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Sure, there are plenty of perks that go along with being managing partner — fancy office, impressive title, good parking spot — not to mention the opportunity to run an organization of hundreds, or even thousands, of extremely smart, sophisticated people. But the position has its drawbacks as well. Legal Times Special Reports Editor Jenna Greene asked nine leaders of D.C.’s largest firms what aspect of their job they find the most challenging.
Richard Wiley Managing partner, Wiley Rein & Fielding The most challenging, but also the most rewarding, aspect of my job is managing our firm while also engaging in the active practice of law. Essentially, it amounts to two full-time positions. Thus, you have to be willing to put in the hours and also be pretty disciplined. But, in truth, I have enjoyed it. From a practice standpoint, what has made it possible over the years is the tremendous support of my professional colleagues — many of whom have practiced with me for a long time and nicely complement my own strengths and weaknesses. And the administration of our firm has always been a shared activity, with other partners (especially Bert Rein, Fred Fielding, and Tom Brunner) taking very active roles. We also employ practice management so that leaders of various specialties are heavily engaged in guiding the course of their own areas. Finally, and importantly, the firm and I have been benefited by the able services of a veteran staff. Led by Executive Director Barry Strauss, most of our senior team have been with us almost from the beginning two decades ago. For me, it has been a satisfying (if also demanding) ride. And, consistent with continuing good health and the confidence of my partners, I have no plans to change my regimen anytime soon.
William Perlstein Chairman, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering As in all organizations, the tone set by the leadership of the firm influences the actions and behavior of all who work here. One of the most surprising aspects of serving as a firm leader is that how you personally react to the daily challenges of the job is carefully watched by everyone at the firm — staff, lawyers, partners. It is true that, in some important respect, every lawyer and every staff person is a representative of the firm to our clients and others outside the firm. But when you are in the position of leading the firm, everything that you do — how you react to stress, how you deal with a crisis, your choice of words, your interactions with all who work at or interact with the firm — is always under scrutiny. The excuse that you are having a bad day is simply not acceptable; it goes with the job that you are always “on” and are expected to act in a manner that reflects your position. Those of us who have spent our careers leading successful practices are certainly used to the responsibilities of leadership. But nothing in practice really prepares you for the responsibility for leading — in everything that you do — an organization the size of our major law firms, and to do so each and every day.
Christopher Foley Managing partner, Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner Finnegan, Henderson was established nearly 40 years ago on the principle that the partnership is a family and everyone has a voice. In this egalitarian environment, the managing partner must ensure that each partner has had an opportunity to be heard, particularly on major issues. With 100 partners and more than 300 attorneys, open and frequent lines of communication are essential. While we have a protocol for presenting certain decisions to the partnership through our management committee, often I must get the pulse of the partners on a great many issues, large and small. These days, I find that e-mail is overused, the phone is OK, videoconferences provide a nice alternative, but face-to-face meetings have no peer. One visit, even to a partner next door, is worth 10 phone calls. It provides me with a firsthand opportunity to relate to my partners and adds to the credibility given to the management decisions I must make. But with five U.S. offices and three overseas, personal visits just cannot take place for every decision we face. Nevertheless, I try to stay in touch with our partners so that they hear about important issues directly from me.
J. Warren Gorrell Jr. Chairman, Hogan & Hartson The biggest challenge of my job is balancing the needs of the firm with the demands of my practice. When I agreed to become the firm’s chairman in 2001, I actually insisted on being able to do both, so it’s not something that is forced on me by my partners. While it certainly would be easier if I were a full-time manager, losing the excitement of the deals, my relationships with clients, and helping develop our group’s business would be hard for me, personally and professionally. But perhaps more importantly, I believe I can be more effective as a leader of a firm of highly capable and accomplished partners like ours if I, too, am a successful practitioner. I understand the pressures and conditions of the practice as they are evolving and have the opportunity to demonstrate in my own practice those qualities that I believe help make us a leading global firm — doing the highest quality work, being a good team player, and setting high standards for integrity, professionalism, and client service. Both firm matters and client matters have to be the highest priority, and balancing them well is often a challenge that can require an extraordinary amount of time. In the end, though, I couldn’t be successful at managing the firm or my practice if I didn’t have strong people working with me as a team on firm management and on client service, and people who I enjoy being around — I’m very fortunate to have both.
