Democracy wins over dictatorship

Michael Walker is managing partner at Maclay Murray & Spens.

Winston Churchill and Bill Tudor John (former senior partner at Allen & Overy) are examples of democracy in action. The temptation of anyone managing a legal firm nowadays is to point to the slowing effect on progress that democracy can have.

How, say the cadre of strong partners, can we possibly hope to drive the firm forward if we have to take everyone with us?

They don't do that in business. But business is of course different from partnership.

Regardless of the size of your partnership I would argue that it is important to keep your partners focused on the same strategy and have them supportive of the strategy.

Sure, it is not sensible to try to manage a firm by giving everyone an equal voice.

Partners have to give up certain rights to the management team to avoid the situation, which does not exist in the smaller firms, of partners spending all their time worrying about stationary supplies or the office carpet.

It is dangerous, however, to assume that what makes for the efficient running of a practice is the imposition of a dictatorship. I say this because partners in legal firms are proprietors and want to think of themselves in that way.

Like any business, some proprietors are more interested in running the business than others, but all of them have an interest in how the business is being run and that must extend to a decision on who will lead them and who will join them.

Organic growth is my firm's preferred route and I read with interest what Stephen Beharrel (The Lawyer, 22 November) had to say in the Square Mile last week.

Direct entry partners or lateral hires do give rise to tensions, but any partnership should be careful to acknowledge that if the partners – and that means all of them – are not on side either actively or tacitly, all one will do is build up problems for the future.

A lateral hire is by definition joining from outside. It takes time to get inside and the process of assimilation is bound to be the one that will not be helped if, before arrival, a number of partners have either not been consulted or have harboured concerns which they have not voiced.

Not every lateral hire works and the comfort for the partnership must be that it is confident that where a lateral hire does not work the matter will be addressed quickly and efficiently.

It would make life much easier on occasion if one were a dictator but there is great strength in the democratic procedure – whether one always agrees with the outcome or not.

But if you are not careful, your lateral hires will persuade existing partners to become someone else's lateral hires.