Global Chair. Head of Litigation. Office Managing Partner. Those are some nice sounding titles, right? In a profession that emphasizes prestige and status, it isn’t surprising that many high-achieving partners aspire to lead their firms. For a partner who has achieved success at each rung of the Biglaw hierarchy, the pinnacle of leadership may seem like a natural next conquest. But if you’re in a position to reach that pinnacle, you should ask yourself two questions before accepting the appointment. First, why do I want this job? Second, is the timing right?
Realities of law firm leadership
Successful law firm partners are accustomed to interacting with powerful corporate executives. Watching their clients run companies or in-house legal departments naturally encourages some lawyers to think, “hey, I could do that!” And what better way to prove it than by chairing their firm?
It’s important to recognize that the power wielded by a Managing Partner is materially different from that of a CEO. Companies are fundamentally hierarchical organizations, and although the most effective CEOs will inspire employees to align with the CEO’s vision, the reality is that a CEO can act unilaterally where necessary. Reporting lines are clearly delineated, and team members who resist directives from senior leadership are unlikely to last long. Moreover, employees who quit are rarely in a position to take a substantial portion of the company’s business with them.
Compared to a CEO, a Biglaw Chair is generally in a weaker position to drive change unilaterally. We can all think of examples of exceptionally powerful Managing Partners—often these are founders of their firms with their names on the letterhead. But in the more typical case of a partner who rises up the ranks to assume the role of Chair, the experience of leadership is more herding cats than giving orders. Partners are owners, and they feel entitled to a real say in the firm’s direction. This is especially true of the rainmakers, whose power is reinforced by their ever-present ability to take their book of business elsewhere. In contrast to the efficiencies of hierarchical corporate structures, law firm leadership entails a slower, more collaborative, and constrained process.
Another notable difference between CEOs and Biglaw Chairs is that Biglaw leaders frequently are not the highest-paid members of their firms. CEOs are generally assumed to have outsized responsibility for the financial performance of their companies, and their outsized compensation reflects this. In a law firm, the dynamic is different. A Managing Partner plays an important role in ensuring smooth operation of the firm, but revenue is generally credited principally to the decentralized business development efforts of individual partners. (Recall the analogy we recently drew between law firm partners and franchise owners.) Outsized compensation is earned through rainmaking, not through leading the firm in an administrative capacity.
Before agreeing to become Chair, you would be wise to take a step back and reflect on why you aspire to firm leadership. It is a challenging job, and compared to practicing full-time, you aren’t likely to earn a premium for assuming a top leadership post. Make sure you look beyond the title when assessing the desirability of these roles.
Pitfalls of an early rise to the top
Presuming you are under no illusions about what leadership will entail and you have decided that you want the role, the second critical issue is timing. Star partners often ascend to the top of their firms as soon as the opportunity presents itself. This makes perfect sense on one level—who knows if you’ll get a second chance at a later date? But if you are offered the opportunity to lead your firm as a mid-career partner, it’s important to think through the potential pitfalls.
The main risk is that you’ll come to the end of your leadership tenure and will be poorly positioned to resume your practice. If you expect chairing the firm to be your last job, you don’t have to worry about giving up your book of business. But if you take on the leadership role as a mid-career partner, with the expectation of practicing for another decade on the back end, you need to be mindful of the difficulties of reintegrating into full-time practice.
The nature of the risk depends on whether the Managing Partner role is a full-time job. If you are expected to devote your full attention to leadership, you will necessarily have to hand over your practice to other partners. And if you do that, you shouldn’t expect to get it back several years down the line. Transitions of this sort tend to be sticky: by the time you return to the scene, your clients will be accustomed to dealing with those other partners and may not see a benefit in switching back to you. In an era in which firms increasingly prioritize profitability above all, you will struggle to return to your pre-leadership position of strength without a robust book of business.
If your firm expects you to continue to practice part-time while in leadership, the risk of losing your client relationships is mitigated, but your practice may still be impaired. Your competitors will be focused solely on building their books, whereas you will be distracted by your firmwide responsibilities. Remember: fancy titles are nice, but your long-term value to the firm derives from your ability to grow and maintain your practice.
You should assume that taking on the Chair role is effectively a retirement plan. If that makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably best to delay the job for now.