Law Firm Management

The Worst People to Run Law Firms are Lawyers

I was the managing partner of a law firm once. I came to the job with little aptitude for management and even less experience and training. Of course, I was qualified to be the managing partner because I had high personal billings and a whole whack of originating credits. 

My most brilliant management decision was to hire people with actual business qualifications to run the business while the partners did what they were good at, which was practicing law.  Of course, I sometimes had to fight a rear-guard action against partners with lots of ambition and zero relevant experience, many of whom thought that they knew better than the professionals.  

I believe that the secret to managing a law firm successfully is to keep the lawyers out of it, except where professional standards, expertise, and ethics are concerned.

But lawyers are required by law to be the owners of law firms in most of the world. And owners of businesses tend to want control over their investments. So that means that no matter how stupid an idea it is to have lawyers run law firms, someone who is a member of the Law Society has to be put in charge. And that is where the problems begin, because very often lawyers don’t have much financial or business background, or even much aptitude for learning what they need to know about those things. Humility and leadership skills tend to also be in short supply. And they are busy practicing law with its many deadlines and stresses. Management can wait.

Now of course I am generalizing. Some lawyers are more suited to the role than others, although as in every process which is essentially political, having the requisite skills to govern is rarely a reliable indicator of success in the selection process.

Here is where I will climb out on a limb to suggest that some categories of lawyers may be better suited to management roles than others. 

My first draft of this article came to a pretty direct conclusion on this point, but my wife (who is my editor) suggested that I tone it down a bit. She said something about how as much as I like to think of retirement as a free pass to say whatever is on my mind, I might want to be a bit more careful this time.  So here goes Murray trying subtlety for a change.

Business lawyers are deal makers. They are used to listening to the divergent views of stakeholders and trying to bring them together to implement a common strategy. They know something about financial statements and business structures.

On the other hand, litigators are often by nature competitive and winning is important to them. To be successful they need to have well-developed egos. Often, they are not that good at toning down their ego when it comes to dealing with their partners or doing the so-called “soft stuff” when it comes to their employees.

My editor says that I should stop here and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions. Suffice to say that firms should move beyond the criteria that was used when I was selected as managing partner.

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *