Law firms are an ever-changing mix of personalities, clients and new technology. Today's managing partners need to balance it all or get left behind.
The role of the law firm managing partner is part attorney and part CEO. Many continue to take on casework while supervising law-yers and staff, working on budgets and marketing their firm's services.
Think of it as a high-profile juggling act.
"I spend at least half my time practicing law," says Jim Davidson, president and CEO of Schottenstein Zox & Dunn. "The other half is leading and managing the firm. There are multiple functions in that job: growing the firm, being involved in leading strategic direction, being involved in helping to work with our clients, growing our client base, understanding what services our clients are interested in securing from us, managing our people."
Managing partners (also known as partners-in-charge) are the face of their firms, says Tony White, partner-in-charge of Thompson Hine's Columbus office. "My job is to represent our firm in Central Ohio and to lead our efforts in terms of servicing our clients, being productive members of the community and doing the things that we think advance the interest of our clients throughout the state who have particular interest here in Central Ohio," White says.
It's no secret that seniority matters within the legal industry. Moving from associate to partner to senior partner takes time and experience. According to a Hildebrant International study, 70 percent of law firm partners are 50 or older. Still, there's something to be said for members of Generation X who wait in the wings as baby boomers near retirement.
Striking a balance between the old guard and the new can be challenging. Some firms have found that younger leadership helps to establish a middle ground for all parts of the workforce.
White, now 43, was named partner-in-charge in June 2005. As a 37-year-old who was relatively new to Thompson Hine, he faced some significant challenges. "It was very young for me to take on the reins here, especially because I had only been here for a year and a half," White says. "When you step into a managing position as a young leader, there's the instant, ‘Does this person have enough experience to know what he's talking about?' factor that you've got to get over."
Senior partners may be reluctant to accept a new leader who has a decade less experience. The best way to convince skeptics is through actions and strategic planning, White says. "That requires significant interpersonal skills. You can't do that with a dull knife. You have to sit down with each individual person and work your way through that on a one-on-one basis," he says.
Liza Kessler, partner-in-charge of the Columbus office of Jones Day, has found that being a young leader makes her more approachable. "I think being closer in age makes you less scary or less intimidating," Kessler, 42, says. "Particularly for newer lawyers, it makes them feel that you understand what they're dealing with and that you're closer to what they're going through. It makes them more comfortable to talk to you about things."
Kessler maintains an open door philosophy, which she says is essential for a healthy office environment. "People are happier if they feel like they're doing something that matters and that people actually care about them and what they're doing," she says. "You should do anything you can do to build a team cooperative environment."
Ronald Fresco, 44, was named managing partner of the Columbus office of Reminger in 2003. "As the practice of law changes, I think my relatively young age gives me better insight as to the evolving workforce that we see in the professional and lawyer ranks," he says.
New associates and junior partners are looking for more flexible schedules, says Fresco. "The days of associates working 80 to 100 hours a week are long gone," he says. "I haven't been out of law school too long to forget what it's like to be a new lawyer."
Firms have found that bringing a fresh perspective into other leadership roles is a good idea, too. David Butler, partner and chair of the litigation practice for Chester Willcox & Saxbe, is part of the firm's management, compensation, and finance and accounting committees. "I think my appointment speaks volumes to the firm and its commitment to long-term planning," Butler, 38, says. "It needs to empower the younger folks so they can see behind the curtain on what goes into running a law firm."
Law firms have to do more than practice law, of course, and Butler says putting younger attorneys into leadership positions helps to pass the torch and bridge the gap between veteran and newer lawyers.
"I identify a lot more with the associates because it wasn't that long ago that I was one myself," Butler says. "I understand the technology of the practice a lot better than more senior partners, and that's very important in litigation right now with the rise of electronic discovery and using technology to review documents and litigate a case."
As a member of the Young Presidents' Organization in Columbus, White interacts with executives from many different industries. "If you find the right young leader for your company, you can bring a unique energy to your company because you can invigorate your workforce at all ages and all levels. They have a connection with everybody, because they're in the middle," White says.
Striking a Balance
Most of Reminger's office managing partners are in the same age range as Fresco. "We have a fairly young leadership group by design because we continue to try to position ourselves for the future," he says. "When I was asked to take leadership of this office, I'd never been in a position to manage or lead lawyers."
Younger managing partners easily relate to associates, since they're not long out of law school themselves. Directing senior partners can be more difficult, though. "It was a great challenge leading and serving people who are considerably older than me and had considerably more experience and had practiced in areas I had not practiced in," Fresco says.
Fresco found the key was to make choices for the good of the office rather than to please certain age or practice groups. "After I demonstrated decent decision-making abilities, people saw that I was in it not for my own personal gain or for a group of lawyers, but for the success of the whole Columbus office and I broke down a lot of those barriers," he says.
Finding a middle ground is important. A good manager can't be approachable in the eyes of young associates, but off-putting to senior partners. "A young leader must interact seamlessly with both groups, somebody in between them who is not so young that senior partners say, ‘Who's this kid?' and not so old that younger lawyers and partners say, "Who's this old guy?' That person has a lot of advantages," White says.
"It certainly requires that you accept mentoring, even though you're a leader," White says. "One of the challenges of young leadership is you've got to learn to be mentored by those you are leading while you're leading them, and that's a delicate balance."
A good manager also understands the importance of planning for his or her eventual departure. "If you're not encouraging the next generation and only have your most senior folks, that's not a very good succession plan," Kessler says.
