What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner

Dr. Dario Ramon Buschor*

«Why would anyone want to manage a law firm? Your most important assets – expertise, reputation, and client relationships – belong to highly opinionated and highly mobile individuals, who typically have a strong sense of their own worth and prize their personal autonomy. They tend to have limited time or respect for management. If you do a good job, they will not give you much credit for it; if they do not like what you do, they can get rid of you very quickly.»1

The legal profession has undergone an enormous transformation. In the past, lawyers were considered freelancers, working in individual practices to deal with the legal issues and queries of their clients. Over time, a number of factors have contributed to the fact that legal services, the methods of delivering said services, as well as the organization of the lawyers producing the services, had changed considerably. These factors include globalization, increasing liberalization within and the opening of the legal market,2 which enabled the entry of new legal service providers and thus previously unimagined competition,3 as well as technological progress and digitalization.4 But changes have also occurred on the demand side: An increasingly sophisticated clientele, which finds itself exposed to ever more complex regulatory burdens, is developing. They show steadily increasing expectations regarding their legal advisors without, however, being prepared to pay a higher – or even the same – price for the legal services provided to them.5 Companies are continuously expanding their legal departments and, therefore, their own competencies, allowing them to increasingly handle legal tasks that were previously outsourced to external law firms in-house or internalize entire processes.6 And last but not least, the loyalty of clients to their law firms and legal advisors has been seen to be continuously declining.7

One question that arises in the midst of all these changes and challenges is what requirements a law firm leader needs to meet in order to steer their firm successfully. While there is a lot of research on leadership and the demands placed on leaders of a variety of organizations,8 the focus has usually been on industrial companies or service providers that do not belong to the subgroup of so-called Professional Service Firms (PSF). Flat hierarchies, concentrated ownership structures, a remarkable need for autonomy on the part of professionals, a lack of opportunity to retain active employees, etc., distinguish PSF from the companies and industries most tar-

*PhD (University of St.Gallen, Switzerland), Attorney-at-Law and Professor Extra Carreira at Fundação Getulio Vargas School of Law in Rio de Janeiro (FGV Direito Rio).

1 Laura Empson & Stuart Popham, Introduction and Overview, in Managing the Modern law firm – New Challenges, New Perspectives 1 (2007).

2 Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future 5-15 (1st ed. 2017).

3 Geertje Tutschka, Kanzleigründung und Kanzleimanagement [Lae Firm Foundation and Law Fim Management] 6 (2018). See also Susskind, supra note 2; Markus Hartung, Kanzleien von Morgen [Law Firms of Tomorrow], in Anwaltsrevue [Lawyers Revue] 276, 277 (2017); W. Weiss, Zukunft des Anwaltsberufs [Future of the Legal Profession], in Anwaltsrevue [Lawyers Revue] 360, 360 (2015); J. Chain & N. Bruch, Trends in the Global Legal Services Market, in Management von Anwaltskanzleien [Law Firm Management: Successfully Running Law Firms] 941, 942-944 (Leo Staub & Christine Hehli Hidber eds., 2012); Max J. Ringlstetter, et al., Strategische Entwicklungen von Unternehmensberatungen – Ein Beitrag aus Sicht der Professional Services Firms Forschung [Strategic Developments of Management Consultancies – A Contribution from the Perspective of Professional Services Firms Research], in Consulting Research – Unternehmensberatung aus Wissenschaftlicher Perspektive [Consulting Research – Management Consulting from A Scientific Perspective] 179, 182-183 (Volker Nissen, ed. 2007).

4 Claudia Schieblon, Management in Kanzleien [Management in Law Firms], in Kanzleimanagement in der Praxis – Führung und Management für Kanzleien und Wirtschaftsprüfer [Law Firm Management in Practice: Leadership and Management for Law Firms and Auditors] 1, 1-2 (4th ed. 2019). See also H. Kolster & T. Heining, Geschäftsmodelle für die Kanzlei der Zukunft [Business Models for the Law Firm of the Future], in Kanzleimanagement in der Praxis – Führung und Management für Kanzleien und Wirtschaftsprüfer [Law Firm Management in Practice: Leadership and Management for Law Firms and Auditors] 91, 91-92 (4th ed. 2019); Susskind, supra note 2, at 10-15.

5 Susskind, supra note 2, at 4-5. See also Weiss, supra note 3; Chain & Bruch, supra note 3.

6 Schieblon, supra note 4. See also Kolster & Heining, supra note 4; Weiss, supra note 3.

7 The same holds true for partners, who tend to switch law firms more often than in the past. See D. R. Buschor & I. Lührs, Lateral Moves in der Schweiz [Lateral Moves in Switzerland], in Anwaltsrevue [Lawyers Revue] 169, 169-174 (2020); N. Bruch, et al., Risky Business – Rethinking Lateral Hiring, in Decipher & ALM Intelligence 10 (2019).

8 See James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, Credibility – How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It (2011); James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (6th ed. 2017); Jim Collins, Level 5 Leadership – The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, 79 Harv. Bus. Rev. 66 (2001); F. Malik, Leadership im Unternehmen – Trends und Perspektiven [Leadership in Companies – Trends and Perspectives], in Leadership – Best Practices und Trends [Leadership – Best Practices and Trends] 285 (Heike Bruch, et al. eds., 2006).

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner54

geted by leadership and management studies. Furthermore, rather than simply being part of the above-described subgroup of PSF, law firms maintain distinguishing characteristics, which Maister expresses as follows:

«After spending 25 years saying that all professions are similar and can learn from each other, I’m now ready to make a concession: Law firms are different.»9

Also, the topic of management was not prioritized within the PSF sector. In his best-selling book «Managing the Professional Service Firm» David Maister quotes the words of a managing partner:

«Professional Service Firms are managed in one of two ways: badly or not at all.»10

This article, therefore, argues that the findings of the existing literature regarding requirements for managers cannot be applied unconditionally to managing partners of law firms. Thus, after a layout of the scientific approach and method, the specific nature of lawyers will be briefly discussed before the results of a literature review on the requirements for managers in general derived from the business management literature as well as for managers in a professional environment derived from the PSF literature (enriched with findings from interviews conducted with law firm consultants) are presented. These results will then be compared with the results of a study conducted among managing partners of the leading national law firms from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which will not only display the requirements law firm managing partners need to fulfill in order to succeed, but also to what extent these requirements differ from those of managers in other industries.

A. Method

Approaching the research question regarding the qualifications of a managing partner in a law firm environment, this study focused on a qualitative interview study in addition to a review of the existing scientific as well as practice literature.

This study was conducted with the managing partners of the largest national law firms in the so-called DACH region, comprising Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Due to the similarity of the nature of professional work, it is nevertheless alleged that the findings can be translated to other jurisdictions. The term national law firm refers to a law firm which is not merely a country unit of global (mostly American or British) law firms or other PSF such as the BigFour accounting giants or other consulting powerhouses.

Due to the fact that this article primarily deals with a leadership issue, the size of the law firms in the study, measured by the number of professionals, was defined as the first criterion for the selection of the law firms to be examined. After all, their employees are considered the most important production factors in PSF. Only law firms that employ at least 70 lawyers were considered in this study. In Q4 2020, a population of 47 law firms meeting the criteria defined above (national law firms employing at least 70 professionals) could be identified.

Once the appropriate law firms and as well as their managing partners had been determined, they had to agree to conduct an interview. Finding interviewees for qualitative studies is not an easy undertaking, as most of the persons are committed to their organizations and are subject to various restrictions such as confidentiality obligations or personal insecurities or restraints.11 Although it was not possible to obtain a complete collection sample, the response rate was exceptionally high. After a potential second inquiry, all six law firm advisors targeted as well as 36 managing partners and three COOs from a total of 35 law firms,12 agreed to sit down for an interview.

In Q4 2020, the interviews with several law firm consultants from Europe and the United States were conducted, which served to obtain a complementary perspective on the topic from the practice side that allowed for a better interpretation, completion and questioning of the literature as well as the answers of the subsequently interviewed managing partners. In addition to a better understanding and helpful background information as well as initial findings, this also created the basis for conducting the interviews with the managing partners.

Following the discussions with the law firm consultants, the managing partners were interviewed about governance issues, their management role within the firm as well as about the main content of this article, i.e., the requirements they have to meet in order to successfully perform the duties bestowed upon them by their partners. The interviewees were given significant leeway to explain, specify and elaborate on their comments. This strategy allowed to point out to interviewees when (further) examples are beneficial for a deeper or more holistic understanding of an issue or that additional details and background is of interest.13 Since the questionnaire was not sent to the interviewees in advance, they were given as much freedom as possible when sitting through the interviews, which were guided mainly by clarification questions and inquiries for further information. The interviewees were thus able to influence the focus and the course of their interview. Whenever necessary, however, the interviewer steered the conversation back along predefined lines.

The 37 interviews with a total of 39 persons, three of whom officially, i.e., according to the company’s designation and not just based on an interpretation of the respective job description, fill a COO role, while the other 36 persons were interviewed as managing partners, took place partly in person and alternatively via video conferencing tools such as Zoom. While the interviews with representatives from Germany and Austria were conducted exclusively remotely,

9 David Maister, Are Law Firms Manageable?, David Maister (2006), https://davidmaister.com/articles/are-law-firms-manageable.

10 David Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm 291 (2003).

11 Päivi Eriksson & Anne Kovalainen, Qualitative Methods in Business Research 54-55 (2008).

12 Out of the population of 47 law firms meeting the criteria set for this study.

13 Robert S. Weiss, Learning from Strangers – The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies 3 (1995).

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the Swiss interviewees were asked to decide whether they agreed to a face-to-face interview or preferred a video call.14 The in-person interviews always took place in the offices of the respective law firms.

With the consent of the interviewees, all interviews with the law firm consultants and 33 of the 37 interviews15 with managing partners and COOs were recorded, which allowed a verbatim transcript of the discussions.

The interviews were partially corrected, enhanced or shortened by the interviewees after they were provided with their transcripts. This final version of the transcript was coded using a deductive approach (in the case of the law firm consultants) or a hybrid approach (in the case of the managing partners and COOs).16 Hybrid in this context means that in a first step, codes were directly derived from the literature. Subsequently, the predefined codes, which were not able to cover the breadth and depth of the interviewees’ statements, were inductively supplemented with new codes.17 All codes were continuously tested, adapted and refined. The final code list was written down and provided with short definitions, which in turn were supplemented with a list of exemplary quotes taken from the test interviews.18 The coding of the interviews was iteratively developed over three rounds, i.e., the codes were continuously revised, checked, and recategorized until all codes were set as accurately as possible.19 The interviews, which had not been recorded, could not be coded and analyzed with the same profundity. Nevertheless, the information gained from these interviews was included in the interpretation of the overall data material.20

The coded quotes were used for different purposes depending on their specific content. On the one hand, lists of specific points mentioned were used to condense the vast amount of information (e.g., all quotes containing a certain skill or character trait of a successful managing partner). On the other hand, coding made it possible to quantify how often a certain code was used – both within an interview as well as across all interviews. The total number of all citations per code allows for conclusions about the importance of a certain code, e.g., a certain characteristic or a certain ability.21 Further insights arise from the systematic analysis, contextualization and comparison of the different data and data sets.

B. Lawyers

One of the first issues of the journal «Legal Chatter», first published in the late 1930s, contains an article entitled «Essentials of A Successful Lawyer» and characterizes the ideal lawyer. She or he must have good character, referring to honesty, integrity, truthfulness, unselfishness and loyalty. Or, as the author sums it up: «A successful lawyer must be a gentleman.» Furthermore, a successful lawyer must be characterized by perseverance, infinite patience, systematic work, good time management, and the will for lifelong learning. But also resourcefulness in combination with tact and politeness and thus an attractive personality structure are, according to the op-eds author, necessary traits of a successful lawyer. Last but not least, common sense is required, with the author stating: «The pity of the whole matter is that a man who has no common sense never knows it.»22

These remarks will lead into the next two sections, which will first discuss the special personality structure of lawyers. This will be followed by a discussion of the effects of these properties on the management of lawyers and why the management of lawyers is repeatedly associated with the terms ‘cat herding’.

I. Herding Cats

The fact that lawyers vary in their personalities from the rest of the population has already been the subject of numerous articles and was proven by a variety of studies.23 But what does it mean to be ‘different’? What distinguishes a lawyer from the rest of the population? And what are the consequences thereof for the management of lawyers?

By means of extensive data collection based on the Caliper test, in an often-cited study, Richard was able to prove that lawyers differ from the rest of the population with regard to a number of personality traits.24 Based on the assumption that the entire population would score an average of 50 on a number of personality traits, Richard identified five traits in which lawyers show results that differ significantly: Skepticism, Urgency, Sociability, Resilience, and Autonomy.25

14 This was due in particular to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting risks and uncertainties.

15 Two interviews were conducted in which two managing partners were interviewed at the same time, leading to a total of 37 separate interviews with 39 interviewees.

16 H. Russell Bernard, et al., Analyzing Qualitative Data: Systemic Approaches 129-130 (2nd ed. 2016).

17 Id. at 128-129.

18 Id. at 151-152.

19 Johnny Saldaña, The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers 11-13 (3rd ed. 2016).

20 The interviews with the COOs did not directly contribute to the results. Rather, their statements have contributed to a better understanding of the MP roles. Their statements – where particularly illustrative – have nevertheless been quoted directly within the context of this article. Most interviews were conducted in German. Direct quotes from interviews conducted in German were translated to English for the purposes of this article.

21 Bernard, et al., supra note 16, at 181.

22 W.C. Wells, Essentials of a Successful Lawyer, 1 Legal Chatter 1-3 (1938).

23 While the studies presented below focus explicitly on lawyers, ‘cat herding’ is also used in the literature on PSF in general. See Andrew von Nordenflycht, What Is a Professional Service Firm? Toward a Theory and Taxonomy of Knowledge-Intensive Firms, 35 Acad. of Mgmt. Rev. 155, 160-161 (2010).

24 L. Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, 20 Rep. to Legal Mgmt. 1 (2002). As early as 1993, Richard examined the personality traits of more than 3,000 participating attorneys in a large-scale study. At that time, however, he did not use the Caliper test, but the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). See L. Richard, The Lawyer Types, 79 ABA J. 74, 74-78 (1993).

25 Richard (2002), supra note 24. In another study from 1998, 95 lawyers, all described by their peers as ‘excellent lawyers’, were compared with each other. For this purpose, the 95 lawyers were divided into two groups, namely ‘Rainmakers’ and ‘Service Partners.’ The study found that the Rainmaker group scored higher in the ego-drive category (60 to 38 on a scale of 0 to 100), as well as in the empathy (75 to 65) and ego-strength (63 to 43) categories. The same study also found that Rainmakers had a sociability score nearly three and a half times higher than service partners. See Richard (2002), supra note 24, at 3, 9. A high score on the ego-drive trait corresponds to the sense of satisfaction a person feels when he or she can persuade others; ego-strength corresponds to the personal ability to handle rejection and criticism and to deal with setbacks; empathy is the ability to actively perceive the feelings of others and to recognize and act on social cues. See Personality Assessment: Terms to Know, Caliper Corp., https://calipercorp.com/glossary-personality-assessment-terms-to-know.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner56

Individuals who score high on skepticism tend to be skeptical, partially cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative, and also, to some degree, self-protective, while those who score low are more accepting of other people, trusting, and giving others the benefit of the doubt.26 Over decades, Richard has consistently found that lawyers have, on average, a skepticism score up to 40 percentage points higher than the general population, which is why he calls it the most significant differentiator.27 Similar observations have already been made by Broderick28 or Maister, who elaborates on the relationship of lawyers with risk and makes the following comments:

«In any other business, an idea that was likely to work much of the time would be eagerly explored. This is not necessarily the case with lawyers.»

and further:

«If one partner says, ‘This works in the vast majority of cases’, you can be sure that another will say, ‘Maybe, but I can construct a hypothetical scenario where it will fail to work. That makes it risky.’»29

Those who score high on Urgency are often characterized by impatience, immediacy, and a certain drive, while a low score is more indicative of a thoughtful, patient, and deliberate person who is not in any particular hurry.30 Sociability refers to the willingness or desire to interact and get in touch with other people. Here, a low value indicates that a person finds it more difficult to make new contacts and prefers to focus on thought-provoking work. However, this does not necessarily mean that these people shy away from social contacts but rather that they focus on interactions within their core social network.31 Resilience or Ego Strength is no longer listed individually in the current Caliper Corp. glossary but are included in the descriptions of ‘Grit’ and ‘Mental Toughness’.32 Individuals with a low Resilience score tend to be defensive, shy away from feedback, and are hypersensitive to criticism.33 Autonomy is also not listed in the current glossary. Rather, ‘External Structure’ and thus the degree of sensitivity of a person in relation to prevailing rules and structures is mentioned. Richard describes autonomy, the characteristic that led to the «herding cats» stereotype34 and can be found in a large number of articles about lawyers (and other professionals), as a kind of unwillingness to be managed, a certain aversion to instructions, and a strong preference for independence.35 Empson also emphasizes that professionals place a lot of value on their autonomy and that many of them see their work as some kind of self-gratification and like to take on intellectually challenging tasks. For this reason, maximizing income is often not the primary goal of a professional and can only be used as an incentive to a very limited extent.36

In a more recent publication, Richard revisits his Caliper study. He shows that lawyers score significantly different from the general population not only in the five personality traits discussed earlier but in a total of seven of the 18 personality traits tested.37 According to this more recent study, lawyers score higher than the general population in the categories Skepticism, Urgency, Autonomy, and Abstract Reasoning and lower in the categories Sociability, Resilience, and Empathy.38

However, Richard was able to identify character traits in which lawyers differ from the general population not only through his decades-long use of the Caliper Test but also with the help of the Hogan Test, which he administered in a joint study with Rohrer to nearly 1,500 lawyers at large international law firms.39 The Hogan test measures the seven personality traits of Adjustment, Ambition, Sociability, Interpersonal Sensitivity, Prudence, Inquisitive, and Learning Approach. The result of the study showed that lawyers scored lower than the general population on all traits except Learning Approach, i.e., the tendency to value academic work and not to see education only as a means to an end.40 This result corresponds with the findings of Empson, among others, which characterizes professionals as «highly educated, highly trained, highly motivated».41

While there are no recent studies on the personality structure of lawyers that are comparable to Richard’s «Herding Cats» study in terms of extent and method, various authors have dealt with the topic. Hartung & Ziercke jointly investigated to what extent Richard’s results are transferable to a newer generation of law students as well as lawyers and which differences – if any – have emerged over time.42 In their research, in which more than 800 students (both local and

26 Caliper Corp., supra note 25; Richard (2002), supra note 24, at 4; L. Richard, Leadership in Law Firms, in Leadership in Law Firms: An Expert Guide 1, 2 (2014).

