Selecting Your Next Firm Leader

Every law firm eventually finds itself in need of a new leader. The Executive Committee or Board must seek to replace the current Executive Chair or Managing Partner as that individual comes to the end of a fixed term of office, announces a return to their practice, or perhaps is contemplating retirement. Even more pressing are those, hopefully rare occasions, where your firm leader has become unable to fulfill the obligations of the position and someone has temporarily stepped in to handle the reins until an alternate can be chosen.

In some instances, a successor may have already been groomed and can immediately step into the position. My research with the AmLaw Top 200 firms indicates that only about 17% may be in the enviable position of having an incumbent Managing Partner having picked and nurtured that lawyer that will follow them in the position. The remaining 83% either claim to be working on developing a succession plan or in the vast majority of these firms, have no precedent whatsoever for how they will approach this critical selection process.

Almost by definition, managing partner selection is a highly charged, zero-sum game; there can be only one winner. Various groups and partners may have vested interests in the outcome, with some having a personal interest in whether they will have any ability to influence a new firm leader. If this selection process is managed well, the new Managing Partner will benefit with strong support from multiple constituencies. If managed poorly, internal politics will leave the new Managing Partner trying to align various factions within the firm.

Law firm Executive Committees and Boards are often unprepared for the challenge and time consuming nature of planning and executing the managing partner selection process. Which is probably no surprising given that they only get to do it about once every decade. Nevertheless, there are huge consequences, every partner is watching closely, and the process is intensely personal.

So, how do you manage this selection process?

I have had some experience in working with Selection Committees to help the group facilitate the process of selecting a new firm leader. To that end, I have developed:

(1) a "Managing Partner Responsibilities and Essential Functions" outline comprised of over 50 tasks that needs to be reviewed by the Selection Committee in order to develop a clear and comprehensive job description;

(2) an "Evaluation" questionnaire for the Selection Committee members to very specifically identify the background (prior experience), skill mix, authority, and their expectations of the ideal candidate;

(3) a listing of 51 performance traits (covering management, leadership, decision-making, problem solving, interpersonal skills, and personal attributes) from which the Committee members might identify those that they feel most important to being an effective Managing partner;

(4) a draft application form - to symbolize to the partnership that this is an important job that the firm is looking to fill;

(5) a comprehensive interview guide, containing some 68 sample interview questions, together with a specific and disciplined process for interviewing each candidate; and

(6) a worksheet and evaluation template for the Selection Committee to use in their final deliberations and recommendations - depending on whether the Committee makes the final selection, whether it goes to a partnership vote, or some other variation.

I have further had experience working with the outgoing and incoming managing partners to ensure a smooth transition - and am currently conducting an ongoing series of hands-on Master Classes for brand new managing partners.

If as this unfolds within your firm, you believe the lawyers comprising your Selection Committee might benefit from a brief conference call, may I invite you to suggest my availability. I would be pleased to talk to them without any charge or obligation.



"Patrick McKenna is that same consultant used eight years ago.  He must be good because he helped design and execute a process that brought us Marko and eight excellent years of growth and success.  Littler is now on the launching pad to move from being a “great” law firm to becoming a “transformational” 21st century legal solution provider worldwide!"

• Garry G. Mathiason, Chairman – Littler Mendelson

“Thought you might appreciate some feed back from one of the candidates concerning the interviews on Monday.  I thought the interview format was excellent.  As a candidate, the format gave me confidence that the questions and manner of interview would be as uniform as possible between each of the candidate interviews.  It put in place a real sense of fairness in the process.

I also thought that having the questions asked by you was an excellent idea as it allowed members of the committee to listen and absorb information without having to think about what they might have to do during the process, such as thinking of questions to ask next, etc.  I think it allowed them to reflect on what was being said, especially with your style of encouraging deeper answers.

Finally, there was your role and performance.  One word describes it -- excellent.  I have never been questioned by anyone like you with your style, and I have been in many private and public situations in which I have received everything from kind to angry questions and questioning.  You were unique in my experience.  You asked for the most part tough, challenging and thought provoking questions.  You did so in a very pleasant, but subtly demanding way.  What I mean by that is as you asked the question and responded to the answer, you did so in a pleasant, friendly, and encouraging way, but, ever so respectfully and encouragingly, probed for a deeper answer if you thought the answer was incomplete or the question had not otherwise been as fully addressed as it could have been.  Paraphrasing, "That's a great answer, that's a really good answer, its really thoughtful, but could you go into a little more detail about how you think . . ."  As the interview progressed, I was not only challenged, but came to enjoy that challenge and the exchange.

In short, I think you did an excellent job for the firm on Monday and have added much to this process.  In following up with those in the interview to learn if anything I said led to any additional questions, every person I talked to felt Monday was a good day for the firm and that you had done a great job in facilitating the interviews.  Not withstanding how the process finally ends for me, I thought you should and would like to know my impressions.”

Candidate for Firm Leader

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