R. Bruce McLean Chairman, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld The greatest challenge of leading a thousand-lawyer, multi-office firm is time management. Law firm leaders are expected to fulfill the responsibilities of a corporate CEO in a partnership environment which, by its nature, requires persuasion and consensus building, not the command and control style of our corporate counterparts. Effective leadership therefore requires constant and effective communication throughout the enterprise, a responsibility that cannot be met effectively through mass electronic communication. We have ultimate responsibility for financial performance, and we oversee the resources supporting the lawyers including technology, marketing, recruiting, and human resources. We have the responsibility to develop the short- and long-term business strategy for our firms, and we play an important role in the promotion and compensation of our lawyers and senior staff. In a law partnership it is imperative that the chairman or the managing partner be accessible to deal personally with the problems, issues, and ideas of individual partners. Moreover, there are daily unforeseen problems like client conflicts that must be dealt with. This is all done while trying to keep a hand in the relationship with the firm’s clients even if the role is limited to tending to relationships. Every day presents new challenges and requires resetting the priorities. There just isn’t enough time to do everything, and the “to do” list never gets any smaller. The trick is to control your schedule and not have it control you, a trick that I have still not perfected and likely never will.
John Macleod Chairman, Crowell & Moring We have a very strong and positive culture at Crowell & Moring. This is the result of deliberate choices that we make in the type of people we add to the firm, as well as the fact that our institutional goals are not limited to the pursuit of money. We do recognize, however, that we must be attentive to market realities if we are to keep what we have and cherish. We must maintain our profitability at competitive levels if we are to protect our best people and attract star quality lawyers who share our values. I would say our biggest challenge lies in finding the balance between the firm we want to be and the firm the market will let us be, and in leading the change necessary to achieve that balance. To me personally, that means having to make — and implement — the tough-minded business decisions that the “market” part of the equation requires when long-time friends and partners are involved. The giving of “messages,” through compensation or otherwise, to partners whose performance is down more than temporarily is an absolutely necessary part of my job, but one in which I take no pleasure. The human costs imposed by the financial transparency of large firms in today’s world are difficult in our culture, but refusing to make the changes we must to remain strong is not an option if our people are to have a place to come to work tomorrow and next week and next year. The challenge is to be as humane and as honest as we can, and constantly to seek the right balance.
William Charyk Managing partner, Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn The challenges of the position of managing partner vary with the events of the day. However, a theme common to many of the more difficult situations is the need to effectively blend the often highly personalized business development energies of the individual partners with the entity-level strategies and priorities which the firm has fashioned as part of its strategic direction. Successful growth will necessarily involve difficult decisions as to the optimal application of firm resources. Having to choose between competing client representation opportunities where each possibility represents the culmination of significant efforts on the part of one or more partners. Having to decide which particular initiative will be funded when all have been energetically proposed. Having to convince a talented partner that his or her best contributions will be made in servicing the needs of existing clients rather than prospecting for new representations for which he or she will have the primary relationship. These are the biggest challenges — developing buy-in to initiatives which are good for the entity as a whole but temporarily frustrating to the entrepreneurial energies of some individuals.
Michael Nannes Managing partner, Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky I can best describe my most difficult challenge as managing partner by analogizing my role to that of an orchestra conductor: I am ultimately responsible for the product the orchestra produces even though I am not playing an instrument. And while firm performance is certainly dependent upon the talents of individuals, it is even more dependent upon the successful coordination of those talents into a harmonius and unified end product. The legal landscape is changing so rapidly that orchestration has become, and will continue to be, ever more difficult. Senior attorneys grew up in an environment where most young associates aspired to become partner; today, associates are seeking very different things than their seniors, including mentoring and various quality of life benefits, and they tell suveyors that they expect they will change jobs frequently over the course of their careers. No longer do firms compete for business just by saying “we are better”; we compete by contributing to the development of products, ideas, and approaches to solving problems. Success depends not only on the quality of legal analysis, but also upon nontraditional skills that can be brought to bear upon problem resolution — information management and retrieval, business acumen, expertise in technology. A firm’s diversity, and its core values, matter to clients in ways that were not even considered just a few years ago. The challenge is to anticipate those changes, embrace them, master them, make them our ally, and, ultimately, produce a beautiful piece of music.
Barry Direnfeld Managing partner, Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman While we realize that it is not always the case that a managing partner maintains a significant practice along with the responsibility of managing a successful firm, such is the case at Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman. The challenges posed by these dual responsibilities are great and often involve a delicate balancing act. Allocation of time and establishing the right priorities between meeting the demands of my clients, heading the government affairs practice group, and providing the management leadership for the law firm is a daily challenge. Undoubtedly, there are times when there is slippage, as when client demands and management responsibilities peak simultaneously, requiring inevitable adjustments in firm management priorities. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoy both roles and in spite of the challenge, look forward each day to carrying out these responsibilities.

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