This post continues an ongoing series deriving from discussions by a group of leaders of small and medium-sized firms at a Managing Partners Forum recently sponsored by Edge International. This group of MPs report that daily they confront a bewildering – often seemingly crazy — variety of issues and frustrations they did not anticipate when bucking for the MP job. Whether full-time or part-time, all agree that they experience constant do-it-now demands — all the time.

How MPs Want to Spend Their Time

Most MPs said that they are forced to spend inordinate amounts of time at the wrong level of abstraction.  That is, they would prefer to focus on:

1) strategic planning, strategic execution, and the high-level tactical decisions that can move the firm forward

2) analysis of marketplace trends as the legal profession shoots out in new directions; and/or

3) long term organizational development – building a law firm with a strong foundation, long legs and limitless staying power. Instead, they say, they constantly find themselves mired in chicken****.

Craving a Policy Perspective

Often, they say, finding the time to envision the long view is but a distant dream; their days are consumed resolving short term issues, most notably How do I satisfy and keep everybody happy today? — without the luxury of looking at the future or how a particular partner’s practice can be more productive, profitable or personally satisfying in the long term. This group of MPs say that in their sophisticated-but-smallish firms – firms that supposedly enjoy positive, collaborative cultures – they operate all too often merely as minders, nudges, flak-catchers, referees, or butt-kickers. “I took this job to lead and collaborate with partners,” one said, “not to play parent or serve as a traffic cop.”

Some MPs said that they are compelled to spend far more time resolving personal issues than they can spend addressing policy issues. All stated that their firms have practice areas that are either unprofitable or are trending that way, and that they would like to focus on the policy implications of these trends, such as:

  • Is this a practice area we should  maintain?
  • Is it growing? Will it grow?
  • Are we finding and retaining marquee clients willing to pay our rates?
  • Do we have the right skill sets among our lawyers?
  • And do we have experts who are in demand and can be marketed successfully?

How MPs Really Spend Their Time

As one MP stated, the “tyranny of the urgent” often means that strategies to enhance client service, to assist practice groups to expand the firm’s client base, or to identify key marketing priorities are often ignored or given a cursory half-hour discussion at the partners’ retreat.

And then, they all agreed, there is always the “perpetually discontented few,” those partners who are never happy and cannot be made happy. Instead of spending their time moving the firm toward  its maximum potential, MPs often expend inordinate effort cajoling slackers or resolving the internecine conflicts caused by a disruptive minority. These folks forever stand whining in the MP’s doorway, most frequently about how cruelly they have been wronged in the compensation process. Year after year,  Forum participants agreed, MPs are confronted by the same small-but-vocal contingent seeking review, relief and redress about comp, and these folks are never satisfied with the outcome.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

The laughter got giddy when the Forum MPs compared notes about all the multi-tasks they never anticipated as falling within their job description, including:

  • Dealing with the substance abuse problems and consequences both of partners and associates;
  • Dealing with tax levies and complications when partners failed to pay their individual taxes (a problem some dealt with by requiring submission of individual tax returns or execution of a statement saying personal taxes had been filed);
  • Talking with the sheriff standing in the lobby who has come to arrest a senior lawyer for failure to pay child support (often a partner who is on his third marriage and umpteenth kid);
  • Figuring out how the firm should respond to office affairs that have gone public or sparked challenges to duels;
  • Figuring out when and how to invoke the pious “no asshole policy” that was approved unanimously at the last retreat but that now has a major rainmaker in its crosshairs;
  • Mediating discord and turf wars among the staff;
  • Assigning a pecking order to constituencies that have no natural pecking order;
  • Handling the emotional meltdowns of overstressed lawyers (often due to personal circumstances, not the practice of law);
  • Serving as everyone’s first-responder and go-to resource in dealing with heart attacks, strokes, childbirth, and other medical circumstances;
  • Addressing the “competing culture” issues that attend the acquisitions of other firms or offices, the lift-outs of entire practices from other firms or the assimilation of Big Dog lateral hires; and…
  • Succession issues and problems (see our next blog post for more on this).

The Forum participants were not suggesting for a moment that their small and medium-sized firms should revert to a passive, consensus-based management approach. These leaders like being leaders and agree that law firms can no longer be operated as “a bunch of egos connected with central heat.” But all agreed that today it is a formidable challenge – one they all willingly embraced, to be sure –  to align partner collegiality, friendship and support with the demands of strong, future-oriented strategic leadership.