Growing your own

Training your people for partnership is investment not expenditure, says Chris Marston
 

08 Jul 2020

If you’re a partner, you’ll remember being invited to join the partnership. You’d made the grade – your abilities had been recognised. Your abilities as a lawyer, that is; because your abilities to lead and manage teams, events, finances – even emergencies – had never been tested.

But no matter. You took yourself off to the bank manager to get that partner equity loan and, as a highly intelligent lawyer with an enquiring and critical mind, you’d pick it all up as you went along.

Getting to grips with cashflow, lock-up, investment decisions and the differences between profit and cash probably took a little time. Those early meetings with auditors and bank managers involved an entirely different language. If you were lucky, the bank manager didn’t understand your jargon either, so you could both avoid any difficult questions and then play golf or have a nice lunch.

Then there were the difficult performance management conversations with people you manage, somehow more challenging despite your skill and experience in arguing a client’s case. But you were now at the top table, with a cohort of fellow owner-managers who had also been selected for their legal prowess with little or no training for the responsibilities of this new role.

Your challenge was to balance the three burdens of being a practitioner, a manager and an owner. I wonder, over the years, what percentage of your valuable (and meticulously recorded) time you’ve devoted to each?

Everyone’s elephant

The average age of a partner in a law firm in England & Wales is over 50; and the smaller the firm the higher that average tends to be. The profession remains highly fragmented, with 9,400 firms of which more than 8,000 are either sole practitioners (4,174) or have between two and four partners (4,007). And irrespective of firm size, succession is the elephant in every law firm’s room. Who is going to buy you out? And when? Will you get the price you want?

You could sell to one of the consolidators, but wouldn’t a buyer already in your business be better – for you, your clients and your staff? Grow your own There’s a famous apocryphal exchange between a finance director and a CEO where the former asks: “What if we spend all this money training people and then they leave?” The CEO responds: “What if we don’t and they stay?”

Law firms – no doubt influenced by regulatory demands – are good at providing technical training in areas of law, but few approach leadership and management training as effectively. Yet growing your own future leaders must be in everyone’s interests.

We’ve seen many different and interesting approaches to this challenge among our 70 member firms, including structured modular leadership programmes and career pathways based on transparent competency frameworks.

Open and honest discussions at the right stage in a young lawyer’s career can uncover their real preferences and skill sets, and identify their best career route, which might be as an exemplar practitioner – or as a leader of people and business outcomes. Neither is ‘better’ than the other. Your leaders don’t need to be lawyers.

Successful firms need good leadership throughout the business: team leaders, department heads, functional leaders in IT, HR, marketing and business development – and a skilled managing partner at the head of the organisation who knows how to develop followership.

A programme of training to provide the knowledge, skills and insights necessary for modern law firm leaders should address key areas including:

Finance – The basics of how law firms make money, how work translates to cash and the difference between that and profit.

Leading and managing people – Understanding your own personal leadership style preference; how you want to be managed and how you want to manage others; your natural preferred role in a team; getting comfortable with business development – doing it your way; how to be a good delegator; how to motivate others; and how to have those difficult performance management conversations.  

Chris Marston is chief executive at LawNet lawnet.co.uk