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Running a firm? Time to improvise

Patrick Thornton//November 28, 2013//

Running a firm? Time to improvise

Patrick Thornton//November 28, 2013//

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Top of the world_CAsk three law firm managing partners to describe the job, and you’ll get three different answers.

One says the job is like driving a big boat and the best skill you can have is an ability to delegate. Another says his role is to make sure the firm is stronger on the day he leaves than on the day he started. A third said making the delicate decisions that no one knows about is the most important part of the job.

The varied answers reflect the different ways law firms approach the role of managing partner. For some, the position serves as the internal CEO of the firm dealing with day-to-day issues of client service, finances and managing lawyers and staff. Some firms use the managing partner as more of a big picture thinker — someone who devises strategic plans for the long-term. At other firms, the managing partner is the outward face and voice of the firm at bar functions and community events or when speaking to potential new clients or lateral hires.

A job description is rarely in place when a new person takes over. Training can be lacking. Many managing partners figure it out as they go and learn they must pivot from priority to priority.

Different looks at the top

Firm leadership varies. At Briggs and Morgan in Minneapolis, for example, the firm split the job between two roles. The president manages the staff and lawyers while the chair works with existing and prospective clients. Minneapolis firm Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly has a similar setup. The chair focuses on external initiatives and a managing partner does the same for internal processes. Other firms avoid consolidating management into a single role, opting to be led by an executive committee along with a non-lawyer firm administrator.

But as the practice of law has changed and adapted, so too has the managing partner’s role. At all but the largest firms, the managing partner is expected to maintain a practice in addition to the duties of leadership. Advances in technology have made it easier to work and stay connected with firm leadership, but those advances mean there is more scrutiny. Clients want alternative fees and don’t want to pay for legal research. It’s up to firm management to be aware of what their colleagues are working on while staying on top of the client relationships and the firm’s finances.

Doug Elsass teaches a class on the business side of practicing law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is also the managing partner of his law firm Fruth, Jamison & Elsass in Minneapolis. He said the role of managing partner changes based on the size of the law firm.

At small shops like his, the firm leader maintains a practice and also serves as the de-facto CEO, CFO and recruitment coordinator, often with help from other attorneys. Whereas at the biggest firms, management can delegate more work to staff, he said.

Elsass said the role, and who fills it, has changed largely due to cost-conscious clients and increased competition from other law firms and non-legal outfits like Legal Zoom.

“So do you want your most prominent lawyer, with the most revenue, diverting time and energy away from finding new business to focus on the management side?” he said. “A lot of firms are sharpening their focus on competition and can’t afford to have their most profitable lawyer take on the added responsibilities [of managing partner.]”

Hands on

Gina Janeiro was named managing shareholder of Jackson Lewis’ Minneapolis office July 1 of this year. She is one of the few women managing partners in Minnesota. Being part of a 765-lawyer firm with offices around the country has its own unique features. There are no shortage of resources to draw from and people to call for guidance. This year alone, Jackson Lewis has named six women managing shareholders firmwide.

But, because Minneapolis is a smaller office, she is well versed in what cases her colleagues are working on and where they are.  She also maintains a full-time practice and serves as litigation manager of the office.

She meets regularly with existing or potentials clients for business development and with attorneys about potential lateral hires.

She replaced David Duddleston, who served as managing partner for 15 years. She is learning to balance her new duties.

“I’m very hands-on,” she said. “Part of that is because I am new to the job and I want to learn how things work, and the other part is I want to know that what needs to get done, gets done.  My first responsibility is to my clients, but the role as I see it is to grow this office and mentor the people here as well.”

Talking it up

Bill Griffith is the president of Larkin Hoffman in Bloomington. He estimated that the leadership role takes about 25 percent of his time, often before or after work, and he focuses on three areas: business development, recruitment and retention. The firm now has the largest business development staff in its history.

Griffith says he never wants to hear a client say, “I didn’t know you did mergers and acquisitions or health care work.” So, he likes to start the regular shareholder meetings by having attorneys talk about what they are up to.

“Who has the big deal to talk about, or just won a big case, or got a bill passed? We have to always be talking about what we do and what we do well,” he said.

Bruce Mooty has been in law firm management for most of the past 20 years. He was the longtime managing partner at Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis and then stepped aside in 2007. He returned to the role after his successor Tamara Hjelle Olsen was diagnosed with cancer and eventually died in 2011. Dave Bahls is co-managing officer of the firm.

Mooty said for the manager to be effective in the role, the law firm must appreciate the value of leadership and look at it for the subjective benefit it brings.  At larger firms, someone who goes into management is likely to sacrifice the time they can spend on client matters and transition some of their practice. There is a risk that the practice will suffer when they return to it. That risk can often force qualified people away from the role because they don’t want to hear the grumbles from their colleagues when it comes time to dole out compensation.

“Not all firms value management in the same way. It’s hard to point to a strategic direction and say it’s worth X dollars, the way you can on a balance sheet. It’s not quantifiable,” he said. “Once people know what it takes to run the firm, and the sacrifices it takes to do so, they appreciate what the job entails.”

He said that firm compensates lawyers and staff based on the contributions each individual makes, and “there are a lot of ways to make contributions that isn’t solely through billables,” he said.

Identifying and grooming the next generation of firm leadership is a big part of the job, Mooty said.

“I spent a year and a half working on the transition with Tamara, and we fully expected her to be in the role for a long time. Now we are trying to chart the course we will have next, and that means looking at who people are, what their desires are, and what point they are at in their career? It is a critical function for the firm,” he said.

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