Trafalgar comment: Can lawyers be led?

Patricia Wheatley Burt of Trafalgar looks at the demands on managing partners and how to avoid placing law firm leaders too much at the whim of the partnership. Trafalgar is a Legal Futures Associate

Wheatley Burt: law firms should review managing partner role

Is leadership possible in a law firm? Do all lawyers want so much control over their lives and work that trying to set a vision for the future, devise a strategy to combine all ambitions and deliver this, is frankly a waste of time?

According to the legal press the answer has to be yes, there are managing partners (MPs) who can lead, and leadership is alive and well in many firms with some excellent and illustrious examples. This is not a function of size of firm, length of its establishment, nor how well the MP knows all the partners (often cited as key); rather it is about a range of skills the MP has that enables him or her ensure they have trusted followers.

It is clear that the MP has to be capable of making decisions, based on sound judgement. From the research we are undertaking into whether leadership in law firms is possible – and happening – it is evident that often the role of MP is structured with a management or executive board. These are specifically there to provide ‘checks and balances’, and curbing excesses, wilfulness or the exercise of poor judgement. Anticipating the outcomes to events based upon the firm’s response is part of the leader’s role.

Shifting to the winning side

It could be tempting, therefore, to conclude that as MP of the winner of The Lawyer’s law firm of the year award, Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Neville Eisenberg has made nothing but successful decisions. Whereas through having to go into administration, Halliwells MPs appear to have made some unsuccessful decisions. The truth must lie somewhere between the two, as developing successful decision-making skills based on sound judgement, requires a lot of experience – and so you will win some and lose some. It is also worth pointing out that there has never been a leader able to control events external to their organisation.

Timing of the more risky decisions is important too, and the overly trammelled MP may make (be allowed to make) a decision too late – with the same positive or detrimental effect as the MP who is too hasty. Hindsight may suggest all the recent economic peaks and subsequent recessional troughs were predictable, so arguably some decisions made by MPs were naive: these have to be accepted as the price of leadership.

History is littered with examples of leaders who suffered from events beyond their control, such as economic shifts, but more worryingly, from the vagaries of their followers who sometimes became turncoats, chasing the rewards and spoils of war, and shifting to what they saw as the winning side.

Relying on your followers

For leadership in law firms to exist, the MP has to anticipate what will happen, what legal services are likely to be required, the patterns in employment of talented people, and shifts in the economic centres of the world. These may require different approaches. At the same time he or she has to test and anticipate the behaviours of the partners so that their following can be trusted.

If leadership is ever to be successful in law firms, their leaders need to be able to rely upon their followers to follow and for an openness and honesty that ensures success. It appears that the tough part about this requirement is that whilst there is a declared collegiate culture in so many firms, it is sometimes in short supply. The partnership structure can still frustrate or undermine even the best of leaders.

Now that firms can consider a raft of alternatives to their partnership structure, maybe they should re-visit how successful true partnership can be. Partnerships should re-visit how the MP’s role as leader can fit within the structure and make the most of what a strong leader can offer the firm, especially in these tricky economic times. They should perhaps do this before changing the structure for any other version, which could still make the MP and the board vulnerable to the same partner whims.

Patricia Wheatley Burt is a director of Trafalgar – The People Business Ltd and is undertaking research into leadership in law firms, five years after the original review of the role of the managing partner. Over 50 firms are taking part in the research, in England, Scotland Wales and Singapore, and if you would like to be involved, please e-mail to find out how. The research will be published at the end of 2010.

    Readers Comments

  • Couldn’t agree more – Here in Oz my experience is that the formal legal structure is irrelevant to the effectiveness of the leader. What is critical is the mandate the partners/shareholders give that leader and just as importantly how that mandate is executed.
    Once there is sufficient ‘organisational maturity’ present to actually grant an MP/CEO an appropriate mandate then there is a real possibility of progress!
    Checks and balances by all means, but the leaders role and scope of authority must be clear.After that it should be ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’…

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