Mimesis Law
1 April 2020

What Makes The Toughest Job in Big Law So Tough Has Nothing To Do With Law

A recent article in The American Lawyer, called “The Toughest Job in Big Law?” profiled several top managing partners and firm chairs, describing the leaders’ relentless global travel, unending obligations, and need to adapt to new duties to the firm as a whole, rather than to their immediate peers.

A lot of what makes the job of mega-firm managing partners so tough has nothing to do with the practice of law and everything to do with high-level business management. The to-do list of today’s law firm leaders more closely resembles the duties of CEOs and COOs of corporations than those of the attorneys the managing partners lead.

Does Anyone Expect Mark Fields To Tinker With Mustang Engines Or Close A Few Sales At His Local Ford Dealership?

Little about the jobs of managing partners or chairs involves the actual practice of law anymore.  Who could possibly serve clients while also heading up complex, multinational organizations?

Paul Cravath, creator of the hallowed Cravath System of law firm management, may have overseen every niggling detail of firm governance while still representing clients, but he wasn’t at the helm of a multi-national verein.  The newly formed Dentons, after its merger with Chinese firm Dacheng earlier this year, has more than 6,500 attorneys in 52 countries.  Baker & McKenzie and DLA Piper each employ more than 4,200 lawyers, and thousands more staff, worldwide. Today’s managing partners make Paul Cravath looks like an uppity student council president.

The Toughest Job In Big Law Might Not Be Quite So Tough If Top Execs In Law Had Backgrounds Similar To Top Execs In Other Fields

Despite their actual duties, managing partners rarely come to the job with any formal education or experience in business management or administration.  In contrast, 84% of Fortune 100 CEOs held positions in full-time executive management or administration directly prior to their current gigs.  Out of those CEOs who hold graduate degrees, most of those degrees are MBAs.

At large law firms, managing partners are almost exclusively attorneys who have ascended the firm ladder based largely on their prowess as practitioners and rainmakers.  While some hold lower level firm leadership positions before getting the top job, those positions rarely parallel the management roles of sub-CEO corporate executives.  Even if they do, it only pushes the problem back a level: the lower level leaders at firms assume those roles without the same experience that lower level corporate executives have when they assume their roles.  It’s turtles all the way down, I’m afraid.

Winning a Pie-Eating Contest Does Not Prepare You to Run a Bakery

What other type of organization tends to pull its leadership almost exclusively from within?  Colleges and universities.  Presidents, Chancellors, and Deans are most often professors or former professors with little or no outside management experience or education.

For law firms, the question posed is really quite simple. Which would you rather resemble: Fortune 500 companies or the Ivory Tower?

The skills and qualities necessary for an excellent attorney are not the same as those required of an excellent managing executive.  Good lawyering skills are neither necessary nor sufficient for the actual work of today’s managing partner.

Firms might get (even) better management if managing partners were trained as “managers” as much as they were as “partners.”

Moreover, firm leaders themselves might feel better prepared for their new role if the job didn’t ask them to adopt a whole different skill set and knowledge base.  Moving to the top spot of any large organization means taking on fresh challenges, but lawyers moving from law practice to law firm management need even more energy, curiosity, natural smarts, and pluck than their CEO counterparts.

Thankfully, the current system does yield many capable leaders.  But maybe entities as large as major law firms should not create business models that rely heavily on words like “pluck” and “curiosity.”

Being managing partner is never going to be easy.  A promotion system that reflects the changing realities of the legal industry, though, would make the toughest job in BigLaw just a little bit less tough.

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