Publically Contested Horse-Races Don’t Usually End Well

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

When a firm leader’s departure is predictable, firms need to take appropriate steps to ensure a controlled and effective succession process that minimizes the inevitable ‘disruption’ likely to occur.

Having a contested election isn’t necessarily a negative, it only becomes problematic when it becomes public and political. By way of example, I was struck only last week by the terms used in the legal press as yet another law firm was characterized as: “set for a contested election”; “candidates emerge for contest”; and “hats in the ring.” In this case, the Chair’s role at the Eversheds Sutherland firm was now in the news as “partners are set to go head-to-head” to succeed Paul Smith the firm’s current Chairman. And the media are loving it! “According to (anonymous) partners within the firm” three specific names have already been announced.

And here is where it all begins to go off the rails!

These campaigns inevitably become bitter

This usually begins as these particular articles did with selected but anonymous partners commenting in flattering terms about the various candidates – “She is well respected, well known in the financial space and the City and well known as a leading woman in the City” and from about another: “He is extremely popular, a great character, very well known and well liked.”

We are also told as we were in this case that “the election process has not yet kicked off, but it is expected to start in the next few weeks.” This is when things begin to heat up as our various candidates move from subtle campaigning to having their friends and followers become more overt in verbally canvassing for their support. Factions develop, emotional discord creeps in and rivalries become intense.

Here is some excerpted commentary, as reported in the legal media, from one contested election. To most readers this would appear to be extracted from a political campaign of some sort, rather than from the activities within a respectable law firm.

Heavyweights prepare to do battle . . . One partner goes so far as to say it would be “almost impossible” for him to win the vote . . . Sources point to this candidate’s toughness as an “effective task master” and a hard worker, even if he may need to work on staying personable to be successful in the leadership campaign . . . “At the end of the day, real estate is not a very exciting background for a managing partner to come from” . . . It seems that no candidate can yet be called the favorite.

And what do you suppose the clients think of all this?

In all likelihood (and I dare you to prove my extensive experience wrong), most firm clients are first hearing about this development from the media. In all likelihood, the lawyers involved have not deemed in necessary to confer with their clients before any public announcement of their being a potential successor was forthcoming. In all likelihood the lawyers involved will think that their respective clients are going to be thrilled that they are being considered for firm leadership.

News Flash: Your clients don’t care. You tried to convince them for years that you aspired to be their “trusted advisor” and now all they really care about is who you are intending to pass their important matters over to.

In one instance I will never forget, the obvious choice within the partnership was one outstanding individual who had literally built one of the firm’s most highly profitable groups and was revered by his peers. Before accepting any nomination, this partner had the good sense to meet with a few of his key clients. He reported how he asked his largest client “What would you think if I were to let my name be put forward as a candidate to become the firm’s next Chairman?” He came back to the nominating committee to report that his client’s response was “Think again!” In other words, this General Counsel was making it very clear to the partner that if he wanted to proceed with becoming the firm’s next leader, he would be moving his legal work to some other firm.

Imagine this: Lawyers don’t like to be publicly humiliated.

In looking at who might be best to assume the leadership mantle, most firms will tend to gravitate to those partners who are among their most legally talented and serve a sizable client base. And so, in these kinds of contested situations a highly valued partner who looses may ultimately take it very personally and decide to leave your firm. It should not be any secret that legal recruiters and headhunters usually swarm whenever firms go through highly public, contested elections because they know that there will inevitably be fallout.

In one of our First 100 Days Masterclasses that I co-facilitate for new firm leaders we welcomed a Global 20 firm leader as our luncheon guest speaker who admitted that after his election and in spite of his efforts, every one of the five other contestants left the firm within the following year.

A high profile contested election can also become quite distracting to everyone as it is politicized through continuous hallway speculation and various camps develop. As the competition intensifies, it is not uncommon for partners to take sides for or against particular candidates. This can result in overt behavior that deters teamwork and knowledge sharing. It is not at all unusual for some of these partners to also leave with the losing candidates, following the contested election.

This all makes for a very emotional and expensive leadership succession process. When are we going to learn?

More from Patrick J. McKenna see our Thought Leader section or click here

Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms.

He is widely credited with being one of the profession's foremost authorities on practice leadership and the author or co-author of eight books including international business bestseller First Among Equals: How To Manage A Group of Professionals with David Maister (Free Press) and most recently, The Changing of The Guard: Selecting Your Next Firm Leader (Ark Publishing). He co-leads First 100 Days: MasterClass For The New Firm Leader, an annual program normally held at the University of Chicago

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