Opinion: Promotion: a double-edged honour?

Management positions in law firms are ­usually seen as a form of promotion.

Andrew Cromby
Andrew Cromby

But they come with an element of peril. As a partner, doing the job well is not enough; equally or more important are the requirements to find your own clients and build a profit centre.

Much has been written about the fact that lawyers are not necessarily good at running their firms – a very different task from being a high-performing partner. What’s more, the job of management ­takes time. As a result many firms appoint executive officers (of various titles) who are unencumbered by billing targets and have training and experience in running businesses.

Still, in a large number of firms the management positions are occupied by those who have come up through the ranks. These positions include not only managing partners but also heads of department or practice areas.

When the time comes for you to be offered management responsibility, your first reaction may be that this is a wonderful thing. But does the winner’s cup hold nectar or poison? Give some thought to the following points and questions.

  • What are you expected to deliver in your new role, for your department or firm and as an individual? Will you be permitted a reduced personal hourly budget? Probably yes, but is this a good thing? Before you take the job, agree on your objectives and targets, both for the firm and as an ­individual. Record this for posterity, in case partners subsequently turn against you for failing to deliver.
  • Is suitable training available? You may need this and should not be afraid to insist that it is provided.
  • Consider whether there are any ­particular circumstances (such as the state of the financial climate) that might affect your ability to undertake your role ­successfully. Is the challenge too great?
  • What is your route out of the management position? Nothing lasts forever, so if you don’t intend to retire or be carried out of the office in a box, what plans do you have for a life in your firm after you give up your management role and what do you need to do to turn those into reality?
  • Most importantly, is being in ­management something that suits or interests you? Are you going to enjoy the role or be good at it? If not, do not be ­flattered into accepting a position you do not want. If you will not enjoy what you are being asked to do your performance may suffer and years of work spent building your legal career could be lost.
  • One of the most common pitfalls for law firm managers is that, because they step back from the front line to become involved in administrative rather than fee-earning work, they fail to maintain personal billings and client relationships. When a partner’s tenure as, say, head of department comes to an end, will the rot have set in for their personal ­business empire?
  • Remember the early lesson drilled into lawyers – you are as good as your fees. Are those likely to fall off while you are in management? Will you have alienated your supporters because of some of the management choices that you have made? Reduced personal billing and lack of ­support from your partners may make you seem ripe for retirement. Many a ­former managing partner or department head has found themselves in dispute with their partners once they have returned to the ranks.

So, if you are going to take a management position, record the fact that you are to be entitled to a realistic period of ­’recovery time’ to re-establish your ­personal billing. If you feel a tap on your shoulder, having vacated your management ­position, you will be glad you did.