Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Governance

May 31, 2017


Law Firm Governance – Partner Participation in Management

Question: 

I am the founder, majority partner (80%), and managing partner of a twenty two attorney firm in Phoenix, Arizona. The firm practice is focused in the area of health care. There are twelve equity partners, five non-equity partners, and five associates. I manage the firm as a benevolent dictator. I am becoming overwhelmed trying to manage the firm and practice law and I believe the firm is now at a size where others must become involved in managing the firm. I have been considering forming a committee of all the equity partners to manage the firm. Your thoughts are welcomed.

Response: 

While I believe that you are of a size that warrants broader participation in the governance and management of the firm you can go too far. Broad participation in decision making and consensus building slows things down. It can also make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion. Getting all the partners to agree takes time. Broad participation can also diffuse responsibility. If everyone is in charge no one is in charge. In law firms whose partners are overly deferential to their partners’ views, the decision-making process often seizes up. Unless firm partners who, when necessary, will assert themselves and use their influence to press for action, the only decisions it’s likely to make are decisions not to decide.

I believe that you should stop short of broad participation by all the equity partners. Consider a three member executive committee elected by the equity partners on three-year staggered terms. This committee would have responsibility for the general management of the firm not delegated to your firm administrator if you have such a position in your firm. Committee responsibilities would include financial management, human resource management/oversight, client development, IT systems oversight, procedures and policies, etc. Establish proper structure for the committee with a chair, identified roles and duties for each member, defined meeting schedule, and agenda and meeting minutes. Define in your partnership agreement those powers that are restricted to a vote by the full partnership and the rules for voting – one partner one vote or vote by percentage interest. Other than those powers restricted to the full partnership partners should let the executive committee manage the firm and not second guess.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Oct 19, 2016


Law Firm Governance – Executive Committee – Non-Equity Member and Procedures

Question:

Our firm is a fourteen attorney firm in Orlando, Florida. We have Two equity members, five non-equity members, and seven associates. We are currently managed by the managing member. In order to be more inclusive we are thinking about eliminating the managing member position and moving to a three member executive committee with one of the three members being a non-equity member. I would appreciate your thoughts?

Response:

I have several client law firms that have taken this approach. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Draft a charter (position descriptions) for the equity membership and the executive committee outlining the specific responsibility and authority for each.
  2. If the firm has a firm administrator draft a job description for that position outlining his/her responsibilities and authority.
  3. Since there are only two equity members there will be no election for those members on the executive committee until such time in the future when there are more equity members. At that time the two equity members should stand for election by the equity membership for staggered three year terms.
  4. Have the non-equity members elect a representative non-equity member annually for a one-year term on the executive committee. 
  5. Suggest that each member have one vote including the non-equity member. The goal of the executive committee should be to manage by consensus but when they can't a vote should be taken.
  6. Have the non-equity member sign a non-disclosure agreement and advise him/her as to the content that can be shared with the non-equity members and content that cannot be shared.
  7. Elect a chair of the executive committee.
  8. Have regularly scheduled meetings.
  9. Use agendas and prepare minutes or notes after each meeting.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jun 23, 2014


Law Firm Decision-Making and Governance – Two Partner Firm

Question:

Another attorney and I are planning on starting a law practice together. He has a larger book of business and he has ten years more experience that I have. Initially he will have a 60% ownership interest and I will have 40%. Compensation will be determined based upon these ownership percentages. How do you suggested that we structure our decision-making and governance?

Response:

I would not recommend using ownership percentages for decision-making and governance. I suggest that you be equal partners in this regard – one head – one vote. Of course this would mean that if you actually took a formal vote you could be deadlocked. Hopefully, the two of you have similar goals and a common desired sense of direction for the firm. If so, you should be able to come together most of the time using a consensus approach. When you can't – some give and take will be required. If you can't the firm may not last.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Apr 01, 2014


Law Firm Governance – Firm Administrator With Managing Partner or Management Committee

Question:

I am a partner in a 9 attorney firm in Topeka, Kansas. There are three active partners in the firm. For years day to day management has been the responsibility of a managing partner that we appoint from time to time. We have just hired our first firm administrator - starts in two weeks – who is experienced and has worked in other law firms. Should we continue to have a managing partner or consider a different structure?

