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Managing a large firm is a full-time job

|Written By Catherine Buckie - For Law Times

HALIFAX — Managing a large law firm is a full-time job.The trouble is, too few lawyers have the time, training, or desire to do iteffectively.

Kirby Chown says potential firm leaders should be given training and told that they will be compensated for their leadership.
Kirby Chown says potential firm leaders should be given training and told that they will be compensated for their leadership.
"I think large law firms are straining because [management] is still seen as a part-time endeavour," said Kirby Chown, Ontario regional managing partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. "We need to allow people to have more non-practice time."

Chown noted that at McCarthy Tétrault, the chief executive officer is a non-practising lawyer and there is a large component of non-practising lawyers heading up various divisions within the firm.

Gary Luftspring, managing partner of Goodman and Carr LLP, agreed with the need for full-time management, acknowledging that one is needed at his own firm. But he questioned whether full-time managers have credibility among practising lawyers.

"You need to be a successful practitioner to have the respect of your partners," he said, explaining that was why he decided to continue practising when he became managing partner.

Luftspring and Chown, along with Graham Scott, managing partner at McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP, were part of a panel on Leadership in Today's Law Firm, presented at a Canadian Bar Association conference in Halifax recently. Irene Taylor, a management consultant with Praxis Partners, moderated the discussion and began by asking the panelists how to get young lawyers interested and engaged in leadership.

Both Luftspring and Chown agreed that early identification of potential leaders is key but their opinions differed as to how to retain and nurture young associates so that they remain with the firm long enough to move into leadership roles.

Chown said potential leaders should be given training and told they will be compensated for their leadership, while Luftspring said compensation is not an issue.

Instead, he said, "If you've got good talent, take them into your confidence, engage them, make sure your partners treat them appropriately and give them work at a higher level."

He cautioned that there is a generation gap between young associates and senior partners.

"This is the generation of entitlement. There are lots of kids coming up who figure that within three years they will be senior partners and paid like senior partners," he said, adding that they "lack maturity."

Chown agreed that values held by senior partners are not shared with the younger generation, but rather than dismissing them as wanting too much too fast, she said, "This generation wants more communication, feedback, performance reviews, training, and work-life balance."

Once a lawyer is in a leadership position within a firm, said Luftspring, he or she must set measurable goals and be compensated accordingly.

"Let them know this leader is responsible for these things," he said. "Lawyers are task-driven. If you set goals, you have a better chance of success."

Luftspring said the goals of a successful managing partner should include:

· Maintaining profitability by keeping the most profitable partners in the firm,
· Being the visionary — deciding what you do well and what you don't do well and exercising tough leadership,
· Being seen to be the leader of the firm by visiting clients,
· Communicating with partners in person, and
· Motivating the other partners and associates by being the positive face of the firm.

This last, he said, involves being a good listener and "a lot of cajoling."

Chown added that there is also a ruthless component to good leadership. She said it is the leader's job to "do something about under-performers — manage them out."

Scott said it is the role of the leader to identify the three or four areas in which the firm is a leader in the marketplace and to focus the resources of the firm on those areas.

"We have a very successful competition practice. We've succeeded because of strong, strong focus, and strong leadership behind that focus," he said.

Leaders must also have the courage to turn down work if it doesn't fall within the firm's specialty, said Chown, but they must also ensure that all lawyers employed in the firm have individual expertise that complements the firm's specialty. She called this having "the right lawyer for the right work."

Finally, the panelists were asked how to deal with partners who want to move towards retirement. The panelists quickly turned the discussion into one of dealing with under-performing partners.

Scott said that when a partner turns 60, he asks the partner to provide him with a business plan to cover the next five years. He said he often notices when partners start to slow down. The solution, he said, is to "get them on a performance contract and make sure they are covering their overhead." He added that often partners are looking for a solution and need to be confronted.

"They'll take less money," he said.

Luftspring was harsher: "By the time someone is labelled as an under-performing partner, they're gone."

The key is to identify them quickly. He said it is often the managing partner who has more trouble "ending the relationship" than the one he is looking to let go.

Chown agreed. "We under-manage our partners." She said it is important to provide partners with early access to career counseling.

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