Managing partners of law firms have traditionally served as the first and last word on everything from hiring and firing to marketing and budgeting.
But today, the role of a managing partner is harder to define as firms have incorporated democratic leadership structures which allow managing partners to do more of what they do best: practice law.
Davis & Kuelthau President Ann Marie Rieger said that nowadays, the managing partner often serves as a buffer for partners in different practice areas to communicate with firm leadership.
“When you get into a larger firm setting, it’s darn near impossible for everyone to agree, but people want to know you are moving in the right direction,” she said. “It’s best for that to be coming from the managing partner.”
In addition to communication, firms are taking advantage of a more corporate-style structure to better manage the non-law aspects of the business.
Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren moved away from the traditional managing partner model more than a decade ago and implemented a structure that includes a board of directors.
Since taking over in 2006, CEO Jerome M. Janzer has been intimately involved in practice area development and geographic expansion discussions, but leaves the administrative side to the firm’s Chief Financial Officer, Human Resources Director and Marketing Manager.
Unlike his predecessor, Richard W. Graber, who solely served as the CEO, Janzer evenly divides his responsibilities as head of the firm with those of his business and real estate practice.
“It’s not like the old days where you had some authoritative figure who makes all the decisions,” Janzer said.
Another driving force behind leadership restructuring at firms was the realization that attorney talents are best utilized through practicing law.
Diversified leadership allows for checks and balances, said Rieger, although she doesn’t expect managing partners will ever be completely removed from the administrative side of a firm.
“I think that is ultimately the goal,” she said. “It’s all about using your personnel in a way that makes them most productive and that improves the bottom line.”
Some firms have gone even further in their deviation from the classic leadership plan.
Boardman Law Firm in Madison relies on an executive committee on which an attorney serves as chair for five years. The firm also has a non-attorney executive director, a role that is becoming commonplace with mid-size firms.
In his time as executive committee chair, Carl J. Rasmussen said he valued the ability to delegate staffing and employment responsibilities.
“My own view is lawyers do not make particularly good administrators, but I think lawyers think they do,” he said. “There is a need for an independent non-lawyer administrator running the show, especially for mid-size democratic partnerships like ours.”
The role of the executive director is more defined that that of the executive committee chair, noted Rasmussen.
He viewed his job as largely “political” in that he fostered working relationships between partners and validated the decisions of the executive director.
“Partners are reticent to give up their own prerogatives so I wasn’t the czar of the firm,” Rasmussen said. “But our model allows us to maintain a democratic and collegial culture.”
Davis & Kuelthau maintains a similar structure, with Rieger closely collaborating with non-lawyer executive director Kevin P. Russell on strategic planning and firm development.
Russell also handles the “day-to-day” business and long-term operations like finance, hiring and firing and facilities management. He will soon be taking a more active role in marketing with the departure of the firm’s marketing director at the end of the year.
“I’m kind of wearing three hats right now and probably will for the next few months,” Russell said.
His vision of a managing partner today is someone who doesn’t necessarily set the course of a firm, but keeps it pointed in the right direction.
Russell’s versatility allows Rieger, who was appointed in 2008, to maintain her corporate and estate planning practice and collaborate with shareholders, rather than issue mandates as the head of the firm.
But even as firms transition their leadership models and delegate administrative duties, some managing partners find themselves busier now than when they started.
When Stephen A. DiTullio took over as managing partner at DeWitt Ross & Stevens a decade ago, it only had 40 attorneys and he spent about 1,000 hours annually on running the firm.
Now the Madison-based firm has more than 80 lawyers and DiTullio invests about 1,500 hours each year on management in addition to his employment practice.
He takes the lead on associate development, lateral recruitment, analysis of potential acquisitions and ethics issues.
“Frankly, it’s everything that partners are going to look to a managing partner to do,” DiTullio said.
Like other firm leaders, he trusts his firm administrator to handle the business side.
But a democratic approach has it limits. One thing that hasn’t changed is DiTullio remains the authority when it comes to decision-making. Even if the prototypical version of a managing partner is fading, DiTullio said there are still some things which cannot be delegated.
“Some duties need to be peeled off,” he said, “but the buck does stop with me.”
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at email@example.com.