27 L. Richard, The Mind of the Lawyer Leader, 41 L. Prac. – The Leadership Issue 46, 48 (2015).

28 M. Broderick, Leading Gently, 12 The Am. Law. 63, 63 (2010).

29 David Maister (2006), supra note 9.

30 Caliper Corp., supra note 25; Richard (2002), supra note 26; Richard (2014), supra note 26.

31 Caliper Corp., supra note 25; Richard (2002), supra note 26, at 4, 9; Richard (2014), supra note 26.

32 Caliper Corp., supra note 25.

33 Richard (2002), supra note 26, at 9; Richard (2014), supra note 26.

34 It should be noted that the ‘herding cats’ analogy does not originate from Richard but was already used earlier and serves as a metaphorical comparison in various disciplines. For lawyers, see Patrick McKenna & Gerald Riskin, Herding Cats: A Handbook for Managing Partners and Practice Group Leaders (1995) and Warren Bennis, Managing People Is Like Herding Cats: Warren Bennis on Leadership (1997), for whom the cat analogy applies not only to the leadership of lawyers, but to the leadership of all people.

35 D. R. Buschor & I. Lührs, Lateral Moves von der Big Four-Gesellschaft zur Anwaltskanzlei [Lateral Moves from Big Four Firms to Law Firms], Jusletter (June 14, 2021), https://jusletter.weblaw.ch/juslissues/2021/1070/lateral-moves-von-de_7e0f17d481.html. See also Richard (2014), supra note 26; Stephen Mayson, Law Firm Strategy: Competitive Advantage and Valuation (1st ed. 2007); Richard (2002), supra note 33, at 9-10.

36 Empson & Popham, supra note 1, at 13-14.

37 Richard (2014), supra note 26, at 1-2.

38 Id. at 2.

39 L. Richard & Lisa Rohrer, A Breed Apart? How Personality Characteristics Influence Who Becomes a Lawyer – and How Far They Rise, 32 The Am. Law. 43 (2011). More information on the assessment carried out on https://www.hoganassessments.com/assessment/hogan-personality-inventory.

40 Richard & Rohrer, supra note 39, at 44.

41 Laura Empson, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas 3 (2017).

42 Markus Hartung & Emma Ziercke, Managing Lawyers is Like Herding Cats – Or Is It?, Legal Bus. World (Mar. 26, 2019), https://www.legalbusinessworld.com/post/2019/03/26/managing-lawyers-is-like-herding-cats-or-is-it. See also Markus Hartung & Emma Ziercke, Sind Anwälte Wirklich wie Katzen? [Are Lawyers Really Like Cats?], Legal Trib. Online (Sept. 12, 2018), https://www.lto.de/recht/juristen/b/juristen-anwaelte-persoenlichkeit-katzen-psychologie.

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exchange students), as well as alumni of the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, participated, the participants were not tested on the basis of a Caliper test but were merely asked about the individual characteristics of the Caliper test and whether they would identify with them.43 According to the study by Hartung & Ziercke, the newer generation of lawyers is more resilient and collaborative, which manifested itself in higher Resilience and Sociability scores, while at the same time, lower scores on the Autonomy and Skepticism traits were measured compared to Richard’s study.44 The character traits that resonated most with the study participants were Urgency, Attention to Detail, Ability to Use Abstract Reasoning, Ability to Accurately Sense the Feelings of Others, and Self-Discipline.45 It is notable that both Richard’s main differentiator between lawyers and the general population, skepticism, and the trait that led to the comparison of lawyers to cats, autonomy, were not represented among the most frequently mentioned responses.

II. Implications for the management of lawyers

David Maister compares PSF to sports teams with many talented players who can only realize their full potential by working together. However, in order to do that, the team needs a coach – or in the environment of PSF, a leader or manager.46 However, it is often not the (lack of) leadership qualities of managers that is the problem in poorly managed companies, but rather a kind of unwillingness on the part of professionals to grant managers the freedom to act, which would be necessary for effective leadership.47

While Richard interprets a high score on the personality trait Skepticism as potentially important for a successful career in many areas of the law, he makes the point that skeptical individuals cannot simply turn this trait on and off. Rather, skeptical individuals tend to be skeptical not only in appropriate situations, such as defending a client but also in situations where a collaborative and trustworthy attitude is usually more productive, e.g., during partner meetings.48 Law Firm Consultant B describes what Maister calls a «professional skeptic» with the following example:

«In a law firm, when a managing partner says ‘we need to have this done’, the first thing they know is going to happen is a hundred people asking ‘why?’» – Law Firm Consultant B49

This skepticism also leads to the fact that professionals in general and lawyers, in particular, tend to participate in meetings but feel only bound by the decisions made in them to a limited extent. Particularly in law firms, where work is less collaborative, lawyers are more inclined to protect particular interests than to compromise on common interests.50

Individuals with a high Urgency score are often productive and efficient but also tend to be poor listeners and brusque, according to Richard.51 Combined with a tendency to impatience («Lawyers are not good at patience, because there is constant pressure from delivering results.» – Law Firm Consultant F), these characteristics can lead to inefficient meetings and inferior results. According to the managing partners interviewed, meetings can also become inefficient because lawyers tend to have an opinion on everything, including – or especially – on less important matters, and to defend that opinion rigorously. One managing partner explains:

«The most difficult issues in a law firm are not compensation or bonuses, but the most difficult decisions are flower bouquets, Christmas cards and the color of the carpet. These are the most difficult decisions because everyone has an opinion.» – MP 6

Many lawyers, as various managing partners have pointed out, are also particularly good speakers and writers. They are especially strong in pointing out weaknesses in the arguments of others, which – although undoubtedly important characteristics of great and successful lawyers – can be frustrating for management on the one hand and costly for the entire partnership on the other, especially if the discussion is not constructive.52 Or, as one managing partner describes:

«And sometimes you find yourself having discussions in the partnership in which you get the feeling that arguments are only made for the sake of argumentation because it is simply in the lawyers’ blood.» – MP 15

The fact that lawyers scored comparatively low in Sociability can have negative implications in many areas within a law firm: from teamwork to mentoring and leadership to employee turnover and maintaining long-term client relationships.53 Even though the recent study by Hartung & Ziercke states that lawyers and law students are more collaborative than Richard’s study from the early 2000s would suggest,54 being a lone wolf is still deeply rooted in lawyers. This was confirmed by various managing partners. They attribute this to their academic and professional training, which is shown by statements such as: «As I said because individuality is very strongly practiced during lawyers’ training»55 or «All

43 For more on their study as well as its limitations, see Hartung & Ziercke (2019), supra note 42, at 92-93.

44 Id.

45 Id.

46 Maister (2003), supra note 10, at 207.

47 Id., at 291.

48 Richard (2002), supra note 26.See also David Maister (2006), supra note 9.

49 Underlining this statement: “In a room full of lawyers, any idea, no matter how brilliant, will be instantly attacked. Lawyers are expert loophole finders, trained to find counterexamples of or exceptions to any proposition.” David Maister, supra note 9.