Response:

Typically firms your size that have professional firm administrators empower the firm administrator to manage the business side of the law firm and have either a managing partner, management/executive committee, or all partners manage the client service side of the practice. The firm administrator typically reports to the managing partner, management/executive committee, or all partners. In essence there are three levels of management – the partnership which services like a board of directors, the managing partner or management/executive committee that oversees the professional side of the practice, and the firm administrator that manages the business side of the firm.

I find that in firms your size with firm administrators a three member management/executive committee is more common. Since your firm only has three partners – initially your management/executive committee would be all three partners. As you add more partners you would move toward electing your management/executive committee.

While either form would work in your situation – I suggest you consider eliminating the managing partner position and having the three partners serve as the management committee and have the firm administrator report to that group.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Nov 02, 2010


Getting Law Firm Partners Onboard

Question:

I am the managing partner of a 90 attorney firm in Chicago. We have 45 equity partners, 20 non-equity partners, and 25 associates. We have a three member executive committee as well as other committees in place in addition to the managing partner. Five years ago we formulated a strategic plan and have been attempting to successfully implement it since that time. We have had limited success. We don't seem to be able to get our partners "on board" with the actual implementation. I will tell you – I am truly herding cats here. Any ideas on how to get these guys and gals on board?

Response:

Getting your partners on board is always a challenge. The obstacles are almost too numerous to outline. Yet if law firms want to be successful in this turbulent environment they must embrace change and get their partners not only behind new strategies but often they must also be the ones to implement these strategies as well.

Managing lawyers in general is like herding cats. But trying to manage "star partners" is a real challenge. They are the "hitters" upon which a firm's future often depends. True star partners are:

  1. Building enduring client relationships
  2. Consistently performing up to their full potential
  3. Putting the firm first and implementing strategic imperatives

Star and other partners in the firm must continually balance their roles as producer, manager, and owner. Often, these roles may be in conflict. Also there are personal strategies and agendas as well.

Actually, I don't think they can be managed – but they can be led. There is a difference. But in order to accomplish this the following need to be well designed, in alignment and balanced:

Strategy

The personalities, emotions and needs of your partners constrain a firm's ability to design and implement strategy. Keep in mind that firm leadership cannot order the troops forward; instead the troops (partners) must essentially vote with their feet to pursue a new strategic direction. Absent a crisis, partners tend to stay on track and support only modest adjustments to strategy.

Organizational (Structure, Governance, HR Systems)

When organizational characteristics – structure, governance, and HR systems (recruiting, training and mentoring, performance management, and compensation) are aligned with the needs of the partners and the strategy of the firm, they create the conditions under which strategy can be implemented effectively. Matrix and team structures are the norm.  Collegial partnerships, consensus based governance, and leadership at the pleasure of the partners, rules the day. The cats have the power and the leader serves to a large extent at their pleasure.

  1. Look for ways to build consensus and create buy-in
  2. Involve all partners in major decisions – more than input – but a say
  3. Implement a first-rate partner performance management/review/evaluation system
  4. Review and insure that your compensation system is fostering alignment
  5. Provide as much transparency as possible
  6. Review your organizational structure

Culture

The firm's culture deals with its underlying core of beliefs and values, which shape the behavior of the firm. Nothing can weave new strategic and organization choices together and hold them in alignment better than culture. A strong culture can also provide enormous help in attracting, retaining and motivating stars. A strong culture is the glue that helps a firm overcome major obstacles, it can help foster major changes in strategy and or organization, and it can be a strong force for unity and coherence. 

  1. Work at building and managing the firm's culture.
  2. Recruiting, compensation, training, mentoring, performance management – should also be deployed to reinforce the firm's culture.
  3. Guard the firm's culture and keep in mind the impact that laterals, mergers, etc. might have upon it. 

Leadership 

As the firm's leaders you and the other leaders in the firm are serving at the pleasure of your partners. You are probably elected by them. Your positional power is limited – sort of like the President of the United States and the Congress. As a result exceptional leadership skills are needed and each of you must master the skills of building consensus and facilitating decisions so your partners will agree with and support them.

  1. Pick the right priorities
  2. Pick the right fights and fight the right battles
  3. Build support and coalitions through integrity and trust

For a good read on this subject – the book “Aligning the Stars” by Jay W. Lorsch and Thomas Tierney is an excellent resource.

Good luck! 

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

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