There are 4 types of managing partners, where is yours?
by Jaap Bosman
On the articles that I publish, I typically get response from readers. Out of all articles, no article so far has led to such overwhelming response as last week’s article on being the managing partner. This has sparked some interesting and insightful discussions over the weekend. I also got numerous requests to elaborate some more on the topic of the managing partner as it seems to strike a nerve in many law firms. Before I do, I wish to apologize for the picture above showing a man. I want to acknowledge that many firms, among which some of our clients, are led by great female managing partners, so please do not take offence.
The way in which the governance of a law firm is structured, is in many aspects a predictor of a firm’s future success. Between law firms there are vast differences in the way the firm is managed. Some firms have one managing partner, others have two or even three. Some firms have a board that is hands-on involved in the management, while other firms have no board and the MP reports directly to the partner group. While there is a lot to say on the governance of law firms, for the purpose of this article, I will concentrate on the position of the managing partner.
Although no two firms or managing partners are the same, one can distinguish between four main categories of managing partners. As is shown in the diagram below, the differences can be plotted along two axles. On the horizontal axle we plot the level of vision and appetite for change, going from conservative on the left to entrepreneurial in the right. On the vertical axle we plot how solitary the managing partner operates. This ranges from dominant on the bottom to collaborative on the top. Every managing partner can be scored on these two variables and plotted in the diagram. Perhaps it would be interesting to think where your managing partner would be.
Based on the diagram, we can distinguish the four main categories. Needless to state, each category represents an archetype and no real people will exactly match that archetype, although some might get remarkably close.
This is the managing partner (or managing partners) who founded the firm more than a decade ago. What started out as a fresh and aspirational law firm has over time gradually turned into a ‘dictatorship’. The founder scores high on dominance, low on collaboration and has over time become more and more conservative. Critique on the strategy of the firm is taken personal. As the founder is the person who has appointed or hired all other partners, the other partners typically are weaker and/or feel dependent on the founder. The founder rules the firm with an iron grip and opposition or deviating opinions are generally not appreciated. While founders can have been extremely successful in building an excellent law firm, they at the end of their career can get destructive as it comes to the future. For a founder it can be hard to let go, step back and hand the helm of the firm to the next generation.
In some respects one could say that the burner is the opposite of the founder. Burner managing partners are weak partners that are appointed managing partner because they have little or no practice. In this category of law firms there typically is a small group of strong partners who have a great practice that they do not want to be ruined by a stint at managing the firm. That is why they appoint a weak partner to do the dirty work for them. The burner almost always must leave the firm, after their term has ended. This type of managing partner obviously scores very low on dominance and relatively high on collaboration as they are not supposed to take important decisions without prior consultation with the strong partners. This consultation could both be formal if the strong partners are on the board, or informal. From an economic perspective, having a burner managing partner might be an attractive option. As the burner did not have a strong practice in the first place, not much revenue or reputation is lost. As it comes to guiding the firm to the next stage of excellence, the burner has to be a poor choice. Not supposed to have a vision, a burner MP can only be a caretaker. Acting on behalf of a small group of strong partners, they typically are not as conservative as founders.
The eternal managing partner intends to be the managing partner for the rest of his/her career. The eternal managing partner will never return to (full) practice. The eternal is different from the burner as these are not weak partners. Typically, the eternal is a moderately strong partner that will manage the firm until retirement. Looking at the diagram you can see that the eternal scores on both axles somewhat in the middle. The reason for this is that this type of managing partner carefully has to maintain a balance to avoid criticism from one fraction of partners or the other. Going to fast might alienate some strong partners, while being too conservative will frustrate some others. Being too dominant will draw criticism whereas being too collaborative will prevent from being perceived as an effective manager. The balance however flips towards mild dominance, as otherwise it will be impossible to last until retirement. Eternal managing partners are typically effective in executing a chosen strategy. Not having an active interest in the future of the firm, they might not be premier choice to transform the firm.
The visionary managing partner scores very high on vision and entrepreneurship. This is the type of partner that will transform the firm. As transformation is not a one-man job and can only be achieved by the whole firm, the visionary must create buy-in and can not be too dominant. Like the eternal, the visionary scores on this axle somewhat in the middle but slightly higher on collaborative as there is no long-term position to defend. The visionary will have a limited life-cycle as a managing partner. Once a new strategy has been defined, he/she must go back to their full practice as too much vision and for a long time, will become equally harmful as no vision at all. Visionary managing partners typically are not great in long term execution or in day-to-day management of the firm.
These four types are archetypes and as such somewhat bigger than life. In our practice we work with law firm leadership all the time and we rarely encounter people who literally 100% match the archetype. However, every real-life managing partners can be plotted somewhere in the diagram and will pivot towards one of the four archetypes. As outlined in this article each type has its specific strengths and weaknesses. What is best for your firm will depend on where you are and where you want to go. Depending on your needs, this article might help in more structured selecting the next managing partner.