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Heavy is the Head…

What does it take to be a great Managing Partner?

“I tried to be grateful and count all my blessings

But heavy is the head that wears the crown”

It’s not just Stormzy, King of Grime, who knows how weighty a burden the metaphorical accoutrements of high office can be. When they don the crown of law-firm leadership, managing partners find themselves suddenly presiding over a vast new realm of responsibilities, all of which are seemingly critical not just to the fortunes of the firm itself but also to their own continued survival in office.

I mean, just take a second to put yourself into the shoes of a new managing partner and imagine your 100-day plan: the pressure to meet all your partners; to lay out your vision for the firm; to meet the firm’s major clients; to meet the legal press; the pressure to keep making the finances work; to ensure the firm’s critical departments all rub along properly; to begin planning your first partners’ conference; to get used to having a small army of people who do what you ask them to, and ensuring you ask them to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

It’s a lot to deal with. And then there’s the fact that, if we take a moment to consider running a law firm to be like managing a Premier League football team, everyone in the stands has an opinion on the manager’s strategy and performance – regardless of how much they themselves would struggle to get a better performance out of the players on the pitch if they were put in charge of the team.

To continue the metaphor, the critics in the stands or in their armchairs at home don’t know what they don’t know: they haven’t got anywhere near the same level of insight as the manager does into the football team’s internal dynamics, the individual personalities involved, or any of the strengths and weaknesses revealed during months of training away from the cameras, to name but a few of the myriad factors that go into forging a winning team that keeps putting the ball into the back of the net when it counts, match after match. And yet the armchair critics continue to criticise. Vocally.

This phenomenon only adds to the pressure felt by managing partners, of course. And all of this is going on from day one, from the very instant that they assume office. I would therefore hazard a guess that most managing partners can empathise with those famous lyrics of the late, great Freddy Mercury: “under pressure, bearing down on me, bearing down on me!”

After 25 years of working directly with managing partners myself, and having assembled a team around me whose senior members are also highly familiar with the unique problems that law firm leaders find themselves confronted with (I’m looking at you, Claire Farrelly and Matt Rowe), I feel that the TBD squad is well-placed to make five key observations about the challenges faced by the people at the top of the profession, and maybe even to share some (hopefully) useful advice.

1. Leadership is lonely

It can be lonely at the top. Michael Portillo – the man who used to have to deliver without embellishment each day’s press coverage about her to an increasingly beleaguered Margaret Thatcher – once observed that “Prime ministers are surrounded by colleagues but are always short on friends”. If they’re not careful, the same often holds true of managing partners, who find that the further they get into their term of office, the more isolated they become as the cost of pushing through their vision and agenda takes its toll. To lead is to stand alone: that’s the joy and the hurt of it.

Then there’s the fact that, as a managing partner, you have to live the brand, every second of every day, even when this is challenging to you professionally and personally. You can never afford to make even the smallest decision that falls short of complete integrity, as these will always and inevitably come back to bite you in the fundament – in other words, you have to make the right decision. Every. Single. Time.

In the same vein, you have to avoid cronyism at all costs. Even though the temptation will be great precisely because you feel the bite of loneliness, if you start favouring your friends by giving them key positions in your administration, people will know, and they will exploit it further down the line. Doing deals as you get elected immediately sets the wrong tone, one that will echo throughout your whole term: you will end up fighting internal politics rather than focusing on making your vision come to fruition.

Also, cronyism can result in what I call the Braverman effect. It was widely rumoured that Rishi Sunak promised Suella Braverman a return to the post of Home Secretary (which she’d only just resigned from after breaching the Ministerial Code) if she backed his Tory leadership bid; if true, it was a decision he soon came to regret when Braverman did her level best to undermine his authority at every turn. It’s an apt example of how cronyism can backfire spectacularly for those who engage in it – so don’t do any deals to get yourself elected, because it will inevitably leave you compromised. Better to get elected on the strength of and passion for your vision for the firm.

So what can managing partners do to feel less lonely and to receive wise counsel? They can hang out and chew the fat with other law firm and professional services leaders – because heading up a professional services firm is such a unique experience, it can only be a good thing to seek out the company of others with the same experience and use them as a sounding board (whilst, of course, always being mindful about what and how much to share).

Alternatively or additionally, managing partners can turn to someone who is independent, who listens and asks the right questions, such as ex-managing partners (someone like Dick Tylersprings immediately to mind), NEDs or charity leaders. Someone who will speak truth to power, in other words, an essential component of good governance. Someone who’s not afraid to ask you difficult questions even when you don’t want to hear them.

2. Many leaders have knowledge gaps on the business side

Not least because the vast majority of them are lawyers and thus don’t have extensive exposure to the deep operational experience, managing partners who are coming into role often have an array of chinks in their business-knowledge armour: how to run finance, marketing, HR, risk, compliance and facilities, for example. But that is why you have good people filling the roles of CMO, CFO, COO, Head of Risk, Head of Compliance, and so on: to answer the questions you cannot.

