Edge International recently co-sponsored and facilitated a Managing Partners’ Forum in Savannah for medium-sized firms in the Southeastern region, and I came away from the discussions both with some eye-opening impressions and a renewed sense of respect for how hard law firm leaders’ jobs are these days.

My partners and I were there not to lecture, coach, consult or pitch, but rather to listen — to get insights into the way today’s legal landscape looks to the leadership of a group of superficially similar but functionally quite diverse firms. The participants were there to pick each others’ brains, as well as to share war stories and horror stories.

None of these firms is an AmLaw 100 giant or global powerhouse, but all are well-established and well-respected in their markets. Most have at least several offices; some have more. All have diversified general practices containing some particular sweet spots as well as some profitability clunkers. All had survived the recession with scars and pain, but no life-threatening wounds.

The managing partners reported a number of common issues and concerns, chief among them:

  • Culture. The challenge of preserving the positive aspects of firm culture – that is, the values, norms and practices that create lawyer incentives and sustain motivation and engagement – in the face of sweeping economic and operational changes that foster partner self-interest and internecine skirmishes.
  • Dead Wood. Mediating the tension between lawyer generations – between lawyers seeking continuing job security and “legacy” compensation based on past contributions to firm growth and profitability, and the burgeoning crop of up-and-comers and high-potential laterals seeking a greater piece of power and compensation.
  • Laterals. The sensitive balance between providing potentially profitable laterals with enough time and support for the transplant to take root and bloom, but not carrying lawyers whose performance is falling short of their promises.
  • Transparency & Communication. Effectively managing internal information flow and communication between partners and leadership about finances as their firms grow and diversify.
  • Balancing Act. Managing their own present and future careers, and trying to strike a balance between time demanded by firm management responsibilities and the need to sustain their own practices and bill an acceptable number of hours.

In the next several blogs, we will talk more about these challenges, and the firms’ responses to them. For now, we offer a few general observations:

1.  There is never enough time for managing partners to prioritize and address the myriad operational, governance, financial, compensation, marketing, recruiting, interpersonal and personal practice demands that vie for attention. This group reported feeling like they are constantly fighting erupting fires and being caught up in current controversies. All report that they would welcome more time for longer term thinking/planning about strategic firm development.

2.  The voices that shout loudest get the most attention, and for managing partners, the self-interested demands of their partners – often a very small group of particularly discontented and very vocal partners – generally resonate more urgently than clients’  calls for greater efficiency, reduced outside legal spend, and better communication.

3.  The past, present and future are in intense competition as the legal profession struggles to accommodate sweeping economic and technological changes. As firms of all sizes and markets compete for market ascendance and economic stability, best practices for mastering “The New Normal” remain in flux. For lawyers and law firms, it clearly will be true that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” (a maxim, incidentally, supposedly coined by Joseph Stalin). The problem for managing partners, of course, is that no one wants to be an egg.