, but also all what they have worked for appears to be teared down. This would feel as a kick in the back.


Bitter feelings towards successor


Now that we are officially in Q4 for many law firms the time has come to elect new leadership. This means that a number of managing partners is now in the final 3 months of leading the firm. This, in combination with approaching year’s end and the impact of the pandemic will make many of them reflect on their achievements.


You will be surprised to learn how many past managing partners we speak with, have become disappointed with their successors. Especially if the new leaderships abandon part of the policies and strategies they had introduced. This could feel as a late vote of no confidence or even a stab in the back. Some former managing partners have bitter feelings towards their successor. Let’s explore how to avoid ending up that way.


A law firm is not a company


The majority of publicly traded companies has a change in leadership at least once every 10 years. Rarely this is triggered by the retirement of the sitting CEO. In order to please their shareholders companies have to periodically shake things up to signal that they are still vital, innovative and relevant. Keep the same old leadership for too long and risk see the share price dwindle or falling prey to activist investors.


Law firms are very much unlike publicly traded companies, as they bear more resemblance to a family owned business not constantly having to please the financial markets. This is not a weakness but a strength, as it allows for a more consistent long term strategy. From this perspective sudden changes in style and direction should be rare. So why does it happen so frequently anyway?


Lack of vision, lack of agility, lack of communication


Only ever having been practicing lawyers, newly appointed law firm leaders are not well prepared for their new leadership role. Could you imagine any other company hiring a CEO without any relevant management experience? Probably not. As a consequence a large percentage of law firm leaders merely acts as caretakers. They preserve more or less the status quo and attend to the nitty-gritty daily chores. They don’t break things, but they also don’t inspire. Lack of vision will ultimately turn against this type of managing partners as even if everything runs as smooth as it could, there still is among partners that yearning to grow, improve and innovate. No-one will ever thank you for being a good caretaker managing partner, so avoid being one.


Lack of agility and adaptability is another reason why the next managing partner might drastically want to change course. As time progresses, markets change, society changes, the partnership changes, and so on. When things change, one needs to adapt. Adapt to meet new demands, but also to explore new opportunities. We have seen managing partners that started out as visionary leaders in their early days, but failed to adjust the strategy as the world around them changed over time. Leaving their successor no other option than change course as soon as they have taken over the helm. What worked in the past, may not work today. Managing partners that missed agility and adaptability, risk ending up frustrated with their successor. This might well be the case for Mrs. Merkel. Despite her undisputed achievements as a world leader, she failed for example to recognize the importance of investing in infrastructure and state-of-the-art broadband and mobile network (Germany is ranked number 30 in the world on data connectivity).


Being a law firm leader can sometimes become a lonely existence. When still a partner, it was easy to be ‘one of the boys’ (or girls) and socialize, do banter and gossip. As a managing partner, things are different and everything you say or do has gravitas. Hanging out with other partners might be interpreted the wrong way by some others. Over time law firm leaders run the risk of losing touch with what’s going on in the partnership. This could leave them blind sighted if their strategy or style of leadership is losing support. Their one day successor will become the voice of the signals the former managing partner has ignored. Back to Germany, this seems to apply to Merkel’s party CDU/CSU who had to endure an historic loss. Ignore the signals at your own peril.


Advice to Managing Partners old and new


Once elected managing partner, you are expected to lead. So lead, don’t be a caretaker. Remain agile and flexible while pursuing a coherent strategy. Communicate with your partners on a daily basis. Leave no-one behind or feel excluded. Stay open to bottom-up ideas and initiatives while keeping an eye the bigger picture. Become part of a continuous path of steady improvement.