And if you don’t have them, the great thing is that it is within your power to hire them. And you will want to because you need to draw on their specialist knowledge and advice, and get them to do the things you cannot, because you have neither the time nor the knowledge. If you are honest about your knowledge gaps and hire accordingly, you can turn a weakness into a massive strength. Think of it as being a prime minister assembling a cabinet of all the talents: you’ll never get very far in making good on your manifesto without a decent Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor.

Your role as a managing partner is to implement your strategy by bringing together, and drawing on the skills of, your C-suite. Of course, you also have a broader civil service to draw on, in the form of your firm’s business professionals: if you advise them accordingly and trust them to do their jobs, rather than trying to micro-manage them, you will go far in your efforts to implement your vision for the firm.

That being said, you will of course still have to acquire a decent understanding of how the different departments work. You will need to spend time in these, talk to the people who work there, and familiarise yourself with the challenges they face. Some work-shadowing would be no bad thing. This is more of an aside, but I do wonder whether some law firms should consider changing their election date to allow incoming managing partners enough time to upskill in this way.

Certainly, handovers need to be managed better in many instances – which isn’t always easy, especially if the new managing partner won against an incumbent who stood for reelection. There is an inherent tension between allowing enough time for the incoming leader to prepare, and yet not making this period so extensive that they become a de-facto leader while the incumbent finds themselves presiding over a lame-duck administration, limping on without achieving anything substantial because their mandate has fizzled out in the runup to a change in leadership (as you can see, similarities between the law and politics abound).

3. Strategy vs tactics, vision vs market reality, and sprint vs marathon

When they come into office, every managing partner has to try and perform the exquisitely difficult balancing act of keeping the money pouring in whilst simultaneously presiding over an entire civil-service apparatus that they must somehow revolutionise to ensure that it helps them realise their own strategic goals.

On a macro-level, the best way to achieve this is to behave from day one as if you will serve for two terms, on the basis that this is more likely to happen than not – hell, even George W. Bush managed to get himself re-elected. You have to get things very wrong indeed to end up doing a Trump (no pun intended) and not get elected for two terms on the trot.

By working on this assumption, you can stop worrying about getting re-elected and instead focus on spending your first term delivering the strategy you set out to your firm’s partners during the hustings. And then they will re-elect you. Because the only people that don’t get two terms are those who spend more time working on their tactics for re-election than they do on implementing strategy. This is where having a plan from the outset puts you in a much better position, as does getting elected with a strong mandate.

That all being said, your strategic vision may end up colliding with market reality. As Mike Tyson famously put it, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the head. Or in the words of Harold Macmillan: “Events, dear boy, events.” A once-in-a-century pandemic, a sudden rise in interest rates from a decade-long historic low, a war in Europe that sends energy and food prices spiralling, a change in tax policy: these can all serve as potential spanners in the works unless managing partners are adept at tacking with the wind and adjusting their strategy in real time when the extant market conditions demand it. But they mustn’t tack so far that they then lose their original bearing entirely. To be a managing partner is to be engaged in a continuous act of (re-)calibration.

Which is where sprints and marathons come into play. For those managing partners reading along, this is the point where you hope I comfort you with that well-worn adage of it being a marathon and not a sprint. Sorry, no such luck: it’s both. Did you read about the amazing feat of Russ Cook, aka The Hardest Geezer, who ran the length of Africa in daily, marathon-length sections? He went at it full bore each and every day, relentlessly, never accepting defeat despite being robbed at gunpoint, encountering visa snafus and having to cross mountains, rain forests and the Sahara Desert. That’s the attitude it takes to be a managing partner and go the distance.

4. Second-term leaders are often braver

Why? Because they want to leave a legacy and have nothing to lose, as they know they cannot get re-elected for a third term, what with most law firms limiting their managing partners to two terms of incumbency. There is, of course, the odd exception, such as Nik White at Brabners, who did so well during his first two terms that he has been elected to serve a third. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

In my view, little good comes from a three-term incumbency, except under rare circumstances, such as economic turbulence on the scale we saw in 2008. This is what happened when I was working at Osborne Clarke and Simon Beswick was elected for a third term – absolutely the right move under the economic circumstances, as the firm could not afford to have someone learning on the job in the midst of a financial and political maelstrom.

But I digress: as I said, second-termers are braver because they know they cannot get re-elected as managing partner, and are conscious of the gap between the objectives they set out at the start of their first term, and the reality of what they have achieved to date. This is why, for instance, I believe that most law-firm mergers happen when the managing partner is in their second term: it’s a move to secure their legacy.

It’s possible that they are now confident enough as leaders to deliver the vision they outlined before being elected the first time around. The question is whether they should perhaps have been doing more of these things during their first term?