50 Empson (2017), supra note 41. See also David Maister (2006), supra note 9.

51 Richard (2002), supra note 26.

52 The fact that such discussions can also be expensive, even if only in the sense of opportunity costs, was demonstrated by a managing partner during the explorative interviews when he gave the following example (analogously): „Imagine you are sitting in a room with 30 or 40 partners, each of whom can normally charge several hundred dollars per hour. Now, if half an hour is spent discussing the color of the T-shirt to be worn by the law firm’s team at the city marathon, you can figure out for yourself what that would cost.“

53 Richard (2002), supra note 33.

54 Hartung & Ziercke (2019), supra note 42.

55 MP 21.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner58

lawyers were and still are trained as lone warriors during their academic studies.”56

According to Richard, the relatively low Resilience score, which lawyers showcased in his study, explains why many partnership meetings, as well as other inquiries, are not handled proactively and in a solution- and goal-oriented manner but rather end in defensive verbal exchanges.57 Similar behavior was reported by the managing partners in this study. One of them states:58

«Lawyers, on average, are not particularly creative in, let’s say, finding solutions or creative approaches to solutions, but very strong in destroying them.» – MP 20

The high Autonomy score shows very clearly how strongly lawyers value their independence and do not like to be submitted to rigid organizational structures or be managed.59 Or, as Empson describes:

«Ultimately, most professionals want to be left alone from ‘interference’ by their leaders, to do the job they want to do as well as they possibly can.»60

The need for autonomy was also the most frequently directly mentioned or paraphrased characteristic of lawyers in the interview study underlying this article. Lawyers, especially at the partner level, do not wish (or even accept) to be restricted by management. According to the interviewed managing partners, the lawyers in their law firms more often than not see themselves as freelancers who value their autonomy very much, see strategies as restrictive measures and simply «don’t like having a boss around».61 This does not mean, however, that they do not acknowledge, at least in principle, that more leadership in their law firms would be beneficial for the partnership. One managing partner states:

«We lawyers are all alpha animals. And even without management training, we always know better. And the question is whether you want someone who is a good and effective leader or whether you would rather have someone who takes care of the status quo. Regarding this question, there are always two souls in a lawyer’s chest. On the one hand, one knows that a bit of leadership would be beneficial. Perhaps one even wishes for it. On the other hand, however, the leadership team ought to act in such a way that one’s own freedom is not restricted, only the freedom of others. From that point of view, lawyers are a bit more skeptical about a leader who is more active, because they don’t know what that means for their own freedom.» – MP 5

A recent study, for which a group of around 300 managers within the so-called AmLaw200 law firms was surveyed, found that the classic «herding cats» characteristics such as «lawyers need to exercise personal autonomy»,62 «reluctance to be led», or «aversion to accepting rules» were not the main cause of managerial difficulties. According to the survey, the biggest obstacles were «reluctance to change», «complacency», «some of the lawyer personalities», and «risk aversion».63 While all of the characteristics mentioned can also be found in this article’s interview study, the findings are not congruent. The most frequently mentioned characteristics, in addition to the already described characteristics ‘need for autonomy’ and ‘individualism’, were lawyers’ fundamental conviction that they know and can do most things better than others.64 Since they are always looking out for their own advantage and often see themselves as their own bosses, management decisions are ignored – especially partners do not feel obliged to abide by management decisions or even partnership votes65 or are of the opinion that those only apply to the other partners in their firm. A managing partner explains:

«People very much like to come to you and say: Someone else is doing something that is not according to our rules. Please intervene; you have to do something about it.’ However, if you brought up the same topic with the complaining partner, he would tell you: ‘Well, I don’t think you have the competence to do that.’ (…) Basically, you have to fight with a flaming sword when something goes wrong or isn’t being done according to the rules – as long as it’s not in the complaining partner’s own backyard.» – MP 5

In this section, the special nature of lawyers was discussed and with the help of references from the literature and the interviews, it was explained why leadership within this special group of people proves to be more challenging than within other environments. In the following sections, the requirements placed on managers as well as managing partners will be summarized by means of a literature review as well as a comparison with the results of the interview study.

C. Literature Review: Requirements for Successful Managers

The literature on factors that distinguish particularly successful managers or, as Mintzberg puts it, promise management success is extensive. Some authors try to reduce them to a minimum. Collins, for example, condenses the requirements

56 MP 35.

57 Richard (2002), supra note 33.

58 See also D. B. Evans, Why Lawyers can’t Manage – Thoughts from a Frustrated Lawyer, 19 L. Prac. Mgmt. 26, 28 (1993): “Law schools teach to discover and identify problems. But at partnership meetings this leads to more issues being raised than resolved. Also, they do that all the time even if it means effectively blocking any managerial action by the firm.”

59 See Richard (2002), supra note 33.

60 Empson (2017), supra note 41, at 21.

61 MP 16.

62 Matching to this are the findings of Hartung & Ziercke, who found a lower need for autonomy and comment on this as follows: “The lack of autonomy should mean that tomorrow’s lawyers are easier to manage than their predecessors, being more accepting of external structure and happy to work in an organization in which direction is set. Interestingly our over 40s were significantly more autonomous than the younger cohorts: An indication that perhaps the older we become, the more independent and less accepting of organizational constraints we become.” Hartung & Ziercke (2019), supra note 42.

63 Patrick McKenna, Leadership Survey: Defining Roles and Prioritizing Concerns, 37 Of Couns. 5, 8 (2018).

64 This applies in particular with regard to persons who are not lawyers themselves. MP 34 states this quite pointedly, albeit a little ironically: «We don’t believe in charlatans from outside. We are partners and we only believe partners, we only accept partners.»

65 “I haven’t finished that case yet, but the rules require me to get my bills out on a monthly basis!? No, that doesn’t apply to me, because I’m an owner. I’m a partner.” MP 27. See Evans, supra note 58: “If partners (as owners) don’t like a simple management decision (e.g. file management) they just disregard it, which defeats the goal of uniformity within a firm.”

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner59

for what he calls Level-5 leadership into two: humility and will.66

However, having certain character traits is by no means a guarantee for managerial success. The demands on a leader cannot be reduced to innate character traits but also include learnable and controllable behaviors, acquired knowledge and professional skills and training, actual interaction with other professionals and clients, and the perception of third parties. Different authors bring these requirements together and write simultaneously about ‘characteristics’, meaning some or all of the before-mentioned, whereby the focus lies on one or the other depending upon the author, while others reject certain requirements completely. According to Malik, for example, the basis of good management is explicitly not a combination of innate traits but rather the manager’s technical knowledge and skills and, therefore, learnable.67

For the purposes of this article, the requirements have been divided into four subgroups: Character traits; Skills; Track record (revenues, rankings, past positions, etc.); and Perception.

It is acknowledged that the boundaries between the individual categories are sometimes blurred and that the category ‘Perception’ in particular can contain the same factors as the other three when stated alternatively and thus infused with a different meaning. For example, person A would claim that a successful leader must be loyal (category ‘Character traits’; internal moment, reference to the leader), while person B describes that a successful leader must be perceived as loyal (category ‘Perception’; external moment, reference to the environment of the leader). Clear-cut subdivisions are also not always possible between the categories of character traits and abilities. In this article, for example, empathy is regarded as a character trait, even when formulated as a skill («A managing partner must be able to empathize with his employees»). In the following section, the findings from the management literature (excluding PSF) are summarized before they are compared with the findings from the PSF literature and the interview study.

I. Character Traits

The literature on trait theories contains a large number of different research approaches and findings. Patterns can be recognized, or individual characteristics can be identified to be repeatedly mentioned. These include the findings that good leaders are self-aware, know their own emotions and are able to recognize, understand and fathom them, as well as develop an awareness of how their behavior affects others and what influence they (can) exert on them.68 Further below, trust will be discussed as one of the most important foundations for effective leadership. However, in order to inspire trust in others, a person must trust him- or herself, which is why a healthy degree of self-confidence and satisfaction within the leadership team is widely seen as the basis for generating trust in others.69

However, self-confidence is not a guarantor of success. Leaders must be honest,70 have integrity, and possess a strong moral compass in order to build trust.71 Empathetic leaders who recognize and understand the emotions of others and act and treat others accordingly are portrayed in the literature as being extraordinarily successful.72 They should also exert self-control, constantly reflect upon their actions and never be impulsive.73 They should be courageous, dare to try new approaches or be the first to go down certain paths.74 Successful leaders are not afraid of making mistakes,75 know their limits,76 and are particularly open77 as well as enthusiastic, optimistic and positive.78 They are intrinsically motivated, and feel and show passion for their work, which is necessary in order to possess the willpower and energy to tackle and constantly pursue defined goals.79 In addition, good leaders should be humorous80 and dynamic.81 They must demonstrate stamina, resilience and grit82 – and

66 Collins, supra note 8, at 70-73. It must be mentioned here, however, that behind the striking duality of the properties ‘Humility’ and ‘Will’ are hidden further characteristics; in comparison, Mintzberg lists 38 properties, namely: courageous, committed, curious, confident, candid, reflective, insightful, open-minded/tolerant, innovative, communicative (incl. being a good listener), connected/informed, perceptive, thoughtful/intelligent/wise, analytic/objective, pragmatic, decisive (action-oriented), proactive, charismatic, passionate, inspiring, visionary, energetic/enthusiastic, upbeat/optimistic, ambitious, tenacious/persistent/zealous, collaborative/participative/cooperative, engaging, supportive/sympathetic/empathetic, stable, dependable, fair, accountable, ethical/honest, consistent, flexible, balanced, integrative, tall. Henry Mintzberg, Managing 197 (2011). Mintzberg points out that the factor ‘tall’ is not on any list, but that diverse studies have already shown that managers are taller on average than other people; this statement cannot be proven or rejected in the context of the present study – not even anecdotally – since the majority of the interviews took place via videoconferencing applications and were not asked about body height.

67 Malik, supra note 8, at 291.

68 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 59-60; Richard (2002), supra note 24, at 10; D. Goleman, What Makes A Leader?, 76 Harv. Bus. Rev. 93, 95 (1998); Bennis, supra note 34, at 162.

69 R. K. Sprenger, Vertrauen: Wichtiger als Strategie! [Trust: More Important Than Strategy!], in Leadership – Best Practices und Trends [Leadership – Best Practices and Trends] 77, 85 (Heike Bruch, et al. eds., 2006). See also D. A. Benton, Executive Charisma: Six Steps to Mastering the Art of Leadership 49 (2003).

