The following column is by Dario Ramon Buschor, PhD and incorporates original research of his.  He describes himself thus:  “I prefer to work with lawyers instead of working as a lawyer. That’s why I, a Swiss lawyer by training became a researcher, lecturer (Professional Service Firms and Capstone Project) and consultant in Brazil.”

It is our pleasure to introduce him to the Adam Smith, Esq. community.

Why would anyone want to be a law firm manager or a managing partner? Some say it is career suicide as you won’t have the same amount of time to look after your clients and/or acquire new mandates; others point out how lonely it is at the top or mention that the managing partner function comes with an even greater workload. In the introductory chapter of Laura Empson’s book “Managing the Modern Law Firm”, Empson and Stuart Popham, former Senior Partner at Clifford Chance, approached the issue in a more subtle way:

“Some parents dream of their children becoming lawyers. None ever dream of their children becoming law firm managers. Why would anyone want to manage a law firm? Your most important assets – expertise, reputation, and client relationships – belong to highly opinionated and highly mobile individuals (…). If you do a good job, they will not give you much credit for it; if they do not like what you do, they can get rid of you very quickly.”

In a recent study, I had the pleasure to interview multiple managing partners – 36 to be exact – from the largest German, Swiss and Austrian law firms. Among the many questions asked was why they agreed to take on the managing partner position. While their answers were manifold and diverse, their key reasoning can be broken down into three clusters:

  • Personal Interest: They do it because they want to do it;
  • Service to the Firm: They do it for the sake of the partnership; or
  • Pressure from the Partnership: The partnership persuades them to take over the position.

Let’s dive a little into these different clusters, starting with ‘personal interest’. The interview study revealed personal interest as the most common reason for respondents to take over the position as managing partners. This finding seems to be somewhat inconsistent with part of the literature, which suggests that in a professional service environment leaders should be reluctant to take over leadership positions or at least appear so. However, in the overall context it became clear that none of the managing partners interviewed forced themselves into the role because they no longer wanted to work on mandates or tried to get out of their obligations as lawyers to become law firm managers. And so, it came as no surprise that all managing partners in this group either want to go back and focus on their client work after their term has ended or plan to retire.

A large portion of this group explained they enjoy performing management and administrative tasks, something many lawyers loath. They expressed a desire for leading people and for a more communicative role, even though the workload as managing partner is often higher with them having to put in more hours than the rest of the partners do. Thus, ‘personal interest’ should not be confused or equated to ‘egoistic motives’ as it is simply an interest in the activities the job entails. A managing partner explains:

“Personally, I enjoy taking on these management tasks a lot. That’s why I can imagine doing it for a longer period of time. And I think that is very important. You need to enjoy it, otherwise it won’t work. But of course, it’s quite a challenge to take over this position in addition to your normal job as a lawyer.”

For others, on top of their affinity for administrative or managerial tasks, the opportunity to personally shape the firm according to their own ideas attracted them. This is especially true in the case of law firms which did not yet have established management structures and traditions and had just reached or would soon reach a critical size. One managing partner explained his decision to seek the role as follows:

“This role was necessary, in the interest of the firm, also in my own interest to move this firm forward. I was happy to do it. (…) It is also very satisfying when you can develop something and see that it is successful.”

Another subgroup appreciated the variety of tasks the role entails and looked forward to learning something new. One managing partner explains:

“(…) and then it just appealed to me, these new tasks. I wanted to learn something new and I have always enjoyed not only working as a lawyer, but also communicating with people and doing things that go beyond legal work. Unlike other colleagues, I’m not solely focused on the purely technical legal stuff, but I’ve always found it exciting to be able to do other things in the legal environment.”

These people are curious and are willing to put their legal work somewhat in the background in order to grow and develop new skills. And while I was clear about how personal interest should by no means be confused with egoistic motives, a little bit of vanity never hurt nobody. As he reflected on his decision, one managing partner talks about his reasons to take over the position:

“Because I found it exciting, because I had the feeling that the brand had a lot of potential and that it was not being leveraged and that relatively simple things had not been done in some cases. And yes, I still enjoy it. (…) It’s also fun. And of course, it also serves one’s own standing as you learn a lot and get to know many exciting people from business, politics and so on. That’s pretty interesting.”

Managing partners in the second group ‘service to the law firm’ can basically be divided into two subgroups. Most of the interviewees in this group were interested in making the law firm better, in changing it, moving it forward, or even raising it to a new level. One managing partner summed it up as follows:

“Well, we set up a strategy process in which we realized that we could improve the law firm massively, and I then played a leading role in developing this strategy. And it worked. I mean, we wanted to position our law firm well and then improve it on an ongoing basis. I’m happy to say that our position is already much better than it was when we took over. We have already achieved a lot, we have massively advanced the firm in these last years, not only in terms of economic development, but also in terms of our market position.”

Others take a less revolutionary approach to their position, primarily trying to keep the machine running smoothly and contributing to the well-being of the firm. They see taking the position as a service to the cause, as explained by one of the interviewees:

“I took over because I am an optimistic person, because I think the cause should go on, because I enjoy being around these people. I think we are a good team. And I want these people, with whom I have now spent many years of professional success, to have a great future. The idea should not be that the last man standing turns out the light. I want our success story to continue.”

The third group represents the managing partners, whose main reasons for taking on the office were derived from some sort of pressure from the partnership. This, however, can mean either that they were urged by their partners to accept the position, or that the firm has a culture or even an ex- or implicit understanding that the position is a rotating one and everyone should take a management function at some point.

The ones who were urged to take over the position mentioned they were approached by their partners due to their managerial skills or for reasons like area of expertise, location, or gender. One managing partner, who felt pressured to take on the position, recalls:

“So of course, if you have certain qualities, people push you to take over.”

Others were approached by the partnership because they have their fingerprints on all management decision no matter what, so the tenor was more like: “You are meddling in every decision anyways. Why don’t you just take over officially?”

Or, as mentioned earlier, there is a culture or explicit or implicit agreement within the law firm that the office of managing partner is a rotating one. One managing partner puts it this way:

“It’s a service. It’s premised on the idea that everyone will get their turn at some point.”

Of course, these reasons cannot be sharply separated, and in many cases the decision was also based on a combination of the above-mentioned reasons. One managing partner summarizes his example as follows:

“It was both. Management positions have always fascinated me, but that’s not the only reason I did it. Actually, it’s easy to explain. At our law firm, it was like this: When I started, we were only a few partners. The firm grew fast and strong and I wanted to turn the firm into a place where people like to work. So, it wasn’t that I was pushed, because I really wanted to develop the firm. But, of course, I was pushed a little because there are not many people who have the right mindset for such a position. In summary: Yes, they tried to convince me to take this role, but it wasn’t particularly difficult either, because I wasn’t very far away mentally.”

No firm is like the other and therefore a managing partner function in firm A cannot be equated with the managing partner function in firm B. But in most firms the managing partner function goes hand in hand with additional working hours, losing clients, more pressure and an uncertain future – all while being paid the same or even less of what they could have made as fulltime practitioners. Nevertheless, many partners decide to take on that difficult leadership role.

I have laid out why some of the partners of the largest law firms in Germany, Switzerland and Austria agreed to or wanted to step up and become their firms’ managing partners. Yet, you might still need one more reason to decide to follow the same path. If that’s the case, for final inspiration, I suggest we go back to Laura Empson and Stuart Popham’s book chapter, from where I borrowed a quote at the beginning of this article, and cite their conclusion:

“For good or ill, the managers of law firms have the power to determine the future of the legal profession. (…) These are exciting times for law firm managers.”


Courtesy Pixabay, at

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