Speaking of his first years as prime minister, Tony Blair once said that, “Often in the first term […] we were not taking brave decisions”. Managing partners must find the courage to be bold from day one. Just look at Sir Nigel Knowles, for example, who started his great series of mergers from the outset, thereby making DLA Piper the largest law firm in the world. There’s vision married with action for you.

5. Communication is key

But when you do set out to realise your vision, you have to be prepared for pushback internally. Remember that you have already been living with this vision for months and months, or maybe for your entire career, and so it has become almost tangible to you – but not to the rest of the firm, who are only just hearing about it. They are way behind you on the change-acceptance curve. So they will kick the tyres, they will moan about your idea, they will come with the proverbial brickbats.

You have to let them. The more you allow people to moan and vent and voice their concerns at the outset, the quicker they will get it out of their system. And as long as you are consistent in your actions and show them that you really mean it, they will come around, accept your vision and get on board with it. Hell, a few months down the line when it has proven successful, they may even say it was their idea in the first place!

Communications are key in this process. To help you sell your vision, you have to communicate it clearly, in plain language, multiple times so that everyone at your firm understands it. Don’t be afraid of setting KPIs for the main pillars of your strategy to demonstrate success again and again: ‘We have done the things that I said we were going to do during this first horizon’.

Given that you are reading this on LinkedIn, it’s fair to assume that you are already a user of the platform. However, it bears repeating that LinkedIn is one of the key communication tools available to leaders, due to its hybrid nature – it serves as both an internal and external communications channel, and underscores the sincerity of the message because you are issuing each post from your own account. It’s all about owning the message.

Final thoughts

What further words of wisdom can I offer managing partners? I could emphasise the need to understand the underlying challenges of the firm and address those, rather than finding solutions to random problems – which is what being a lawyer is: leaders no longer have to deal with the everyday minutiae, which can be difficult to get used to at first.

Or I could caution about the need to listen before acting, and to never clean house without a plan: to make sure you don’t create critical gaps in your operational capabilities if you have to make strategic redundancies. To always have a jolly good interim person to sub in.

Or I  could underscore the importance to always nip any internecine fighting in the bud: to recognise that there will always be some natural tension between different departments, but that it is important for everyone ultimately to sing from the same hymn sheet. And to make it clear that you won’t tolerate any conflict that interferes with the smooth operations of the firm.

But what I really want to leave you with is this observation: from my many years of working with and alongside lawyers, I know that many of them love few things more than ticking off tasks as completed on a to-do list. A task horizon whose contours and vistas are ever-changing can be discomfiting to them. But that is exactly what being a managing partner is all about: navigating your way across a constantly evolving landscape, towards a destination that keeps receding into the distance.

It’s a bit like being a mountaineer: only occasionally do you get to the summit, and your time there is brief, and it takes a hell of a lot of hard graft to reach it in the first place. And so you had better love the actual business of climbing itself, or you might as well not bother finding that first hand- and toe-hold. But if you do enjoy it, then even as you climb, you can still pause occasionally to take in the view, marvel at how far you have already ascended – and acknowledge that in any case, as the Germans say, “der Weg ist das Ziel”: the journey is the destination.

In other news

Kaplan cocks up the SQE

It was revealed by RollOnFridaythis week that Kaplan, the firm that runs the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, wrongly told 175 candidates that they had failed SQE1 after the firm erroneously neglected to round up the scores at the correct point in the marking process.

I once failed an exam due to a computer error. Ironically in computer science. I got the correct result 6-8 months later. By then, I’d moved away from the subject as I was so tired of fighting it and the shame that came from the low grade. No amount of issuing my correct grade could reinstate my passion for the subject, nor make my parents un-shout at me.

My example pales into insignificance compared to the SQE students who have been failed by their board and regulator. The ripples of this will last for years, in my experience.

Vardag’s lawyer gets wrong couple divorced by mistake

In a case that made BBC News headlines this week, a young lawyer from the high-profile divorce firm Vardag’s accidentally submitted a final order application for the wrong couple by ticking the wrong box in an online drop-down menu; despite Vardag’s applying to rescind the order three days later, judge Sir Andrew McFarlane was having none of it and issued the divorce.

His Garrick membership sees High court judge removed from case

This week, The Guardian reported that Sir Jonathan Cohen, who was due to hear a case before the High Court involving an alleged rape and domestic abuse victim, has been formally removed from the case in part due to his membership of the all-male exclusive Garrick Club. The alleged victim’s lawyer, Charlotte Proudman, who submitted the application to have Cohen removed, is facing disciplinary proceedings for her criticisms of a judgment handed down by Cohen in an unrelated case.

Gender pay gap has narrowed, says Lewis Silkin

Law firm Lewis Silkin has published an analysis of the latest figures on the gender pay gap in the UK, which seem to show that the gap is shrinking across employers of all sizes, but remains the largest in sport, financial services, construction and tech.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s edition!


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