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The Managing Partner’s Dilemma (And How to Remedy It)

By Wendy Merrill

Successfully leading a law firm requires adopting a CEO mindset that is at odds with your lawyer brain. It can also mean sacrificing your own practice for the overall good of the firm. That’s the managing partner’s dilemma.

managing partner dilemma blue

It’s lonely at the top — an inconvenient reality most managing partners feel but don’t want to admit.

What Is the Managing Partner Dilemma?

Being a great lawyer does not automatically equate to possessing the skills and abilities to successfully lead a law firm. In fact, the traits that make for a great attorney often create obstacles to effective leadership.

The best lawyers are driven, focused, champion issue-spotters who protect clients and businesses with a generous aversion to risk. They also face myriad pressures that keep their foot on the cortisol gas pedal and demand a super-human level of attention and effort. Muscle memory dictates that great lawyers channel their energy toward deadlines and client service, with nothing left to invest in management or a higher level of accountability.

So, Captain Cortisol is far from the ideal candidate for being a leader of a law firm, with its requirements of servant leadership, strategic thinking, effective communication, conflict resolving, cat-herding and big-picturing. In fact, the position of managing partner very much goes against the grain of everything good lawyers are taught and encouraged to do. What’s more, managing partners must often wade through the perfect storm of both running the firm and maintaining their practice.

This is why so many partners hesitate to volunteer for the job, and why those who find themselves at the head of the table struggle — usually in silence.

lawyer notebook with game plan

Eight Tips to Resolve the Managing Partner Dilemma

If you are a managing partner and my description hit a nerve, here are eight useful tips.

1. Invest in Leadership Training

Law school does not teach these critical skills, and they are rarely learned on the job. Effective leaders possess a strong skill set that allows them to make hard decisions and tolerate the risks associated with their position.

2. Develop a CEO Mindset

Again, a CEO mindset differs from a lawyer mindset and is rarely learned on the job. The good news is there are qualified professional coaches to guide you. Finding a good one can sometimes be a challenge, however, so proper vetting and finding a personality match are essential.

3. Be Protective of Your Calendar and Intentional About Where You Spend Your Time

Balancing administrative duties and lawyering responsibilities must be well-choreographed and tracked. Managing partners who allow themselves to engage in a daily tug-of-war of competing responsibilities will be ineffective and exhausted.

4. Become an Expert Delegator

Delegation is a challenge for most lawyers. After all, the work is high stakes and when your name is associated with a matter, you want to be sure it is managed well. Failure to delegate certain lawyering tasks and various administrative responsibilities can be disastrous.

Read: “Three Steps to Effective Delegation.”

5. Develop the Ability to Coalesce Partners

Herding cats is impossible. The only way to avoid this situation is to develop the skills necessary to build consensus and enforce accountability. These can include interpersonal communication skills, empathy, active listening, patience, critical thinking and negotiation (a skill that most lawyers already possess, but need to apply internally).

6. Scale Back Rainmaking

This is a big one. If the managing partner is also responsible for the lion’s share of origination in the firm, this puts both the MP and the firm at risk. No one has enough time to be an effective MP, top rainmaker and a good lawyer. Too many law firm leaders believe they can do it all, but something always gets sacrificed.

7. Have Candid Conversations With Other Managing Partners and CEOs

Seek out leaders in similar roles and avail yourself of much-needed support and camaraderie. Lawyers are proprietary by nature, so it may take time and practice before you are comfortable opening up versus reflexively keeping everything close to the vest. Realizing you are not the only one to carry the load, however, is immensely valuable.

8. Always Be in Learning Mode

The best leaders are learners, yet this feels contradictory to what is generally expected of lawyers — to be in knowing mode. To be an effective leader one must be nimble, curious and humble. To do otherwise is not beneficial to the firm.

Read: “Legal Leadership: Future Proof Your Law Firm.”

Honing Leadership and Management Skills

Law firms are, in fact, businesses, and must be led as such. It falls to the managing partner (or executive committee) to fulfill their fiduciary duty to their firm by positioning themselves as savvy executives. These executive skills are not automatic and must be carefully honed and strategically applied to run a successful firm.

Read More from Wendy on Law Firm Leadership and Growth

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Wendy Merrill Wendy Merrill

Wendy Merrill is a fierce advocate for improving the practice of law. She has worked with thousands of lawyers around the world, providing practical guidance and proven techniques designed to help lawyers and their firms thrive. Wendy is both the proud CEO of StrategyHorse, a consulting firm committed to boosting law firm profitability with proven strategies, and co-founder of The Savvy Advocate, a unique associate training program designed to prepare younger lawyers and their firms for success. She is also an author and prominent speaker on law firm growth strategy, winning the war for legal talent, bridging the generational gap in law firms, and more.

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