Constant travel is just one of the demands placing strain on many law firm leaders. (Photo: dutchpilot22 – Fotolia)

Monday’s announcement that Baker McKenzie global chairman Paul Rawlinson is temporarily stepping down to combat exhaustion was an eye-opener.

Rawlinson is far from alone among law firm leaders in grappling with a role that has only grown more demanding over the last decade. But his move to step back from day-to-day responsibilities casts what some see as a welcome spotlight on these pressures.

“The reaction to this news—both within the firm and from clients and colleagues outside it—has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive,” a spokesperson for Baker McKenzie said. “Paul has received hundreds of messages of support from across the firm, clients and other stakeholders.”

With responsibilities spanning 78 offices and nearly 5,000 lawyers around the globe, Rawlinson’s case might be extreme. Other highly placed figures in the firm estimated that he had visited more than half of Baker McKenzie’s outposts, which span six continents, in the last two years.

“I applaud him for taking the time off and for acknowledging the reason why he’s taking the time off,” said attorney and mental health advocate Patrick Krill. “It’s not surprising, given the demands of a role like that, that somebody’s well-being could be compromised.”

Others can relate to the feeling that they’re always on the go. Womble Dickinson Bond chair and CEO Betty Temple is responsible for 1,000 lawyers from Los Angeles to London.

“Simply communicating with that many people over that big of an area will always be a challenge. We use videoconferencing and other technology to make communicating as simple as possible, but it will never be as easy as if we were in one location and I could just walk down the hall when I needed to talk to someone,” Temple said.

She believes it’s important to see both team members and clients in person, and that means travel, and lots of it.

“I love getting out and meeting with the people vital to Womble Bond Dickinson, but sometimes, I feel like I’m living out of a suitcase,” Temple adds.

Adam Smith Esq. president Bruce MacEwen said he once asked a managing partner of another global firm where he considered his headquarters. The answer: American Airlines.

In addition to grueling schedules that pull them away from family and friends, firm leaders also have to worry about the increasingly destabilizing impacts of Big Law’s free agent era. As the economics of the most successful firms pull away from the rest, today’s managing partners are more worried than ever about the threat of a high-performing group being lured to leave for a higher-performing firm.

Through the middle of October, Am Law 100 lateral moves were on pace to top 2,000 for the first time since ALM Intelligence began tracking partner departures in 2011. The previous high, 1,851, was set in 2015.

Even as the velocity of lateral hiring has ramped up, the threat of high-earners being lured by a competitor has grown. That’s because top-performing firms like Kirkland & Ellis have, over the past five years, outperformed the broader Am Law 100’s growth in profits per equity partner.

Kirkland’s PPP, for instance grew 44 percent from fiscal 2012 to 2017 while the Am Law 100 average grew at about half that rate—22 percent. Last year, Kirkland’s profits per partner, $4.7 million in 2017, were two-and-a-half times greater than the average Am Law 100 firm, up from about 2.1 times greater in 2012.

“If [Kirkland chairman] Jeff Hammes woke up on the wrong side of the bed and wanted to really mess up your firm—maybe even put it out of business—he could do that,” said Kent Zimmermann, a consultant to law firm managing partners at the Zeughauser Group. “And that’s a different dynamic that is starting to emerge in legal and it’s a whole new level of pressure for people running today’s law firms.”

On top of that, add smarter in-house departments, and new competition from alternative legal service providers like Axiom and UnitedLex as well as the Big Four. “That’s terra incognita for law firms,” MacEwen said.

Leaders also have to square these external pressures with internal tensions within their firms. Marcie Borgal Shunk, president and founder of the Tilt Institute, identifies divisions between people who are driving for change and people who think everything is fine, those between profitable and unprofitable lawyers, and the generation gap, where millennials have dramatically different expectations for the workplace than their elders. Political fault lines have also opened within law firms.

“How do you lead transformation in the midst of all of this?” she wondered.

Furthermore, technology ensures that there’s no escape from these stresses.

“You are connected all the time,” said Morgan, Lewis & Bockius chair Jami Wintz McKeon. “And if you’re running a global law firm with offices all over the world, there is literally no minute in the day where there’s not at least one office open.”


Given these new realities, firms need mechanisms in place to protect the well-being of those at the top, Krill said.

“If you just think generally about somebody who might get to the point of exhaustion and burnout from being completely over worked, their decision-making and mental health can be compromised,” he said, likening firm leaders to football quarterbacks. ”They need additional support. Their health and well-being have a significant impact on the health of the enterprise.”

One approach that can work is delegation, and having an infrastructure in place where leaders aren’t responsible for decisions on which they don’t need to have a say. That can involve putting greater trust in business professionals, and trusting them to handle a greater proportion of the firm’s operations. That leaves the chair and other lawyer leaders more time for determining strategy and molding the firm’s culture.

“They can focus on bringing people together, compared to managing the nuances of what our new brand identity is going to look like,” Borgal Shunk said.

Even then, a focus on uniting attorneys and communicating with clients can be a heavy burden.

“This is the curse of a consensus-driven, not a top-down, command-and-control organization. There’s no substitute for seeing the managing partner. A lot of clients feel that way and a lot of partners feel that way,” MacEwen says. “You can try to do all the usual things—video, virtual town halls, things like that. But at some point, it’s a contact sport. You’ve got to get out there.”

Some firms look to split the load. Mark Kelly, chairman of Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, shares top management responsibilities with managing partner Scott Wulfe, an arrangement that Kelly says takes pressure off both of them and allows each to maintain their practices.

He said he and Wulfe are in regular communication each day—they both work in the firm’s Houston office—which allows each of them to maintain their law practices while also running the firm. Kelly said he tends to handle more external work, such as meeting with clients and traveling to the firm’s 13 other offices, while Wulfe focuses more on internal matters, but they fill in for each other when needed.

“We talk every day. We generally agree on most things, although we may come at it in different directions. It takes some of the pressure off you,” Kelly said.

Kelly said it’s important for anyone leading a firm to have a “stress valve.” For both of them, it is daily exercise, Kelly said. But he said he and Wulfe both work long days, and it’s common for them to be talking on the phone late at night from home.

As far as exhaustion, Kelly said he’s fortunate that he is fine on four or four-and-a-half hours of sleep every night, so he manages to fit a lot in each day.

For McKeon at Morgan Lewis, her relationships serve as her coping mechanism.

“You have to make sure those relationships in your life, both at work and outside of work, are strong,” she said. “I have a huge extended family, and that’s a priority in my life. In some ways you could argue that’s more stressful. In other ways, it reminds you about the things that are important in your own life that are personally enriching.”

In addition to these organic connections, it can’t hurt to build a new one—with a leadership coach. MacEwen said he knows a number of leaders who have found value in a professional who combines the functions of executive coach, therapist and even nutritionist. If improved mental and physical well-being isn’t enough of an inducement, there’s also the prospect of getting better at one’s job.

“I have certainly seen leaders going from being new and uncomfortable and somewhat insecure to being confident, effective leaders through that approach of gaining insight into themselves and insight into how they can better interact with others,” Borgal Shunk said.

Borgal Shunk acknowledged that she’s encountered some leaders who are so self-assured and stubborn they’ve refused any outside insights into how they can step up their game or do things differently.

In making a proactive public statement about his condition, Rawlinson—who Baker McKenzie expects to return soon, following close consultation with his doctors and family—may have taken an even bolder route.

Reporters Brenda Jeffreys, Ryan Lovelace, Lizzy McLellan, Roy Strom and Meghan Tribe contributed to this story. 

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