White agrees: "I think in our industry, the law firms that are really thinking on the cutting edge are really trying to engage their young lawyers to be more entrepreneurial, to exhibit more leadership qualities and to do more leadership things. That gives those firms not just the potential business success of having more entrepreneurial-type people out there, but it gives them a broader pool of people to choose from when they have to sit down and think about [management decisions]."
Some young leaders-regardless of the industry in which they work-find that they're not taken seriously because of their age. Butler says that's not been his experience. "I've never had a situation where I feel like I'm being ignored as the young new guy who doesn't know what he's doing. I'm very fortunate to be with the group that I am on the management committee. They value my ideas and input just as I value theirs," he says.
Perhaps the best approach is to not reference a lawyer's age at all, says Davidson, 53. "We don't have a lot of lines. We don't really refer to people as senior partner or mister or missus. Everybody has the same size office and there's not a lot of status in terms of things people would observe. It's suggestive of a team environment. What the client wants is the best lawyer to do their project at the right price."
Firm managers have seen their jobs change significantly in recent years. From balancing distinct segments of the workforce to accommodating savvier clients to using technology, managing partners must keep up so their firm isn't left behind. More than ever, clients call the shots.
"Their budgets are getting pinched in this economy and the legal spend goes right along with those, so they're demanding more for less," Butler says. "Fee arrangements are being looked at very closely. A lot of times clients are a lot more interested in alternative fee arrangements where the attorneys have some skin in the game, so to speak." That includes blended fees, contingency fees, flat fees, success fees and more.
"There are codes that we'll have to use for our clients so that they can better track where their money's being spent. So that entails getting our account people and getting our billing system in place so we can do that," Butler says.
"Fiscal responsibility has been very intense," Kessler says. "Expense control is a huge focus. In the boon times, you didn't have to be as careful with expense control."
Clients are holding law firms accountable to budgets and projections, White says. "Clients are more sophisticated than they've ever been. Running a law firm requires much more business savvy to deal with your competitors. If you don't have business-savvy people interacting with your business-savvy clients, they'll go find somebody else who speaks that language," he says.
Law firms used to be able to rely on their work product to market themselves to clients, Fresco says. "Now, with the economy shrinking and the work out there for lawyers shrinking, the competition for legal services is incredibly fierce. In this market, you have to distinguish yourself as the best of the best to attract new clients, and you have to be able to work with existing clients to help them weather the economic storm," he says.
Economic struggles and increasingly sophisticated clients have placed greater emphasis on strategy. A firm must be proactive about its brand and its place in the market, Davidson says. "We try to be forward-thinking in terms of getting out in front of issues, in terms of what clients need and what they'll be asking for next year and five years from now," he says.
Joe Blasko, 43-year-old general counsel of Liebert Corp., sees the same industry changes on the corporate side. "It used to be that law firms controlled the relationship. Now you see it turning so that in-house counsel is managing that relationship with its outside counsel in a better way. We're better educated and we're looking at better billing structures," he says.
Meanwhile, technological advances have revolutionized both the practice of law and running the business, keeping managers on their toes. "There's so much access to information now that the clients have at their fingertips that they didn't necessarily have access to before," White says.
"You'd best have your ducks in a row if you're a law firm in terms of how you're doing it, how you're coming at it and the way you're interacting with your client," he says. "It's very hard these days for bad law firms to hide the fact that they're bad from clients."
Faster access to information has sped up the whole legal process. A decision that was once made in a week now takes 48 hours. A 48-hour decision now takes just five hours, White says. "A lot of people wouldn't think of law firms being like the automobile manufacturers in how they're trying to make their assembly lines as efficient as possible. Law firms escaped that business model for a long time, but now clients are demanding those efficiencies, and if you can't produce them, you lose the client."
As the legal industry evolves, managers are finding other ways to make positive changes that benefit both the firm and its clients.
When Schottenstein Zox & Dunn moved to the Arena District in 2003, Davidson chaired a committee charged with designing the space. The choice to give everyone the same size office was a "youthful, forward-thinking decision and was reflective of our interest in attracting young lawyers into an environment where they would feel supported, appreciated and respected as opposed to putting people in inferior space and having them work a number of years to get a good office," he says. "There were some who disagreed, but at the end of the day most everyone came around to it and it turned out to be a very positive decision."
When Thompson Hine relocated in August 2008, White had a hand in the design, boosting efficiency and facilitating conversation by situating practice groups in clusters. Within each cluster are collaborative areas where lawyers can gather for a quick meeting.
"You don't have to go searching for a conference room somewhere or figuring out where the heck everybody is going to be. You're all there together. You can all come together in a small space remotely, solve whatever problems you need to solve, and then get back to what you were doing before," White says.
White went so far as to cluster his clusters. Practice groups that often work together have close proximity, while groups that have little contact are farther apart. "Now you get efficiencies within practice groups, you get efficiencies between practice groups, and that leads to the client seeing a lot less noise," White says.
Butler has helped support requests for flexibility at Chester Willcox & Saxbe by allowing lawyers to work remotely. "We have been able to implement some flexible schedules to help some of our attorneys meet their work and family life commitments, wants and needs," he says.
Fresco has taken a broad-based approach to raise Reminger's profile. "We've started asking our lawyers to become more involved in the legal community and the philanthropic community in Central Ohio and make it so that we become a known commodity on the street," he says.
"When you've got as much work as you can do, you don't have to worry about the external marketing of your business. But when work starts to dry up because of the economy and people start to look at the bottom line of their legal expense, the only way to compete is to put yourself out there and establish yourself as a capable law firm," Fresco says.
Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant for Columbus C.E.O.
Reprinted from theOctober 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.