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Loneliness at the Top: Managing Partners’ Scary Balancing Act

Posted in Law firm practices

In our last post, we described the almost overwhelming variety of issues reported by firm leaders attending an Edge International-sponsored Managing Partners’ Forum, and we promised a more granular look at several of the challenges that really keep them up at night. In this installment: How do I balance my management responsibilities and the demands of my legal practice?

Quite understandably, the Managing Partner role is not viewed with unalloyed joy by all incumbents.  The sense of service to one’s firm and the ability to put one’s own stamp on firm strategy and success constantly compete with practical and personal legal practice priorities, both when one assumes a leadership role and – equally importantly — when it’s time to pass the reins to a successor and climb back into billing harness.

Intermission or Final Act?

For a few lawyers, the Managing Partner position represents the capstone to their careers, the ultimate shift from productivity and profitability to serving as a high-ranking cost center before exiting, stage right.  They therefore are not concerned with upping their rpms as billing engines; they’re gonna be outta here. But as firm power shifts to up-and-comers and the legal profession morphs into unprecedented forms, increasingly MPs come from the ranks of the successor generation, and these leaders say they intend to return to full time practice after one or two terms serving as MP. 

Future Protection?

Realizing that many talented leaders may beg off of MP responsibility if their economic interests are not protected, some firms negotiate accommodations relating to how much billable time MPs owe and how much time they will have after leaving office to re-establish productive, growing and profitable practices. Here’s what we found:

1.     About half of the forum participants had formal arrangements with their firms guaranteeing their total compensation for two years after they stop serving as MPs and work to ramp up their dormant, or at least under-attended, practices. 

2.     The other half reported that they faced the future with less income security and confidence about their future standing with their firms.  Several reported they had only one year of guaranteed post-MP compensation, after which they were back on their own. A couple said they had no formal arrangement, but trusted – hoped! – that their partners would be fair about balancing their leadership legacy with the contributions they were expected to make to the bottom line going forward.

3.     Some reported that they had no formal understanding at all, and furthermore that they had never even discussed the firm’s expectations and level of patience with re-establishing billing momentum and amping up business development efforts. These were nervous people.

I Don’t Get No Respect

The sad news was that every forum participant said they experienced a shift in the amount of respect they are accorded by their partners when they went off the full-time billing clock to some degree. Many reported comments like, “Well, you don’t understand how it is now that you don’t practice anymore and are being carried on a salary by all of us.”

Best Practices

Out of the participants’ discussions, several best practices emerged.  First, to avoid having the MP position become a toxic turn-off that produces a leadership vacuum or results in the selection of sub-par or unmotivated talent, ideally firms should have clear and consistent policies about MP compensation during and after the MP’s tenure, as well as criteria defining time frames for re-establishing acceptable levels of profitability and productivity.

Even if the issue of MP compensation plays out on an ad hoc basis (perhaps because of where the MP is in his or her career path), all parties’ expectations must be discussed, negotiated and formalized.  This is not the time for avoidance, conflict aversion and vague hopes that things turn out okay if left alone; the road to hell indeed frequently is paved with misapprehensions about the scope and duration of one’s colleagues’ good intentions. The result is bitterness both on the part of leaders who feel their contribution has been unvalued and on the part of partners who feel that past incumbents are taking an unduly protracted compensation “free ride.”

Second, participants agreed that it is never advisable to turn the billing spigot off entirely in order to focus all one’s time on firm governance. “You can’t just turn the faucet back on whenever you want,” said one, “and if you disappear from the billing scene it’s a sure thing that others will step in to your territory, put down roots in your sod and try to squeeze you out later. That’s the nature of a competitive environment.”

Balancing is An Art

The consensus on percentages? Forum participants thought MPs should plan on devoting about 40% of their time to administrative/managerial duties and 60% practicing law.  Certainly, they agreed, anyone hoping to return to full-time practice should not spend less than 50% of their time practicing law. “Oh,” said one super-motivated but visibly fatigued MP trying to integrate the assimilation and operation of four new offices, and keep his clients happy, and have a personal life, and occasionally catch some shut eye: “Every day is a high wire balancing act.  Some days I make it to the other side, and some days I don’t.” 

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