What managing partners really, really hate

This is a Friday leadership column with a difference. Next week’s cover feature targets the trials and tribulations of running a law firm. For that we’ve quizzed some of the best-known names in the market on the toughest things being a managing or senior partner.

Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co’s Quentin Poole; K&L Gates’ Peter Kalis; Macfarlanes’ Charles Martin and Squire Patton Boggs’ Peter Crossley along with Travers Smith’s Andrew Lilley and Chris Carroll are just some of the illustrious names giving their views this week on an often overlooked issue – namely how tough it can actually be to be managing partner (cover story, 17 November).

By way of a taster here’s what Boodle Hatfield’s senior partner Richard Maughan, whose time at the top of the firm comes to an end next year, has to say on the matter of what can make managing a law firm a nightmare.

High up on many a managing partner’s list is the fact that every other senior stakeholder in the business will want to have their say on how the firm is run.

“The challenge in a mid-size law firm is there are 32 owners (partners) in the office, all highly intelligent, most of whom know how to run it better than the partner that they appointed to do the job,” says Maughan. “This can be a strong indicator of full partner engagement [but] getting it right is a tricky balancing act.”  

Not only that but the job is getting more complex as firms get bigger, the nature of the services they provide to clients become increasingly specialist and the competitive pressures in the marketplace get progressively more challenging.    

“Support functions need to continue to professionalise to meet these challenges,” says Maughan.

That said, Maughan doesn’t believe the job is any harder now than it was a decade ago. Just different.

“The job can be more or less demanding in different firms at different times,” he argues. “2008 produced a need for wartime style leadership in many firms, [but] nobody needs wartime leadership at all times. It is easier to manage in an upturn.”       

There is one constant, however. Generally managing partners really hate the fact that they have to keep a lid on all of the major strategic, operational and financial issues while also being ultimately responsible for counting paperclips. It can’t be easy.

Maughan highlights the mundane side of the top job with an anecdote about a managing partner of a mid-sized firm who was in full flow, espousing how he had brought his firm to its current eminent position from its small beginnings, when the head of corporate burst in on the conversation to complain, “there’s water coming from a leak in my office ceiling, could you please produce a bucket and a mop immediately”.

Maughan’s time at the top of Boodle Hatfield comes to an end next year with head of private client Sara Maccallum set to take over the running of the firm on 1 May 2015 (15 September 2014).

His final term coincides with a particularly robust period for the London-based private wealth and property-driven firm. As reported in this year’s UK200, in 2013/14 the firm’s revenue mushroomed by nearly 20 per cent from £20.7m to £24.6m.

Net profit also rose, from £4m to £5.3m (a rise of 32.5 per cent) while average profit per equity partner broke through the £500,000 barrier, rocketing by 25 per cent from £401,000 to £502,000. Boodle Hatfield’s top of equity currently stands at £670,000.

It was also a big year for Boodle Hatfield in physical terms as the long-term West End denizen relocated its head office to south of the river. On Wednesday 17 September the Duke of Westminster unveiled a plaque to officially open the firm’s new office in Bankside, south of the river on Blackfriars Road. (Boodle Hatfield has acted for the Grosvenor Estate and members of the family continuously since 1722). The firm also retains a smaller office in the West End in Grosvenor Street.

Ironically London’s sky-rocketing property prices were a major contributing factor to the firm’s move. As this year’s report revealed, at the 2013/14 year-end Boodle Hatfield had a total of 36,508sq ft costing £3.1m, or £85 per sq ft. In London the firm had 29,693 costing £2.9m, or £99 per sq ft.  

Next year those per sq ft metrics should be significantly reduced.

As part of a wider leadership overhaul at the firm, Boodle Hatfield is also introducing a management committee for the first time next year. The new three-person committee will feature Maccallum, head of residential property Saskia Arthur and head of contentious trusts and estates disputes Simon Rylatt.

The firm also recently hired DLA Piper director for groups and sectors Andy Wansell as its first chief operating officer.

The new management team would do well to quiz Maughan for advice on what to watch out for as they take over from the veteran leader. His top tip?

“Be sure that you and your fellow partners are very clear about the scope of the role that you are taking on, what is expected of you and what it is legitimate of you to expect of them in return,” Maughan says. “Be clear about your period of tenure and what happens when it comes to an end.”

For Maughan, the art world beckons – the lawyer is planning to devote much of his free time to developing his painting.

From May next year Boodle Hatfield will be somebody’s else’s problem.