Yes, you can manage effectively while maintaining a practice!

  • April 15, 2009
  • Daniel Casciato

It can be a daunting task - managing a law firm of any size while maintaining a legal practice. But you can learn to juggle both.

“Find the right balance,” says John Doherty, managing partner of the Waterloo office of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, “and make sure you’re satisfying your management responsibilities as well as those in your practice.”

Determine your “optimal” allocation of time, but be prepared to revise it. After being named managing partner office managing partner of Blake Cassels and Graydon’s Vancouver office seven years ago, Bill Maclagan spent nearly two-thirds of his time practising. That was before Blakes’ Vancouver office grew, over the past two years, from 60 to 90 lawyers; Maclagan now divides his time evenly between practising/managing.

Get a clear understanding of your responsibilities

Law firm management consultant Bob Henderson advises managing partners to talk with the partners about their expectations. “You can still have input,” he says, “but if it comes from them, it’s going to work better than trying to define the role entirely yourself.”

Since your partners have decided they want you to handle the management function, you must decide how much time it’ll take for you to do the job properly and not to slough it off,” Doherty says. “You do need to devote time to billable work to keep your skill level up, especially if you’re a younger lawyer, because you’ll have to go back to your practice someday.”

In contrast, Claude Auger, managing partner for Fasken Martineau’s Quebec region, says he devotes nearly all of his time to overseeing approximately 225 lawyers. “Because of the sheer size of the offices and the region we serve, all of our managing partners are managing full-time.”

Master the art of delegation

Full-time MPs are common at firms of 200 and more lawyers, but the reality is much different in smaller firms, where managing partners should be careful about devoting too much of their time to management and getting involved in routine administrative details, says Henderson, a former law firm managing partner of 10 years who runs RJH Consulting in Wyoming.

“If it’s a small firm—and assuming that the firm has a well-organized administrative set-up—management shouldn’t take more than 20 percent of the managing partner’s time.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Inexperienced MPs need to be careful not to micromanage and agonize over decisions. Henderson’s advice? “Be an efficient decision-maker and delegate the day-to-day administrative tasks and decisions.”

Maclagan says he delegates “a significant amount. “I have committees that look after the associates and their progress; students and their progress; and business development. On the HR side, our administrator is exceptional and I rarely interfere, if ever, in the day-to-day HR decisions.

“They all report back to me and know what the firm’s vision and my desires are, but I don’t get involved with any of those significant decisions. I allow them to make them.”

Learn from team members

Well-run firms recognize that managing partners are most effective when backed up by strong teams. “You need strong support from your administrative assistants, as well as the juniors and clerks, to make sure things are getting done in the practice,” says Doherty. “On the management side, make sure that your management group is a strong team that you can delegate to and is responsive to your needs, whether that’s general managers, department heads, or practice group leaders.”

Successful MPs should understand how their predecessors operated, taking the best from them, but they should always be open to new approaches and ideas – from a variety of sources. “Don’t be afraid to listen and learn from others – your staff, management team, and the lawyers. Model your ideas from what you learn from them. And get outside help from professional advisors and other managers when you need it. We’re lawyers, first and foremost; (as managers), there’s a lot you can learn out there, whether it’s through courses or one-on-one advice.

Manage change effectively

An MP must be strong communicator, and never is that more evident than in a a time of law firm change, such as a merger, when he or she must move effectively to gain the trust and buy-in of everyone in the firm.

“Lawyers focus on precedent and are usually resistant to change. A good managing partner knows their firm, the culture, and people well enough to anticipate what the concerns will be and are ready to address them,” Doherty stresses. “You need well-thought-out reasons for the change, how it’ll make things better for the firm, and communicate these points effectively.”

“Never underestimate the need to communicate,” Auger says. “And never underestimate the need to spend time with the partners. The new reality for law firms is that it’s an extremely competitive environment, on the client side, and also [being able] to attract and retain the best minds in the industry. Make sure you’re accessible to the other lawyers and solve their problems as quickly as possible.”

Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.