It’s a common refrain even from highly successful lawyers: “I wish I were on the business side.”
There can be more than one motivation underlying that sentiment. The chance to earn more money tends to be part of the appeal, particularly if the lawyer is treating an especially successful client as the reference point. But beyond money, attorneys who yearn for a business role are often drawn to the notion of managing a P&L. In other words, they like the idea of being in charge of a business and controlling their destiny.
The thing is, if you are a Biglaw partner, you’re already running a business: your practice. It might not feel that way. Maybe you view your firm’s managing partner as the person who is running the business, and relative to that leader, you feel like you don’t have much management autonomy. If that is your view, it may be worth considering that most of the clients on the “business side” are constrained by decisions made higher up the pyramid. Not all of them are CEOs. Many are leaders of divisions within a broader corporate structure, managing a P&L that is just one component of a larger whole.
But the best analogy for law firm partners isn’t to a corporate division. It’s to a franchise. A law firm partner is effectively a franchise owner. At first glance, running a capital markets practice looks vastly different from running a fast food restaurant. But if you set aside the surface differences, there are some fundamental similarities.
In a franchise model, the franchisor determines many details of the franchisee’s operation. The franchisor defines the brand in the public imagination through marketing campaigns. It controls the menu of products sold at the franchises. It supervises the design and construction of stores to maintain a common look and feel across the brand’s outlets. And it provides instructions and training to ensure a consistent customer experience.
But although the broad strategic and design choices are primarily the domain of the franchisor, the franchisee controls the actual operation of the business and ultimately determines whether it succeeds. The franchisee’s responsibilities include hiring employees and supervising their work, building the reputation of the franchise in the community it serves, and carefully tracking the performance of the franchise relative to industry benchmarks to identify opportunities for improvement.
A law firm’s management, like a franchisor, is the primary steward of the brand under which the firm’s partners offer their services. The managing partner or management committee determines which practice areas the firm will compete in, selects the partners who will lead service delivery in those practice areas, and sets the broad policies and cultural norms by which the firm operates.
To be sure, those are all important decisions. But the success of the firm’s business is ultimately contingent on client satisfaction, and that depends on the management skills of the individual partners. As a partner, your job is to bring in matters and execute on them such that the client’s expectations are met or exceeded.
Like a franchise owner, you are responsible for your practice, and it will grow primarily through your direct efforts. It’s on you to get out there and interact with influential members of the community, and it’s on you to ensure that the team of associates working under your direction is motivated and equipped to deliver on your promises to clients. Like a diligent franchise owner, you should be monitoring the performance of your practice relative to others, taking stock of its relative strengths and weaknesses, and gleaning insights that can be leveraged to drive continuous improvement. You don’t need to shift to the “business side.” You’re already on it.