In a previous post I suggested some of the unique characteristics associated with effective law firm leadership. Today, let’s look at the unique dilemma facing a law firm leader.

First of all, it should be noted that there is a clear correlation between the size and practice diversity of a law firm and the amount of time the leadership role demands of its Chief Executive (Managing Partner or Chairman). But regardless of size and complexity, all law firm leaders face the dilemma of how to balance the tension between their practice — serving clients and building client relationships — and the demands of being an effective leader. The further from retirement the leader is, the more their personal practice is at risk while serving as a firm leader.

Managing The Dilemma

Here are a few steps that can be taken to help manage this conflict between maintaining a personal practice and charting a course for a firm’s profitability and stability.

Role clarification

One of the biggest favors a partnership can do for its leadership – or, for that matter, the leader can do for himself/herself — is to establish clearly written objectives regarding the role and the expectations associated with it; to the extent the amount of time committed to the role will be limited, so should the expectations.

During role clarification, the prudent leader will use the process as an opportunity to introduce (if it isn’t already in place) the concept of strategic direction, and to set related goals for the firm. These goals, in conjunction with specified actions and accompanying timeline, provide a basis for a reasonable assessment of the leader’s performance.


To balance the demands of serving the client with those of leading the firm, the law firm executive must assemble a talented team of professionals. This team will not only leverage the leader’s time; a professional team will improve operational efficiencies and leader inspired initiatives.

The leader’s team should include appropriate expertise in each of the firm’s critical operational areas (finance, technology, human resources, marketing, etc.) as well as each of the firm’s offices and legal practice disciplines.

Kevin McKeown, President of LexBlog, presents some interesting perspectives on the mindset changes necessary in many firms in order for the lawyer-leader to successfully navigate the shift in roles from lawyer to leader in this recent post.

Career change

The profession is changing, and changing fast.

One option, that would have been unheard of just a few years ago, is a career as a law firm Chief Executive. I expect that in the relatively near future we will begin to see law firm leader mobility similar to what we have seen for decades in other businesses. So, for the law firm leader who enjoys the unique challenges associated with the position, a new career field may well be on the horizon.

How are you and your firm managing the leader’s dilemma of client vs. firm work?