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Examining The Inner Workings of Law Firm Leadership

Patrick J. McKenna and Michael B. Rynowecer

We all know that the law firm leader’s job is unlike any other in the firm. One way of

envisioning its multiple responsibilities is to map them by the constituencies one must address.

Today’s leader must be an ambassador to the outside world as well as chief cheerleader,

challenger of the status quo, and an implementer of their partners’ collective aspirations within

the firm.

In March and April we distributed a survey containing over 35 questions to a group of some 250

law firm leaders, the majority from among AmLaw 100 and 200 ranked firms. Our objective was

to identify and seek answers to some of the key issues related to the role of being a firm chair or

managing partner.

Our data uncovered some surprising and we hope insightful findings. For example, we found that

for 56% of today’s firm leaders, irrespective of firm size, this is a full-time commitment; with a

total of 81% reporting that they “perceive the challenges that they face as being far more

complex than a few years back” and 13% even freely admitting they were, “almost

overwhelming at times.”

Perhaps surprising to some, it is not an exaggeration to state that we have leaders of America’s

largest firms managing hundred-million to billion dollar businesses, all too often thrust into the

role with 67% of them having no clear job description and one in five reporting it to be a “pretty

much sink or swim” exercise. Ironically, having served as an office managing partner, or even as

a practice or industry group leader seemed to have absolutely minimal value in preparing one for

taking on the responsibility of being leader of the entire firm.

On a positive note, the transition period from when the predecessor formally stepped down to the

new firm leader taking the reins happening either immediately or within a few weeks, has been

corrected! It went from 42% in 2018 to a now improved only 20% - which means the newly

elected leader is being given more time to prepare. The only vector going in the other direction is

that new leaders are given next to no formal preparatory training and therefore only 11% felt that

they were “pretty much prepared for everything they encountered”, with another 34% reporting

that they “encountered surprises or things they would have done differently, knowing what they

know now.”

One other surprising but hopefully valuable learning for firm leaders to reflect upon was the

disconnect between what they said they would like to spend their time doing and what ultimately

consumes their working hours. Looking at the responses from all firms, one can conclude that

while setting strategic direction is seen as the top priority, it is not something many find the time

for – unfortunately because they are being consumed with thorny people issues, administrative

minutia, and taking responsibility for the overall firm performance.

On this same performance theme, when we then asked these leaders “how they would categorize

the way in which their performance is evaluated?” a mere 11% claimed to have any formal,

annual written evaluation process in place and only 34% have any precise parachute or exit

agreement when they decide to step down or retire.

These are but some of our findings from an extensive survey where we would like to thank the

participating firm leaders for being very generous in openly sharing their experiences, their

learnings, personal frustrations and candid views.

The complete white paper can be downloaded here:

Download PDF • 722KB


About the authors: Patrick J. McKenna, is an internationally recognized authority on law practice leadership and strategy,

who has worked with the top leadership of premier firms around the globe to discuss, challenge, and

escalate their thinking on how to manage and compete effectively.

Michael B. Rynowecer, is President of The BTI Consulting Group, the leading provider of strategic

research and client feedback to the legal community who, for more than 30 years, has conducted

compelling research on key performance aspects of the legal industry. #PatrickJMcKenna #MichaelBRynowecer #lawfirms #leadership

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