70 Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 8, at 7; Mintzberg, supra note 66; Bennis, supra note 34, at 163.

71 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 10, 52; Donald J. Polden, Leadership Matters: Lawyers’ Leadership Skills and Competencies, 52 Santa Clara L. Rev. 899, 908 (2012); Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 8, at 8. See also Malik, supra note 8, at 293, 296; Benton, supra note 69, at 168.

72 Mintzberg, supra note 66; Goleman, supra note 68.

73 Benton, supra note 69, at 169; Goleman, supra note 68.

74 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 16; Mintzberg, supra note 66; Benton, supra note 69, at 13.

75 Bennis, supra note 70.

76 Jim Clifton & Jim Harter, It’s the Manager: Moving from Boss to Coach 26 (2019).

77 Mintzberg, supra note 66; H. H. Hinterhuber & M. Raich, Leadership als zentrale Kompetenz von und in Unternehmen [Leadership as a Central Competence of and in Companies], in Leadership – Best Practices und Trends [Leadership – Best Practices and Trends] 49, 52 (Heike Bruch, et al. eds., 2006).

78 Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 8, at 11.

79 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 286-287; Polden, supra note 71; Mintzberg, supra note 66; Malik, supra note 67, at 291-292; Goleman, supra note 68.

80 Benton, supra note 69, at 135.

81 Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 78.

82 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 188-190.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner60

still remain humble despite possessing all of these qualities.83

II. Skills

Some authors are convinced that character traits alone do not distinguish a good leader or manager. Malik, in particular, is of the opinion that the basis of good management is not certain innate character traits of a leader but his or her technical knowledge and skills.84 An important pillar of which is specific professional competence.85 Managers must be able to see the big picture within their business area,86 as well as being forward-looking87 and perceive opportunities that others are unable (or unwilling) to see.88

In addition to leadership skills, much of the literature also focuses on so-called ‘soft skills’, ‘social skills’ or ‘people skills’, including in particular the ability to communicate effectively,89 to formulate a clear vision or a change of direction (and to act accordingly)90 or to master the arts of asking the right questions and argumentation.91 Equally important is the ability to be able to listen actively92 and to have an affinity for establishing new relationships as well as managing these relationships and thus for so-called network building.93 In addition to building their own networks, managers must be able to prevent and proactively counteract silo-building within the organization by bringing together individuals and teams from different areas of the organization.94 In collaboration as well as in negotiations, it is of utmost importance that all parties agree on certain fundamental issues. Therefore, another part of the skill set of a successful manager is the ability to find or build consensus between all involved parties.95

As mentioned above, leaders must be able to create trust. However, trust can only be generated by those who trust others. Controlling behavior, micromanagement or distrustful observation have a negative effect on trust within an organization.96 However, blind trust is not the right approach, either. After all, critical thinking and thus the ability to question given facts, decision-making bases and prior decisions contribute to the success of a leader and thus the entire organization.97

Effective leaders are responsible for taking the initiative, even when there is inherent uncertainty.98 They must be able to take criticism, accept it and act accordingly,99 stand up straight,100 laugh and generally display a positive aura.101 Various authors state that managers must be able to inspire and enthuse102 as well as mobilize their employees.103 Malik, however, criticizes this view and objects that real leaders are not utopians and do not have to be inspiring people. They must be able to ‘convince’, which according to him, does not contain the same meaning as ‘inspire’.104

III. Track Record

In the mainstream leadership literature, there is hardly any mention of the need to have an impressive track record to prove (supposed) managerial effectiveness. In the consulted literature, only Kouzes & Posner look back and emphasize that past achievements can be a valuable indicator of the effectiveness of leaders.105

IV. Perception

After having discussed the characteristics successful leaders have and which skills they should master, this section dives into how leaders ought to be perceived. According to Sprenger, the most important prerequisite is that one is perceived as a trustworthy leader because, according to him, trust is the basis of all leadership.106 This is especially true as leaders enjoying the trust of their colleagues, employees, and thus of those they lead benefit from not being (or to a lesser extent) perceived as inconsistent when changing their opinion or correcting a course, and employees would be more willing to forgive a misstep.107 In addition, a trusting perception leads to more efficient decision-making processes and more innovation in an organization.108 Kouzes & Posner also mention that a leader’s perception is important, emphasizing credibility as the foundation of any successful leader and stating: «If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.»109

V. Preliminary Summary

The abundant literature on the requirements for successful managers and leaders focuses strongly on individual character traits and skills. Thereby, a strong future orientation is apparent, which is reflected by the track record of managers

83 Malik, supra note 8, at 293-294; Collins, supra note 66.

84 Malik, supra note 67.

85 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 205; Polden, supra note 71, at 907.

86 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 99; Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 8, at 10.

87 Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 86.

88 Hinterhuber & Raich, supra note 77, at 49.

89 Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 78; Mintzberg, supra note 66; Bennis, supra note 70.

90 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 86; Polden, supra note 71; Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 86, at 10-11; Bennis, supra note 34, at 162.

91 Hinterhuber & Raich, supra note 77, at 53; Benton, supra note 69, at 59.

92 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 202-203; Mintzberg, supra note 66; Malik, supra note 8, at 292.

93 Goleman, supra note 68; Benton, supra note 69, at 38; Bennis, supra note 70.

94 Clifton & Harter, supra note 76, at 24.

95 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 63.

96 Sprenger, supra note 69, at 83.

97 Clifton & Harter, supra note 76, at 26-27.

98 Bennis, supra note 70.

99 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 154.

100 Benton, supra note 69, at 89.

101 Id. at 102.

102 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 15; Deborah L. Rhode, Leadership Lessons, 83 Tenn. L. Rev. 713, 717 (2016); Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 78; Mintzberg, supra note 66; Hinterhuber & Raich, supra note 88.

103 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 416.

104 Malik, supra note 8, at 294-295.

105 Kouzes & Posner (2011), supra note 8, at 12. The lack of focus on past successes should be specifically highlighted at this point, as these are very important in the PSF and law firm context.

106 Sprenger, supra note 69, at 77. At this point, the difficulty of subdividing individual factors mentioned at the beginning becomes clear, since ‘trust’ has already been written about before.

107 Id. at 78. See also Bennis, supra note 70.

108 Kouzes & Posner (2017), supra note 8, at 199.

109 Id. at 40.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner61

being hardly mentioned.

PSF is not insignificantly different from industrial and other service companies, which were the basis of the majority of the survey results cited in the above findings. Moreover, law firms themselves occupy a special position within the group of PSF, which is why the findings of this section cannot fully be applied to managers in law firms. Therefore, the following sections will focus on the requirements for managing partners in PSF and law firms.

D. Literature Review: Requirements for Managing Partners in PSF and Law Firms

The particularities both of law firms and of lawyers have two consequences for the management of lawyers: First, because law firms function differently than manufacturing, industrial, or even other service organizations, and lawyers have a number of specific characteristics, they cannot be managed in the same way as employees of other organizations. And secondly, lawyers are often less suitable leaders because of their specific characteristics as well as their professional education and the nature of the legal profession. Additionally, only very few of them have experienced (formal) leadership or management training.

In this respect, Wolfgang Weiss states that the working ways of lawyers widely differ from those of managers. He claims that these differences are so serious that no learning-by-doing effect occurs during the tenure as a lawyer, which would prepare a future manager for their position. Find a few key differences in Table 1.110

Table 1: Differences between lawyers and managers111.

The question arises as to what happens to particularly successful lawyers. While, as has been shown in the course of the study, they are relatively often elected to the position of managing partner, it does not mean that outstanding lawyers are also great managers.112 Rhode describes this phenomenon as follows:

«(…) the disconnect between qualities that enable lawyers to achieve a leadership position and qualities that are necessary once they get there. What propels individuals toward leadership and makes them willing to accept the accompanying pressure, hours, and scrutiny? Often it is more than a commitment to a cause, an organization, or a constituency. It is also an attraction to power, status, admiration, and financial reward. Yet successful leadership requires subordinating self-interests to the greater good. The result is what is variously labeled the ‘leadership paradox’ or the ‘paradox of power.’ Individuals reach top positions because of their high needs for personal achievement. Yet to perform effectively, they need to focus on creating the conditions for achievement by others. If left unchecked, the self-confidence and self-centeredness that account for lawyers’ ability to secure leadership positions can sabotage their performance.»113

So what makes a good managing partner? The following sections provide information from the PSF literature on what is required of managing partners in order for them to be suitable for successfully managing a PSF or law firm. The requirements are divided into the same four categories that have already been applied above.

I. Character traits

In the literature, one characteristic is by far the most emphasized when speaking of a leader in the PSF environment: Humility, or that the position is not sought because of selfish motives such as power or influence.114 Additionally, precisely because, as mentioned above, professionals and especially lawyers are regularly not trained in management matters, successful managing partners must be curious and willing to learn115 and be adaptive116 in order to settle into their new (and completely different) role.

