Law firm management: how to solve a professional dilemma

Bill Tudor John says lawyers are still best-equipped to run their own firms and candidates should not see the role as a poisoned chalice. Bill Tudor John is senior partner at Allen & Overy.

I read recently that Linklaters, the London bit of Linklaters & Alliance, is having difficulty choosing a new managing partner now that Terence Kyle has moved on to manage his firm world-wide – and best of luck Terence since the new job won't be easy.

The choice of managing partner is a dilemma which most firms, large and small, face at some stage of development. On the one hand, you need someone with experience in running a business – and not many lawyers fall into that box. On the other, they must be someone who commands the trust and respect of workers at the coal-face – and there aren't many non-lawyers who can immediately do that.

Also, lawyers who do demonstrate management aptitude are invariably “big hitters” who have honed their skills in dealing with clients and managing teams to service them. Does it make sense to channel their energies into the overall running of the business – a full-time job for anyone?

Lastly, because of law firms' tendency to impose management responsibilities for fixed periods, there is little incentive for even the best candidate to move into management for, say, five years in the expectation that they may have to rebuild a client base and career at a time of life when it may not be easy to do so.

But I do believe a firm's interests are presently best served by having a lawyer as managing partner. I know the counter- arguments – “Rolls Royce only went broke when it was run by engineers”. But in the “touchy-feely” business of managing legal partnerships, where management spends long periods of time discussing strategy with “shareholders”, progress is quickest achieved if managers understand the pressures of transactions and the managed know that planners “have been there and done it”.

That's not to say non-lawyers haven't had coal-face experience – many have. Nor do I believe that perceptions will stay the same – the time will come when a large practice will be run successfully by a non-lawyer. Lawyers have only recently turned their attention to running practices as businesses and, having made this leap, it will take a little longer for most firms to go that bit further and pick a trained businessman as leader.

If you accept this, then it makes sense to choose as managing partner the lawyer who, in the practice, has demonstrated the best leadership and business capabilities. He or she may be an important fee earner, but it is even more vital to have the most competent internal candidate to handle the complex job of helping formulate and implement the right strategy. This is particularly true today with enormous market changes. But the lawyer/manager will only be successful if the firm also has a team of highly-qualified non-lawyers in important support roles.

As for a fixed term of office, I'm in favour of that. A good manager will be re-elected if their fellow partners have any sense. And a good lawyer with management experience should be able to build a new career if they are not re-elected.