The Evolving Role of Today's Managing Partner

We all know that the legal profession has changed dramatically over the past two decades.  Too many lawyers.  More demanding and less loyal clients.  More demanding and less loyal partners and associates.  Staggering advances in technology.  Tort reform in many jurisdictions.  Sky-rocketing operating expenses.  Mergers and acquisitions.  And unprecedented competition.  

Certainly, these and other trends have created tremendous pressure on law firm leaders.  Like it not, law firms must change the way they operate if they want to remain viable and competitive in the long run.      

Yet, Most Firms Aren’t Keeping Pace

In the midst of all this change, many – dare I say most – law firms have not changed much at all.  They run the place essentially the same way they did 20 years ago…..a loose confederation of sole practitioners sharing office space.  

Why?  Because lawyers hate change, according to ground-breaking research conducted by Dr. Larry Richard in 2002.  They also love autonomy and resist rules and structure.  They also don’t like risk and fear the unknown.  They have little patience and want immediate results.  For many firms, it’s easier just to leave things alone.  

On the Other Hand, Some Firms “Get It”

Conversely, many firms are fundamentally changing the way they do business, with streamlined governance, standardized systems and procedures, strategic plans, and marketing and business development programs.  They enforce minimum performance standards for partners and associates.  Many are divesting themselves of low profit clients and practice groups.  They are de-equating underperforming shareholders and asking disruptive lawyers – even those with big books of business - to leave.  These firms are emerging as the new leaders in the marketplace.

The Managing Partner as Change Agent

In today’s most successful law firms, the role of the managing partner has evolved significantly….from that of a “care-taker” trying not to rock the boat, to that of a dynamic consensus builder and change agent. 

In addition, a successful managing partner must be a visionary, a communicator, a negotiator, a coach, a disciplinarian, a cheerleader and a psychologist all wrapped up in one person. Needless to say, it’s not an easy job and they sure don’t teach much about it in law school.

The managing partner is the CEO of a multi-million dollar entity in a rapidly changing industry.  It is a most important role and it’s critical to the overall success of the organization.  

Most Managing Partners Are Winging It

In 2007, we surveyed over 170 managing partners from firms ranging in size from 10 to 2,200 lawyers.  60% had more than 50 lawyers.  

We asked what their most important contributions were in their roles as managing partner.  Building consensus among shareholders and initiating change topped the list.  In contrast, we asked where they spent most of their time.  Day-to-day administration ate up way too much of it.  

We asked if they had a job description.  74% did not.   We asked if they had a clearly defined exit strategy.  76% did not.    

Our Advice to Firm Leaders

Here’s our advice to help them enhance their effectiveness and improve the performance of their law firms.

Be Passionate and Committed

Become the best firm leader you can be.  Read books and articles.  Attend leadership conferences.  Learn from other managing partners.  If the leader isn’t committed, there aren’t likely to be many followers.

Get a Job Description

Every managing partner should have a well-defined job description and exit strategy.  It should set forth the primary responsibilities of the position, the amount of time required and how the managing partner will be compensated for his/her non-billable contributions.  Department heads, practice group chairs and office managing partners should also have job descriptions.

Develop a Firm-wide Strategic Plan

The evidence is clear.  Law firms with plans outperform those that do not.  Planning helps to bring everybody to the same page….sharing the same vision for the future.  Firm leaders should embrace and encourage the planning process at the firm, practice group and individual lawyer levels.  Implementation is another story!

Build a “Firm First” Culture

Managing partners and firm leaders should always encourage and reward a “firm first” mindset and attitude.  For example, insist on the term “our” clients instead of “mine” and “yours.” Do everything possible to promote trust, teamwork and fairness within the firm.

Appoint Strong Leaders

Too often, department and practice groups are led by the most senior lawyer or the lawyer with the biggest book of business.  This may or may not be the right person for the job.  Passion, commitment and leadership skills are required for these important roles.

Lead by Example

A managing partner can’t be a hypocrite.  He or she must “walk the walk,” as they say. The managing partner should be among the first to submit his or her individual marketing plan, get his or her time in, and return client phone calls.  

Delegate to a Solid Firm Administrator

A managing partner’s time should be spent mostly in the areas of planning, communication and building consensus.  But too many managing partners get caught up in day-to-day administration, a function that should be performed by a capable law firm administrator.

Invest in the Future

According to the 2007 Juris Law Firm Economic Survey, the top performing and most profitable law firms spend more per person than underperforming firms.   They are investing in the future.  Resist the temptation to enhance profitably through cost cutting.  That’s a short-term fix.  

Groom Your Successor

An effective managing partner would be wise to identify and mentor his or her successor for the role.  Give that person important, high-profile assignments so that the firm’s partners gain trust and confidence in his or her leadership skills.  In addition, managing partners should have a well understood exit strategy.  

There are exciting times for the legal profession and those firms with strong, passionate and committed firm leaders will emerge as the most successful law firms of the future.  The role of the managing partner is more important now than ever.

About the Author

John Remsen, Jr. is President of TheRemsenGroup, a marketing consulting firm that works exclusively with law firms to help them attract and retain the clients they want. He is also the Founder and CEO of The Managing Partner Forum.  He can be reached at 404.885.9100 or