Biglaw, Fenwick & West, Partner Issues

Buying In: Manage This

Every Biglaw firm has a leader, or at least a public face — sometimes the chairman, sometimes the managing partner. At some firms, one boss is actually two, co-managing the firm into a future of profitable bliss. Nowadays, most of these “personalities” undergo serious media training, so that the firm’s most recent “report card” can be spun to the legal media in the sunniest of fashions. For some unfortunate firms, frequently mentioned on ATL (whose logos Lat has bookmarked for easy cutting-and-pasting), the head honcho is also a crisis-management aficionado.

And in today’s age of the global Biglaw firm, the boss is well-informed regarding the business-class product of various airlines. They probably have a favorite seat on well-traveled routes. “United to San Francisco from Newark? You definitely want 2B, and tell the stewardess right off the bat that you want the coffee hot when you wake up from your nap.” It has become a Biglaw tradition for the head of the firm to visit every office on at least an annual basis. For the boss, it is a chance to give a nice state-of-the-firm pep talk, and spend some quality time with the one or two partners in that office who really matter. For everyone else, these visits mean everyone needs to get dressed up, look enthusiastic at the partner lunch or post-work cocktails in the conference room, and try to look alert in your office (all day long, unfortunately) in case of an unanticipated visit….

Apparently in the old days, the managing partner was also traditionally still in the client service business. Today, the situation is vastly different. Many managing partners are so busy strategizing, or interviewing laterals, or simply counting the cash carted in by wheelbarrow, that practicing law is impossible. Granted, many current managing partners were gifted attorneys, and major rainmakers in their day. Frequently, they have outgoing personalities, a quick wit, and a friendly demeanor. People skills are required. Especially if one wants to be re-elected to the post. And when your most important current contributions are in attracting other rainmakers to the firm, and serving as the firm’s internal and external cheerleader, you better be able to fire off disarming quips with ease.

Often, it is hard to dislike the head of the firm. Unless you dislike the firm itself, in which case transference of that dislike onto the boss is expected. But even though managing partners are generally personable, we may be approaching (maybe not now, but soon) the end of their heyday.

Because Biglaw is changing, and that change will reach all the way to the top.

As I have mentioned in the past, echoing others more qualified to provide such an opinion, the arguments for professional executive management of Biglaw firms get stronger with each passing day. While I am sure most firm heads try hard, there is no way that the best 100 possible managers of the Am Law 100 are actually running the firms that compose that list. And at those firms where ex-rainmakers are now running things, there is a good argument that the firm would be better served turning over the reins to a professional CEO and letting that lawyer get out and rustle up some more clients for the firm. I know some firms have already gone that route, and I think any firm facing an impending leadership change should consider it.

I would also like to see a managing partner or two have the courage to tie their compensation to firm performance. Stagnant revenues, or the need to implement layoffs, should mean no bonus. Or how about agreeing to halve their current salary so that the firm can add an executive to help with administration? There really is no reason that a managing partner should make any more than the median salary of the firm’s partners — equity and income. Plus a bonus for good performance — such as attracting a profitable group of laterals, or helping turn around the fortunes of a struggling office. Time for someone to set a good example in this regard. I have no doubt such a step would inspire tremendous appreciation in their partnership, while sending a great message to the rest of Biglaw about the values of that firm. Because cheap talk about firm “culture and values” is worthless. Action is king, and inspires loyalty.

Finally, Biglaw firms should strongly consider following the recent lead of Orrick and Fenwick and name younger managing partners. First of all, it would free up a big-name senior rainmaker to go and bring forth business (assuming your current head honcho has a good reputation). Second, it actually sends a strong message to the rest of the partnership (and partners at peer firms) that the institution is stronger than its current leadership, and that the institution is betting on enduring. Given the demands of the office, there is nothing wrong with having the travel load placed on a younger frame. Bonus points for selecting a woman or minority, assuming the talent for the job is there. (This is not the place for a diversity-for-its-own-sake play, but all things being equal, there is a ton of goodwill that can be accrued by having a minority or woman as the firm’s leader in today’s corporate and political landscape.)

At minimum, firms with a senior (and remember 55 used to be retirement age in Biglaw) managing partner should be actively grooming the next generation of leaders. Every firm has a junior partner or two who is universally lauded as “living the firm’s culture.” Pick one of those people and designate them CEO-in-training, even if they are not yet a big rainmaker — remember the idea is to choose an administrator and cheerleader who can be effective and personify the firm’s values. Ideally, the candidate should come from the ranks of partner shoo-ins — that rare breed of Biglaw associate who seems preordained to make partner and actually does so. Your first ballot Hall-of-Famer type. Groom them, and hopefully the firm will motor on successfully to its next Jubilee.

What do you think about the head of your firm, and what do they do well or poorly in your opinion? Let me know by email or in the comments.

Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at

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