In addition, it is important that managing partners act with in-

110 W. Weiss, Warum gute Anwälte nicht immer gute Manager Sind [Why Good Lawyers Are Not Always Good Managers], in Management von Anwaltskanzleien [Law Firm Management: Successfully Running Law Firms] 924, 929-931 (Leo Staub & Christine Hehli Hidber eds., 2012). However, Weiss also points out that the knowledge of “being different” and consciously dealing with it has led to the fact that, on the one hand, many outstanding managers have a legal background and, on the other hand, that many law firms would be best managed by legal managers. Id. at 933.

111 Id. at 929.

112 See also Broderick, who points out that even the most successful lawyers are not necessarily good managers, since the two activities require entirely different skills and attributes. Broderick, supra note 28, at 64.

113 Deborah L. Rhode, What Lawyers Lack: Leadership, 9 U. St. Thomas L. J. 471, 476-477 (2011). See also Rhode (2016), supra note 102, at 714-715.

114 K. Kapoor, Everyday Leadership as a Practicing Lawyer, 69 Stan. L. Rev. 1813, 1818 (2017); Rhode (2016), supra note 102, at 715-716; Laura Empson, Reluctant Leaders and Autonomous Followers – Leadership Tactics in Professional Service Firms 27 (2nd ed. 2014); H. Bollmann, Es kommt drauf an! Bemerkungen zu Anwaltsunternehmen und zu dem, was Anwälte so alles unternehmen [It depends! Observations on Law Firms and What Lawyers Do] 286, 293, 308 (2013); Rhode (2011), supra note 113, at 480; David Maister, True Professionalism: The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career 66 (1997). Empson emphasizes, however, that it is not crucial that the position is not sought because of selfish motives, but only that the other partners believe that the success of the partnership is more important to the managing partner than their personal ambitions. Empson & Popham, supra note 1, at 28-29; Empson (2017), supra note 41, at 50.

115 J. D. Cotterman, What is Expected from a Partner? 5 (2019).

116 Id.; Kapoor, supra note 114, at 1814; Broderick, supra note 28.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner62

tegrity,117 and are honest118 – not only towards others but also with themselves. This means that they know and realize their weaknesses119 and continuously reflect upon their actions.120

Precisely because managing partners may sometimes feel as if they are «the only fire hydrant in a street full of dogs»,121 they must be able to handle criticism,122 be extremely patient123 and extraordinarily resilient.124 Despite all the criticism that managing partners have to endure, they should still be balanced125 and meet their team with a great deal of empathy at all times.126 It helps if managing partners are positive figures who are perceived as open,127 optimistic128 and humorous.129

Last but not least, managing partners need to be forward-thinking130 and pursue creative approaches131 – and remain predictable despite the before-mentioned.132

II. Skills

Lawyers are often not elected to a management position because of their management experience or any special training. It is therefore not surprising that the literature only occasionally assumes that incumbent or future managing partners complete management training or otherwise further their education in management matters.133 Nevertheless, it is striking that only one author mentions that managing partners need business acumen.134

The most often mentioned skill (and this is already the biggest difference to the skills of a manager of a non-PSF) was that managing partners must be able to skillfully maneuver groups of people, bring individuals together and build consensus between them.135 Empson emphasizes that awareness of political action and the ability to act accordingly are required.136 This includes an affinity for reading and anticipating interpersonal situations, influencing people, and having good networking skills.137

Two other significant points are leadership and communication skills.138 Thus, managing partners require, on the one hand, the willingness and ability to make difficult and serious decisions.139 On the other hand, they should be active listeners140 as well as good communicators.141 Linguistic skills are particularly important among lawyers since anyone quickly loses his or her respect among their often eloquent colleagues.142 This also means that managing partners ought to be able to convince their partners and other stakeholders to act with determination and assert themselves in the “shark tank” that is their organization.143

Managing partners must also be able to motivate and mobilize their partners and employees.144 This requires that they are able to inspire and excite them, which includes ensuring loyalty and ongoing commitment within and to the law firm.145 Being able to effectively act as a mediator in disputes and disagreements and thereby guarantee peace within a firm is therefore, another important requirement for managing partners.146

117 B. Heussen, Anwaltsunternehmen führen[Running Law Firms] 235 (2016); Bollmann, supra note 114, at 306; M. Heidbrink, Leadership in einer Anwaltskanzlei: Anspruch und Herausforderung [Leadership in a Law Firm: Demands and Challenges], in Management von Anwaltskanzleien [Law Firm Management: Successfully Running Law Firms] 448, 459 (Leo Staub & Christine Hehli Hidber eds., 2012).

118 McKenna, supra note 114; Bollmann, supra note 117, at 306-307.

119 Heussen, supra note 117.

120 Rhode (2016), supra note 102, at 716; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 293; Heidbrink, supra note 117.

121 See McKenna & Riskin, supra note 34, at 7; MP 23.

122 Rhode (2016), supra note 120; Heussen, supra note 117; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 295-296.

123 Broderick, supra note 28.

124 Tutschka, supra note 3, at 139; Broderick, supra note 28, at 293.

125 Heussen, supra note 117.

126 Bollmann, supra note 114, at 296; Maister (1997), supra note 114, at 71.

127 Kapoor, supra note 116; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 303; Heidbrink, supra note 117.

128 McKenna, supra note 114; Kapoor, supra note 116.

129 S. Rizor, Rolle und Aufgaben des Managing Partners einer Kanzlei [Role and Duties of the Managing Partner of a Law Firm], in Kanzleimanagement in der Praxis – Führung und Management für Kanzleien und Wirtschaftsprüfer [Law Firm Management in Practice: Leadership and Management for Law Firms and Auditors] 171, 193 (4th ed. 2019); Heussen, supra note 117. Rizor emphasizes, however, that the humor must never tip over into cynicism.

130 Heussen, supra note 117; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 307.

131 Maister (1997), supra note 114, at 69.

132 McKenna, supra note 114; Heidbrink, supra note 117.

133 Cotterman, supra note 115; Tutschka, supra note 3, at 138. See quote in Empson, supra note 41, at 145.

134 Bollmann, supra note 114, at 300. But see D. A. Bradlow & M. Silverman, Managing the Law Firm – Is Democracy Obsolete?, 15 Legal Econs. 29, 31 (1989); J. B. Aschenbrenner, Wie man Partner in einer Grosskanzlei wird: «Rainmaker ohne Sozialkompetenz will keiner mehr [How to Become a Partner in a Large Law Firm: “Nobody Wants a Rainmaker Without Social Skills Anymore”], Legal Trib. Online (Oct. 23, 2013), https://www.lto.de/persistent/a_id/9864.

135 See Laura Empson, Ambiguous Authority and Hidden Hierarchy: Collective Leadership in an Elite Professional Service Firm, 16 Leadership 62, 74 (2020); Rizor, supra note 129, at 178. See also Empson (2017), supra note 41, at 17; Empson, supra note 114; Laura Empson, Who’s in Charge? – Exploring Leadership Dynamics in Professional Service Firms4, 47 (1st ed. 2013); R. Büchi, Wege zur Professionalisierung des Kanzleimanagements [Ways to Professionalize Law Firm Management], in Management von Anwaltskanzleien [Law Firm Management: Successfully Running Law Firms] 513, 522 (Leo Staub & Christine Hehli Hidber eds., 2012); Broderick, supra note 28; Maister (2003), supra note 10, at 295.

136 Empson (2017), supra note 41, at 28; Empson (2014), supra note 114, at 27; Empson (2013), supra note 135, at 19, 47.

137 Empson (2017), supra note 136.

138 Büchi, supra note 135; Rhode (2011), supra note 113, at 473; Bradlow & Silverman, supra note 134, at 32.

139 Kapoor, supra note 116; Empson (2014), supra note 136; Empson (2013), supra note 135, at 47; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 294; Broderick, supra note 28.

140 Cotterman, supra note 115; Rizor, supra note 135; Empson (2013), supra note 139; Broderick, supra note 112.

141 Rizor, supra note 135; Kapoor, supra note 116; Bollmann, supra note 127; Laura Empson, Your Partnership – Surviving and Thriving in a Changing World: The Special Nature of Partnership, in Managing the Modern Law Firm – New Challenges, New Perspectives 10, 29 (2007).

142 Büchi, supra note 135.

143 Kapoor, supra note 114, at 1813; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 294, 303; Heidbrink, supra note 117; Broderick, supra note 28.

144 Empson (2020), supra note 135, at 83; Broderick, supra note 28; Maister (1997), supra note 114, at 68; Bradlow & Silverman, supra note 138.

145 Heussen, supra note 117; Empson (2014), supra note 136; Empson (2013), supra note 139; Heidbrink, supra note 117; Broderick, supra note 112; Maister (1997), supra note 144.

146 Broderick, supra note 28; Maister (2003), supra note 10, at 295; c. See L. Staub, Leadership in der Anwaltskanzlei – Einführung und Übersicht [Leadership in Law Firms – Introduction and Overview], in Management von Anwaltskanzleien [Law Firm Management: Successfully Running Law Firms] 405, 446 (Leo Staub & Christine Hehli Hidber eds., 2012).

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner63

Managing partners are also expected to be able to see the big picture147 and have the ability to formulate a vision for the rest of the partnership.148 On the one hand, they should have a clear direction in mind, however, not without remaining open to changes that will undoubtedly occur in any market due to the inherent uncertainties.149

III. Track Record

Two further differences between the requirements for managers in law firms and other companies are, on the one side, the need for professional competence in the legal landscape and, on the other side, the previous commercial success in applying this professional competence and the therefrom resulting (internal) reputation.

