There has been a shift in the way law firm managing partners look at their jobs.  Over the past ten years the role of managing partner in larger firms has increasingly become a full time commitment.  Most partners support this as a necessity for the multi-million dollar enterprises their law firms have become.

At the same time the legal industry is undergoing a significant changeover of leadership as the current crop of “baby boomers” move toward retirement and are being replaced by younger partners.  In fact, the median age of newly elected firm leaders among firms with over 100 lawyers during the past five years is 46.  Although the average tenure of managing partners has grown from an average of seven years to almost ten years, there is still a likelihood that most law firm leaders will not retire directly from a management position.

Accordingly, we are seeing law firm succession plans that contemplate the need to facilitate their leadership candidates’ plans to return to practice — even before they are elected.  And many of those candidates, as a condition of nomination, are demanding the ability to maintain a portion of their practice while they serve in a management position.  The reasons are simple.  Few lawyers went to law school to become managers and a criterion for filling a leadership role in most law firms is recognition and respect as a practicing lawyer.  Most successful lawyers like what they do and are unwilling to fully step away from it during the peak of their careers to enter management.  At the same time, legal skills, client relationships and industry knowledge fade quickly for lawyers who fully remove themselves from practice, and are difficult to subsequently recover.  Finally, full time managers rapidly lose their “street cred” with their partners as being too far removed from the practicing lawyers.

There are, of course, consequences to a shift back to part-time leaders.  It can be argued that leaders who maintain their practice are giving short shrift to both their management and practice responsibilities.  And leaders who continue active practices complain that the combination results in a greater time commitment and increased stress in attempting to meet family responsibilities.

So if maintaining a practice is a deal breaker for some top leadership candidates, what can be done to help make a dual role work?   Here are some thoughts:

1.  Create a job description.  This shouldn’t be one of those descriptions that make the manager responsible for every detail including whether the photocopier works.  Instead it should lay out key areas of accountability and specific expectations of availability, frequency of travel to remote offices and the proportion of time that will be devoted to management and practice.  Most importantly, the description should define the manager’s specific authority to take action without seeking board or partnership approval.

2.  Use the C-Suite Officers.  Most firms have a group of well-qualified and highly paid Chiefs in non-lawyer management positions (COO, CFO, etc).  Like the managing partner, these people should have very clear job descriptions that specifically outline their authority – and that level of authority should allow them to function without constant interaction with the managing partner on routine issues.  Then the managing partner should give them clear objectives and get out of their way.  If they can’t or won’t perform, replace them.

3.  Manage the Practice.  Managing partners can be their own worst enemies and, frequently new MP’s try to fully maintain their existing practices while taking on management duties.  Typically this spells disaster on both responsibilities.  The best advice is for the MP to decide the clients for which responsibility will be maintained and what specific work does he or she intend to do.  Then advise clients of the plan in order to manage their expectations.  Most clients love the concept that their lawyer is the managing partner of the firm and assume they will get the pick of the firm’s best lawyers and the highest level of service.  Obviously, the managing partner must plan opportunities to maintain some level of contact and communication with clients.

4.  Manage the Management Role.  Someone once likened the job of being a managing partner to being the only fire hydrant in a town full of dogs.  In a firm where every partner feels they have the absolute right to drop by the managing partner’s office to chat, the MP must set up some boundaries.  In talking to several managing partners who maintain a practice, we hear two things repeatedly: manage your time (schedule office hours and time to return calls and emails), and empower your assistant to handle routine issues on your behalf.

5.  Negotiate the deal before the nomination.  As a group most managing partners are among the hardest working partners in their firm.  A new MP should not be afraid to ask for some perks including special administrative, first class air travel and what ever else helps reduce the havoc that taking the position will have on their lives.  The opportunity to do so will never be as good as it is during the nomination process.