In a PSF, especially in a law firm, it is assumed that a manager understands the business, i.e., that they have the necessary professional competence with regard to the services that the firm offers on the market.150 In law firms, however, it is often not enough for a leader to merely possess the necessary expertise; they should be particularly recognized by their colleagues and be successful in their legal field as well as in dealing with clients.151 Managing partners, therefore, need to be commercially successful and, in a best case scenario, have built up a reputation as rainmakers152 – according to the principle that «those who prove they can ‘feed’ their colleagues are also deemed to be qualified to lead them.»153 Maister emphasizes, however, that the track record should not only be based on financial and economic successes but should take into account how often and to what extent a candidate has passed on responsibility, shared customers with other partners and helped third parties in the past – especially without having benefited directly from these actions.154 It is important to take into account previous experience and how candidates deal with younger lawyers or even newcomers to the profession: Did they provide feedback and also spur on the junior associates? Was their feedback helpful for the development of the junior associates?155

There are also some authors who point to the necessity or advantage of a certain seniority. Heussen, for example, emphasizes that a certain amount of life experience is required, without referring explicitly to management experience within the law firm,156 while Heidbrink is of the opinion that managing partners should have already passed through various stations in the law firm prior to their tenure as managing partner. This means that they should have gone through a variety of functions with different leadership responsibilities in order to gain the necessary experience for the position of managing partner.157

IV. Perception

Just as with the requirements for managers in other business enterprises, the most important requirement for managing partners is that their employees and especially their partners trust them.158 Because only those who enjoy the trust and respect of the other partners benefit from the natural authority necessary to run a law firm.159 Heussen elaborates that lawyers can only be led based on natural authority rather than hierarchy.160 Since commercial success in the legal market is of enormous importance, a professional services executive would do well to make it clear to the other partners that working on client matters is only reluctantly given up in favor of more management responsibilities – regardless of whether this is true or not.161

Managers in law firms must also be credible or at least be perceived as such because they act as role models within their firms.162 This includes, among other things, maintaining the appearance of being fair, accessible and pragmatic163 and showcasing at least as much (or more) commitment as the other partners and lawyers.164

V. Preliminary Summary

The business literature on successful managers evolves to a great extent around character traits. In contrast, there are hardly any authors who deal with the track record of managers, which is wildly different in the PSF environment, where track records play an enormously prominent role. Interestingly, however, it is not so much the track record as a leader that is sought after (although not completely negligible), but rather the previous success in the market. In the following, we will show to what extent the managing

147 Empson (2007), supra note 141.

148 Empson (2014), supra note 136; Empson (2013), supra note 139; Broderick, supra note 112.

149 Empson (2014), supra note 136; Empson (2013), supra note 139 \Empson (2007), supra note 141.

150 Tutschka, supra note 133; Büchi, supra note 135; Heidbrink, supra note 117; Broderick, supra note 112. See T. Podolski, Die Prügelknaben [The Whipping Boys], 11 JUVE-Rechtsmarkt [JUVE Legal Market] 32, 39-40 (2008); however, more and more voices of dissent are being raised in this regard. See A. E. Davis, et al., Governance Structures, in Risk Management in Law Firms – Strategies for Safeguarding the Future 19, 22 (2014). Davis is of the opinion that more attention should be paid to looking for suitable executives outside one’s own law firm. It should also be noted at this point that one managing partner interviewed joined a law firm laterally in order to fill precisely this position.

151 Empson (2014), supra note 136; Empson (2013), supra note 139; Empson (2007), supra note 141, at 28.

152 Rizor, supra note 129, at 178, 191; Büchi, supra note 135, at 513; Bradlow & Silverman, supra note 138; Empson (2014), supra note 114, at 43, 52. According to Empson, market success is considered to be the yardstick for internal reputation, according to which the other professionals are guided, as it is the only tangible measure of a professional’s real ‘ability.’ See Empson (2014), supra note 114, at 12. According to Empson, these people have already been able to hold their own in the market for a long time and very successfully, which is why they receive a great deal of respect from other professionals. The problem, however, is the economic success must be maintained even if less time is available for customer work due to the additional management responsibility. Id. at 13.

153 Empson (2017), supra note 41, at 44.

154 Maister (1997), supra note 114, at 66.

155 Id. at 67.

156 Heussen, supra note 117, at 235.

157 Broderick, supra note 112.

158 Rizor, supra note 129, at 179; McKenna, supra note 114; Heussen, supra note 156; Bollmann, supra note 114, at 291.

159 Rizor, supra note 158. See Cotterman, supra note 115.

160 Rizor, supra note 158.

161 Cotterman, supra note 115.

162 Bollmann, supra note 117, at 306-307.

163 Cotterman, supra note 115.

164 Büchi, supra note 135. Empson emphasizes that an important source of authority in a PSF, in addition to more subject matter expertise, can come from a person working more and harder than his or her peers. Empson & Popham, supra note 114.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner64

partners interviewed share these assessments.

E. Interview Study: Requirements for Law Firm Managing Partners

During the interviews, the managing partners were asked, among other things, what requirements they thought law firm managers had to meet in order to successfully fill their roles. In the following, the findings of this part of the interview study are presented according to the same system as in the preceding sections.

I. Character traits

No characteristic was mentioned as frequently by the managing partners interviewed as a prerequisite for their role as resilience. Two managing partners elaborate as follows:

«It is exhausting. You have to have a certain resilience and a certain frustration tolerance because it’s difficult to lead [x] partners.» – MP 28

«In any case, you have to have a certain resilience or thick-skinnedness, depending on which management term you prefer. You have to develop that over time. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy it for long.» – MP 23

This does not come as a surprise, as resilience has been mentioned repeatedly in both the classic leadership and the PSF literature. However, if the study by Richard is to be believed, lawyers are not particularly resilient, which makes the search for suitable candidates even more difficult.165

Two characteristics that are also remarkably prominent in the PSF literature are modesty and that managing partners visibly put the interests of the law firm before selfish motives. This view is also shared by the study participants. For example, one managing partner explains his position in the firm as follows:

«People know I’m not a… I’m just a normal partner, and I’ve been through all these stages. And I know what it’s like when you’re starting out or when you’re in the middle of it. And I try to lead in that sense, showing that I’m in no way better than the others.» – MP 25

Another managing partner elaborates on why it is especially important to put the law firm first:

«I think what distinguishes a particularly good managing partner is that he clearly puts the firm before himself as a person. Everyone else will notice that. So what’s really bad and what’s not appreciated at all, and I don’t think these managing partners last very long, is when the partners get the feeling that the managing partner is using his platform to distinguish himself. It ought to be a position where you represent the firm, where you appear to the outside world a lot. And I think it’s always very, very important that you’re showing quite clearly that you’re performing a function that is in the interest of the firm rather than to market yourself or your practice.» – MP 3

Also mentioned with some frequency was that managing partners should be empathic. While empathy is given enormous weight in the leadership literature, it was mentioned far less often in the discussion of PSF, which represents a clear discrepancy with the statements of the managing partners interviewed, who see empathy as an essential factor. Other characteristics of good managing partners, according to the interview study, are that they enjoy their management roles and like working with people, which is underlined by the following statement:

«Yes, I enjoy it. I mean, you have to have a knack for it and enjoy it to some extent. You asked me at the very beginning if I had any formal management training. No, of course, I haven’t. But nevertheless, it’s fun to do something non-legal. And that’s ultimately the motivation behind it. Because you get much more involved within the firm, in all the relationships.» – MP 24

However, they should never enjoy it too much. This goes with the statement that managing partners are supposed to be reluctant to accept the position166 or at least give the impression that they are reluctant to give up client work. A managing partner states:

«We once made the mistake of choosing a managing partner who really liked doing the whole thing. And we quickly discovered that he did far too much managing, sort of overmanaging.» – MP 13

Mentioned less often than these rather soft traits were character traits such as determination,167 willingness to implement ideas and changes,168 steadiness169 or risk tolerance.170

II. Skills

Precisely because managing lawyers is a challenging exercise, due not only to their personality structure but also to the unique governance of law firms, one of the main tasks of all managing partners is to find a consensual solution on all important issues or to proactively seek and build such consensus. Building consensus requires particularly good communication skills. managing partners must carefully listen to their fellow partners, hear them out, involve them in the process and convince them of a consensual solution. One managing partner describes this in the following words:

«So communication is the key. You have to be a good communicator. You need to have a certain empathy. Before I came along, we had a very dominant managing partner, (…) who led in a more commanding tone. We somehow got certain fatigue and decided that we’d rather have someone who empowers and involves people in the decision-making

165 As mentioned earlier, Hartung & Ziercke come to a different conclusion. According to their study, lawyers have much more ‘grit’ and are much more resilient than observed by Richard. Hartung & Ziercke (2019), supra note 42.

166 Law Firm Consultant B.

167 «I am not afraid to make decisions that my partners will not like.» – MP 14.

168 «(…) I also have the will to do what I think is right.» – MP 27.

169 «But simply standing by one’s opinion and not waving it back and forth like a flag in the wind is very, very crucial for credibility.» – MP 2; However, and this has also been mentioned repeatedly, this is by no means to say that a managing partner does not have to be open to other opinions and is willing to change her or his mind if the other argument is better.

170 «(…), who brings with him a certain courage for renewal and who is also prepared to leave well-trodden paths.» – MP 30.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner65

process, someone who doesn’t punish but rather inspires. And I think I can do that. I actually think I can do that quite well.» – MP 20

In addition, it was mentioned (here, the findings of this study differ from the literature cited in the previous section) that managing partners in law firms should have management skills or «have certain qualities that distinguish one not only as a lawyer but also as a manager.»171 Or, as one managing partner admitted:

«It would make a lot of sense that companies of the size of our firm would be run by people who have learned how to actually run a company.» – MP 28

However, when asked how these qualities can be signaled to other partners, one managing partner explains:

«So, of course, I could run around waving with my management degree. I think hardly any of my partners know that I actually have a degree [in business management]. (…) I think that leadership abilities are just something you transmit over time through personal interaction. Over time people will realize whether you are someone who puts forward future-oriented ideas and who can execute and implement them – in a socially acceptable way.» – MP 1

Managing partners are also required to be capable of making tough and fast decisions. This is in contrast to lawyers in general, who tend to argue and develop arguments for various contingencies, but shy away from making decisions. A managing partner states the following:

«(…) if you manage to implement the decisions made, then and only then, management is successful. In general, it’s a weakness of lawyers to distinguish between advisory work and management. The high standard in advisory work, the fear of making wrong decisions, and having to commit oneself to a certain idea leads to hesitant behavior in management decisions. If you are not capable of making decisions that you stand by, there is really no place for you on the management board.» – MP 2

Anyone who fills a management position in a law firm should not only enjoy working with people but also have a good knowledge of human nature. They must be able to motivate others and be able to resolve arising conflicts diplomatically. It was further mentioned that managing partners must not be too detail-oriented but rather see the big picture and, at best, have a “certain radar”172 that allows them to successfully navigate the law firm in the ever-changing legal market.

III. Track Record

Unlike in other industries, in law firms, it is a prerequisite in most jurisdictions that the managing partner is admitted to the bar. The mere possession of a license to practice law, however, is usually not sufficient for someone to be elected as managing partner. The interview study confirms the findings from the PSF literature that managing partners must be ‘successful’, whereby success refers to commercial success, revenues and acquisition strength. Two managing partners put it as follows:

«(…) Usually, partners like to put someone in this position which is also very successful in other ways because they say that someone who is successful with clients may be doing a lot of things right and not all too many things wrong.» – MP 15

«They will not be able to convince the other partners. If the managing partner is not strong in client acquisition or does not produce high revenues himself, he will not be able to tell the others what they have to do in order to be successful.» – MP 28

However, opinions differ on the question of how successful managing partners must have been in the market. One managing partner is of the opinion that someone in his position should be one of the most successful partners within the law firm or, at best, in the market. He states this as follows:

«And if you want to lead in a multi-stakeholder organization, (…) you always have to be among the top 3 in all official and unofficial rankings in a law firm or in the law firm market. That’s a Darwinian statement, but I guess it’s true. (…) [His successor] has understood the system that one cannot lead well without having a certain economic weight. I mean, it can work. But you’d end up being an administrator, a mere caretaker. The employees would quickly refer to you as a “fair-weather pilot.”« – MP 16

However, the majority of the managing partners interviewed consider the hurdle to be somewhat lower and say that a Manager Partner must be only relatively successful, i.e., have a comparatively strong performance and not generate below-average revenues. A managing partner describes this in the following words:

«It is important to set a good example. This certainly applies to other areas as well. But it helps if you are commercially successful because it gives you more acceptance within the partnership.» – MP 6

Another managing partner emphasizes that high revenues not only lead to credibility and acceptance but also fulfill a completely different but important function: commercially successful partners who achieve a sufficiently high turnover (even with a reduced workload due to the management function) have the advantage of remaining independent. He elaborates:

«You have to be sure that you can survive with your practice if the others make you too angry. This is very important in order to remain independent and to be able to do this job in an independent fashion.» – MP 17

However, although a very large proportion of them, not all of the interviewed managing partners rated commercial success as a decisive factor. In addition to quantifiable success in terms of revenue, the qualitative component, namely a track record in legal excellence, was repeatedly mentioned as a feat that managing partners should have in order to be successful in their position.

Some managing partners emphasized that in their law firms, they want managing partners to have been part of various committees before or have been in charge of other management assignments. He argues:

171 MP 1.

172 MP 21.

Buschor, What it takes to become a Law Firm Managing Partner66

«It’s important to showcase success by having a team that you’ve successfully led over a certain period of time. And lifted other people up during that period. I think that’s the essential factor.» – MP 1

In certain law firms, other factors include some that cannot be influenced by potential candidates themselves or at least cannot be accelerated. It was mentioned, for example, that successors are regularly sought after within a certain age group or who have been in the partnership for a long time (however, opinions differed widely on this point). Additionally, especially in the case of law firms with many offices or those with several managing partners, other factors such as gender, office affiliation, or legal specialization of a partner play a role in their selection for management.

IV. Perception

As described above, the most important resource of a leader, both in PSF as well as in other companies, is that they enjoy the trust of their employees and colleagues. Not surprisingly, the managing partners interviewed also frequently emphasized that the trust of their partners is an important prerequisite for leadership. While often cannot be defined what this trust refers to exactly, several managing partners noted that partners must be able to trust that their managing partners will put the interests of the law firm before their own.173 One managing partner summarizes these points as follows:

«I believe that a managing partner gets his or her authority because of the trust that he or she has built up over time. So it’s about two things: First, you need to be trusted that you always put the interests of the firm before your own interests or the interests of a specific partner. And that you always have a vision for the firm and not pursue your own selfish interests. I think that’s the reason why some partners get elected as managing partners. If you have that trust, people will listen to you and respect your ideas. That’s not to say they’ll always agree with you, but they’ll respect your ideas, and they’ll know where the ideas are coming from and what your interests are. And if they know that you don’t have ulterior motives and that you allow for preferential treatment of certain partners, it’s much easier to convince the entire partnership.» – MP 10

The word ‘acceptance’ was also frequently mentioned by the interviewed managing partners, i.e., that managing partners have to be accepted by the other partners, especially since, unlike the CEOs of industrial companies, they have little or no formal hierarchical authority. An excerpt from an interview exemplifies the role of acceptance:

«(…) They’re all prima donnas here. To keep your people happy, to make sure they all march in the same direction and to have something like a corporate culture or a spirit… It is hard to envision all that. But it’s quite a lot of work, keeping everybody together.»

«To build on your point. How do you achieve that?»

«You cannot learn that. It’s a question of your personality and the acceptance by your partners. It’s not something you can learn from textbooks or achieve by introducing ordinances… Either people trust you and follow you, or they don’t.» – MP 31

One interviewee also confirmed the statement that managing partners should at least appear to be reluctant to give up client work in favor of more management tasks or not to push too hard for more management responsibilities174 with the following statement:

«Pushing yourself into such a position, so to say, that would – in our firm anyway – be questioned a bit. Why would you do that? What is your agenda?» – MP 23

The interviews also revealed that some managing partners felt that one of the reasons they were successful in their positions was because the partnership recognized their management skills or ability to implement decisions and were convinced that they were better at it than the others. Another group emphasized that they were not polarizing compared to other candidates or were seen as having a particularly strong sense of integrity, fairness, and/or reliability.

F. Conclusion

It became evident that the requirements for managing partners in law firms are not identical to the requirements for managers in other industries. On the one hand, this is due to the specialties of law firms, and on the other hand, because of the managed individuals – the lawyers – themselves. The interview study confirmed the extraordinary importance of the characteristics ‘trust’ and ‘humility’, which are frequently mentioned in the classical business literature as well as in the PSF literature. The interview study also confirmed the assumption often repeated in the PSF literature that managing partners of law firms should have been or be successful lawyers – a characteristic that, according to the literature, on managers in other business areas, plays only a minor role. Even though not every interviewee shared this view and there are good reasons not to elect particularly successful partners to management positions, a majority of the interviewees were of the opinion that economic and/or professional success is required to manage a law firm.

As was said at the outset of this article, management and leadership in law firms have not been given a large share of the attention in neither the legal nor the business side of academia. However, with law being an ever-growing branch of the world’s economy and law firms becoming bigger and more sophisticated businesses, this article intended to shed light on an underdeveloped field of research that aims to both incentivize more management research within the legal sector as well as helping law firms to reflect on their leadership structures, the processes in place to select, train and replace leaders and make lawyers realize what it means and takes to be a manager in a law firm.

173 See above, where it was shown that for many managing partners, modesty and putting the law firm first are among the most important qualities. As also described above, Empson believes that it is especially important that the other partners believe that the law firm’s interests are put before their own. See Empson (2017), supra note 41, at 50. Here this point is reinforced.

174 Id. at 53.